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On March 28th, Avant.org hosted a day-long program on the critical history of Simulation, tracing its conceptual development and influence on our perception of the future.

The day began with a ranger tour of the San Francisco Bay Model constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1956, followed by a salon and archival film screening at Headlands Center for the Arts where we discussed those unrealized futures, the agency of the model, and current research in the field of simulation.

To capture and share the research, we’ve edited a clip combining historical footage from the Bay Model with the documentation from our tour and a transcription of the salon at Headlands Center for the Arts led by Javier Arbona (Demilit) and Chris Woebken (Extrapolation Factory).


Thanks to Rick Prelinger for pointing out the historical footage available on Archive.org and thanks to Charles Woodman for filming during the tour.

Javier:

We want to get everyone’s impressions going to the Bay Model with the Ranger, but I’ll kick it off with a few thoughts first. To begin with, I’d like everyone to keep in mind we went to a military site and, as the ranger mentioned at the end of the tour, the whole model and the budget that they have for having it open today–even though it’s no longer used for so-called research purposes anymore–comes from the DOD (Department of Defense). So to me that already plays a curious role and frames my thinking about the model. The other thing I was going to put out there is that I’ve been to the model maybe 5 or 6 times. I’ve taken geography classes there, I’ve taken my students on field studies there, and I have an interest in it – not from this geomorphological, hydrological point of view that they present, I come to it more with an interest in architectural, historical preservation so to speak. I think it’s really interesting to think of the model in the way historical preservation in the architectural discipline started: as a practice of saving monuments, starting with sculptural objects in cities. We might think of historical preservation today more of saving housing stock or saving buildings that still have a more useful life than the market gives them, but originally preservation is a practice of saving monuments and statues and symbols of nationhood. These very symbolic objects of who we are.

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So the Bay Model also is very captivating precisely for that very reason, because it goes through these processes of preservation, embedding the model into the Army Corps’ historical narrative. In 2006 it got remodeled and re-represented to take on this other educational function. I think it’s really important to stress that when you go there now (and this may be difficult to see the first time you go) that the spatiality of that whole room has completely changed. In fact, I’m not convinced that the colors are original. This used to be a working site. She went into this at the very end, that all of its aesthetic qualities have been transformed for a completely different educational purpose. Now it has the model as an architectural installation in the center, so even the way that you circulate around it and approach it has all been changed to encounter what is portrayed as an educational building, but I think of it more as a monument – a monument to the Army Corps.

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In a way it’s something they salvaged from an era of failure. The other models they built were largely ineffective, and the reasons they weren’t effective are central to some of the issues Chris and I wanted to bring up during this salon. When the Army Corps imagined these simulated environments they never took into account the salinity or the temperature differentials inside the buildings (or outside, in the case of the Mississippi model). So they start to behave in these Frankensteinian ways. They start to kind of crack and bulge in the summertime. When it’s really hot outside, and the building inside would be cooler or vice-versa on cooler days, the building would retain heat. And the temperature differential between the inside and outside would make it buckle and change the model, and inevitably it would also affect the research that they’re doing with it. It’s interesting to think about the performance aspect of the ranger narrating the model’s history. Not to say she’s lying or misrepresenting that narrative, but to acknowledge there is a history they construct for what their organization is.

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The Reber Plan

The other thing that I wanted to say to start the conversation is that John Reber was just a crackpot. The whole story behind the Reber Plan is actually incredible, that someone who was writing plays and performing in them convinced so many people it was a good idea to dam off San Francisco Bay into two freshwater lakes. Reber comes from this performative career, performing for the public (and I’m borrowing some of this from Charles Wollenberg who’s written about Reber’s life and actually given me drafts of a forthcoming paper). So initially no one really bought his plan. But after WW2, the Pentagon starts to change its tune. Several army generals begin to see the project as having value for the number of traffic lanes that could cross the bay over the dams. They wanted something like 32 lanes of cars, 16 in each direction, which they saw as potentially important evacuation routes in case of a nuclear attack on the city. So the army starts to notice that there’s something to Reber’s plan, and so does the San Francisco Chronicle, which has been a very pro-military publication in the past and in many ways still is. They also got behind the plan and so then something that seemed pretty wacky started to gain a lot more legitimacy, even though a lot of people called out many of the problems even before the model was constructed to test Reber’s plan.

That’s the other thing I find striking, that before this research facility was constructed for the express purpose impact assessment, there were already people warning that this thing could be disastrous for agriculture. That it could actually mean–in the case of very severe changes in water levels on the two sides–balancing those two levels, in which case the salt water would intrude on the fresh water and affect agriculture. So there were all these things people knew without the model and that, to me, is really provocative because by the time the Army Corps got the budget through Congress Reber was near death, so the notion that, ‘we’ve saved the bay with this model,’ and that Reber was the sole champion of the project isn’t entirely true. Not to say that Joanne, our tour guide, was telling us a completely made-up story, but I think the model starts to have all these alternate lives. It starts to now be used in a different discussion about environment and about saving the bay. You know all this was done before the ‘Save the Bay’ movement really took off. So the way they talk about research with these large-scale models is something I think would be good to question as we talk about it today, to dismantle the various narratives of the Model’s historical use and the agendas behind them.

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San Francisco Bay ocean topography courtesy OPC, USGS, NOAA, & the California State University Seafloor Mapping Lab.

So a few other notes, some random facts that I know–one of the things that really struck me that Charles Wollenberg also pointed out, was that if you look at the plan from a municipal politics standpoint, it would have completely replaced the port of Oakland. The port of Oakland being enormous, so it would have resulted in a giant cut for Oakland’s municipal budget and City Hall’s power. Instead, Berkeley would have become the principal port on the West Coast, completely replacing Oakland’s important role, transforming both areas. The shipping canals going through would also be way more time consuming. This is also something that Reber never really wanted to take into account, he just kind of kept pounding forward, but for a ship to actually transit through this whole massive ship canal would have taken the better part of a day.

Every time I go to the Bay Model it’s full of many more surprises. I was just today trying to pay attention to some of the historical photographs that they present, though I think all the photos I noticed were black and white. So it was kind of difficult to get a very chromatic sense of what the model was like in the 60’s. But again, a lot of the ways in which we go and learn from it, perceive it, now are very different from how it was previously used as a research facility. It looked very different than what we’ve seen today. The Sausalito Bay Model has really been kept as a visitor center.

For a period of 25 or 30 years the Army Corps of Engineers was really interested in building these large models. So again you have these two competing stories. The Reber plan needs to be tested. Okay great, we have this opportunity to go to Congress and have funds allocated. But at the same time, it would be cool to have an opportunity to study these vast water systems and have the models we’ve built grounded in a specific problem. The Bay model is probably the smallest of those test-sites and the easiest one to care-take, whereas the Chesapeake, especially in the cold climate, really had problems with the temperature fluctuations and was fairly unusable right away. Then the Mississippi Model, which was built before first, was effective for some time, but also started to change due to environmental conditions.

Now it’s interesting to put these models side-by-side with the advancing narrative of computer simulation technology and the obsolescence of these analogue models. That’s something Chris and I came back to quite a bit leading up to this: what exactly these computer simulations are also about, how these computer simulations of environments work, and how they are done.

They have a material basis, too. They of course have a physical infrastructure which is often abstracted. But also the computer models themselves are often more physical than we frequently acknowledge. Our first inclination is that they just build the 3D model from scratch on the computer, but it’s often much more of a hybrid process than we think. Computer simulations are routinely fitted to physical measurements, and in the case of something like the Directional Spectral Wave Generator Model that the Army Corps built toward the end of this period, the model incorporates both digital modeling and physical actuation with this huge body of water used for analog testing.

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Directional Spectral Wave Generator Model, image courtesy Pruned and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Of course both digital and analogue techniques are subject to their own issues of representation. Models are purposely constructed to seem objective–to be read as authoritative. But a closer look teaches us they are often subject to all kind of externalities as well as unexpected discrepancies in the models themselves. Our tour guide mentioned the concrete underneath the Bay Model retaining salt over time which started affecting the salinity. The salt would then seep back into the water, and it turns out the estuary itself has this quality. They eventually had to re-calibrate for this, but that’s pretty amazing. All those little details…

Chris:

So I’d like to come back for a moment and discuss the agency of the model itself, and who gets to decide to build and develop models like this one. What are the narratives generated by the model, and who are the characters driving the narratives surrounding it. Like Reber, who in this case initiated the plan which spurred the Army Corps to do their evaluation and build the model. If you look at the history of this particular model, for us as citizens, it’s served as a very useful decision-making tool to probe and evaluate if we’d want a future like this for the Bay. The Bay model, whether or not it was an effective hydrologic technology, was certainly instrumental in preventing this devastating plan. However, when we look at where the agency with regard to that decision actually resides, it’s not with citizens, but rather the military who really used the the model as a narrative device to influence decision making.

Javier:

Our tour guide started with this story, that Admiral Chester Nimitz was landing in a Aero-hydro watercraft in the Bay and hit a piece of debris. And from then on Nimitz declared that the Army Corps had to take care of dredging the Bay and clearing the waterways, that dredging is now their responsibility. And there begins the mission of going to war with the–almost–’insurgent’ nature of the Bay [laughs].

Other things have come up that are also surprising. One of the models, for instance, was built by POWs, the Mississippi Model. So they have these much more violent histories than what we often see from the pamphlets and videos. We think that the Army Corps and the Department of Defense is charged with carrying out war somewhere else, but actually this comes back to the question of why the military is doing things domestically, and how activities like this blurs the boundary between domestic and foreign. Which is important when we talk about anti-military activism or what does something like peace mean? So what are the symbolic landscapes that are projected or perceived? Militarization is not just something that’s ‘over there.’ It may be flowing through places represented by the military as distant, but are actually much closer than they might seem.

I’m really interested in encountering these types of test-sites, not as representations of places of research, but more as designed objects. Thinking of them as this unruly monumental ecology. I think this robs the authority of meaning-making from the military and gives it back to a public, seeing that this object actually has an ecology, right here in this building. That the model is actually much more of an improvisational object. Once you start to uncover the history and realize the Army Corps made decisions that were not really all that scientific, then that changes who can engage, and who has the expertise. Who has the authority to make these objects and think about them. The language of research objectivism is also critical in how we describe these objects, so reclaiming the language is important to reclaiming the objects themselves.

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Bryan:

If we take a look at this from the practice of model making, the processes you describe could almost be described as de-modeling, or stripping away the artifact to the extent we’re all inhabitants of the model. Sort of breaking it down, going reverse. Deconstructing this model, though it’s already kind of porous…

Jenny:

I am interested in what you were saying about alternative modes of model making. With the Bay Area model, I was struck by how it was represented as transparent. There are all these little things like the copper strips for instance. All of these things are supposed to make it more real. And this contrasts with what Javier was saying, that it has all these problems and it’s not representative of reality in many ways. So the politics of how you make this future real and how you build the model to test the future you’re interested in seems like it’s at the core of this argument.

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Map of constructed Mississippi River Basin Model, covering an area of 200 acres. Image courtesy Places Journal.

Chris:

What’s also tricky here is the scale, finding a way to accurately grasp the forces going on within the model, and outside it of course. It’s easy to prototype and model something at 1:1, but this one is 1:1000, at least in the horizontal plane. So when you think about granularity within computer models that simulate climate, especially in the Bay area, there are micro-climates everywhere that are often collapsed or ignored simplistically. How do you create a realistic model that represents, and can project what’s actually happening? It’s challenging to integrate that into the computer model. The digital model only has a certain resolution and you can throw situations at it and sometimes get the expected results that verify your projections, and maybe the knock-on effects seem right, but really how it works in nature is often surprisingly divergent from the model. The state of the art climate model is really just the one that best conforms to a limited set of validation data. And based on these models we make determinations of risk for insurance purposes; they influence policy making and ultimately come back to us as decision making tools. I am fascinated by the scale of decision making we base on models and the latent potential for contingency.

Jenny:

It also seems that variability is an important part in how authority gets built up in the model. I’m remembering the moment when we were standing there and the guide said, “This is a perfect world, it doesn’t change.” She emphasized that a few times.

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Many thanks to the Headlands Center for the Arts for the fantastic few weeks surrounded by the fog, bobcats, and delicious dinners, Rick and Megan Prelinger for hosting their Wednesday library hours and opening up their research to me. I’d also like to mention that Megan and Rick edited a fantastic series of 5 atlases on the history of the bay available in the Exploratorium’s Bay Observatory gallery. And last but not least, thank you to Javier Arbona and the Demilit crew as well as our Army Corps Ranger Joanne.

Cited by

The World a Model Makes, John Elrick. American Association of Geographers 2016 Annual Meeting.