Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Oct. 24 2014 1:34 PM

Reversible Destiny: The Apartments Designed With Immortality in Mind

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

"Do you want to live in an apartment or house that can help you determine the nature and extent of interactions between you and the universe?"

This is one of many big questions posed by Reversible Destiny, a foundation established with the goal of extending the human lifespan via architectural design.

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Reversible Destiny—founded by Shusaku Arakawa, a Japanese neo-Dadaist and associate of Marcel Duchamp, and Madeline Gins, an American poet with a background in physics and Eastern philosophy—has produced several homes and recreational sites designed to create a more robust body and mind. Chief among them are the Reversible Destiny Lofts in Tokyo, a set of nine apartments built in 1995 that come with instructions for use.

The lofts have spherical rooms, undulating concrete floors riddled with bumps, and candy-colored walls. Poles and ladders run from floor to ceiling in unexpected places and electrical outlets dangle from above. Each apartment resembles a playground designed without regard for child safety regulations.

The concept behind the unconventional design is that inhabitants will be forced to use their brains and bodies in unusual ways in order to navigate the space. There is no chance of settling into routines and rote movements, because the challenging architecture makes it impossible. The goal is to never become comfortable—comfort, according to Reversible Destiny's philosophy, means death. Arakawa and Gins, no great fans of mortality, sought to make death illegal.

In addition to the Tokyo lofts, which are still available for short-term stays, the foundation built the Bioscleave House, also known as the Lifespan Extending Villa, in East Hampton, New York, and the Site of Reversible Destiny, a park in the small Japanese town of Yoro. Both feature Arakawa and Gins' disorienting design elements, such as uneven surfaces, mazes, domes, and shocks of color.

Despite their valiant efforts to defy death, Arakawa and Gins both succumbed to the inevitability of linear time—Arakawa died in 2010, and Gins in January 2014. Their work, however, survives as a vibrant testament to their audacious lives.

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Grass-covered domes on a wall at the Site of Reversible Destiny in Yoro.

Photo: Paul Evans/Public domain

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Inside the Critical Resemblance House at the Site of Reversible Destiny in Yoro.

Photo: Kzaral/Creative Commons

More architecture designed to challenge and confound:

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Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM

Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In the traditional Balinese village of Trunyan, the dead are not buried. They are not cremated or burned on a pyre or, as in the case of the Zoroastrians, hoisted up a hill to be torn apart by vultures. They are simply laid on the ground and left to rot.

Trunyan Cemetery, accessible only by boat across Lake Batur, contains 11 bamboo cages built in the shape of triangular prisms. When a member of the village dies, their body—wrapped in white cloth with the head exposed — is placed in one of these cages. When the cages are full, the body that has been there the longest is removed to make room for the next inhabitant. The remains of the long-time resident are placed on a pile along with any other corpses that have been evicted by newcomers until all the flesh, fat, and muscle has decomposed.

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When the bones are all that remain of a deceased villager, the skull is added to the growing row beneath a large Taru Menyan tree. This tree is not just decorative—the pleasant, incense-like fragrance wafting from its leaves helps neutralize the odor of the decomposing corpses.

Read about other remarkable burial traditions:

Oct. 22 2014 12:03 PM

Colonia Fara: An Italian Summer Camp for Happy Little Fascists

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The ugly effects of Mussolini's rule are still visible in the small Italian Riviera town of Chiavari, where the beachfront vista is marred by a Fascist building with a fascinating story. The now-abandoned, trash-strewn eyesore was built in 1935 to serve as Colonia Fara, a summer camp for Italy's Fascist Youth.

At the time, the government operated several paramilitary youth organizations under the banner of Opera Nazionale Balilla. Divided into sub-groups according to sex and age, children of the ONB received training in athletics, marching, rifle shooting, and technology—all the ingredients to create a happy little Fascist.

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Child members of the Italian Fascist youth organization Opera Nazionale Balilla.

Photo: Public domain

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Colonia Fara was one of many summer camps established across Italy during the Mussolini regime to shape the minds and bodies of the nation's youth. Mussolini himself came to inaugurate the building in 1938, but Colonia Fara did not serve its intended role for long—the outbreak of World War II saw it repurposed as a military hospital.

Post-war, and with Italian Fascism vanquished, Colonia Fara became a refugee camp for Italians fleeing Istria, a former Italian territory that was handed to Yugoslavia via treaty in 1947. After brief stints as a youth hotel and a school, the building was abandoned for good by 1999. Its crumbling walls are now scrawled with graffiti.

Recurring talk of the building being converted into a hotel or luxury apartments has thus far failed to result in any demolition or refurbishment. Meanwhile, over a hundred Italians have taken the time to write reviews of the building on TripAdvisor, with 74 giving it the worst possible rating of "Terrible."

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Members of the Piccole Italiane, an Italian Fascist youth group for girls aged eight to 14.

Photo: Creative Commons

Other fascinating architectural remnants of fascism:

Oct. 21 2014 12:40 PM

Asamkirche: The Rococo Church Where Death Hides in Plain Sight

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook or Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The ridiculously ornate rococo interior of Asamkirche (also known as the Church of St. Johann Nepomuk) in Munich is crammed with winged cherubs, swirling frescoes, and fiddly golden ornamentation. It’s hard to know where to look, but one sight in particular draws the eye: a golden skeleton jamming a big pair of scissors at the lolling head of an innocent cherub. On the skeleton’s back, ready to be hauled out an any moment, lies a scythe. It’s Death! 

Look closer and you’ll see that Death’s scissors are poised to snip a golden string being held by the cherub. If you’re thinking “metaphor,” you’re a sharp one. That string is the thread of life, and Death can cut it at any moment. 

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The church designers—Baroque-loving brothers Egid Quirin Asam and Cosmas Damian Asam—placed this gilded memento mori right by the entrance when they created it in the mid-18th century. Though Asamkirche is now open to the public, it was originally designed as a private place of worship for the Asam brothers, who apparently preferred to begin each church visit with a dramatic reminder of their own mortality.

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the golden Death sculpture at Asamkirche in Munich.

Correction, Oct. 21, 2014: The post originally contained photos of a different rococo church in Munich, Heilig-Geist-Kirche. They have been removed.

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The interior of Asamkirche.

Photo: Steve Collis/Creative Commons

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Asamkirche's gold-accented ceiling.

Photo: digital cat/Creative Commons

Other ostentatiously ornate rococo places:

Oct. 20 2014 1:43 PM

Chouara: A Striking 11th-Century Tannery in Morocco

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Wedged among the ancient buildings and serpentine passageways of Fez’s Old Medina in Morocco is a grid of stone wells, each filled with a colored liquid. This is Chouara, an 11th-century tannery that still operates as it did a thousand years ago.

Cow, sheep, goat, and camel hides are brought here to be preserved, dyed, and turned into the handbags, jackets, and wallets sold in the surrounding souks.

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The process begins with the raw skins being soaked in a mixture of cow urine, pigeon feces, quicklime, salt, and water—the liquid in the white wells. This loosens the hair from the hides and makes them softer. After a few days of steeping in this concoction, the skins are hauled out and hung from rails on the balconies to dry. Then comes the dyeing. Tannery workers plunge the skins into the colored wells, leaving them there for a few more days to absorb each hue. The dyes all come from natural substances, such as indigo, henna, saffron, poppies, and pomegranates.

Visitors are welcome to observe the tannery in action, and are even given a gift upon arrival: a small spring of mint to hold under the nose when the smell becomes too much.

More amazing sights in Morocco:

Oct. 17 2014 11:11 AM

Death By Ale Tsunami: The London Beer Flood

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Two hundred years ago, eight Londoners died in one of the oddest ways imaginable. Or, to invoke the thoroughly British words of The Times' news report on the incident, "The neighbourhood of St. Giles's was thrown into the utmost consternation on Monday night, by one of the most melancholy accidents we ever remember."

On the evening in question—October 17, 1814—one of the vats at the Meux and Co. brewery burst, blowing apart the building's timber walls and sending the equivalent of 3500 barrels of beer cascading onto the streets.

The ale tsunami demolished two homes as it swept along what is now Tottenham Court Road in Bloomsbury. In other homes, according to the Times report on October 19, 1814, "inhabitants had to save themselves from drowning by mounting their highest pieces of furniture." Others were not so lucky, such as a mother and daughter who had just sat down to tea in their first-floor home: in the evocative words of the Times, the daughter was "swept away by the current through a partition, and dashed to pieces."

Oct. 16 2014 1:34 PM

Eating in Antarctica: Tales of Decadence and Deprivation

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

"The meals were the bright beacons in those cold and stormy days. The glow of warmth and comfort produced by the food and drink made optimists of us all."

So wrote Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton of his 1914-1917 Endurance Expedition, a disaster-riddled attempt to make the first land-crossing of the continent. During a horrendous journey in which his ship sank after being crushed by ice, food provided one of the few sources of respite from the bleak surroundings. See Shackleton's ode to salty, waterlogged crackers:

"A few boxes of army biscuits soaked with sea-water were distributed at one meal. They were in such a state that they would not have been looked at a second time under ordinary circumstances, but to us on a floating lump of ice, over three hundred miles from land, and that quite hypothetical, and with the unplumbed sea beneath us, they were luxuries indeed."

For explorers and researchers enduring the dark, frosty monotony of an Antarctic winter, food provides an exciting source of variety. But the continent's remoteness, limited accessibility, and conservation laws place heavy restrictions on what its visitors can eat.

Oct. 15 2014 12:48 PM

Towers of Silence: The Zoroastrian Sky Burial Tradition

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Two hilltop towers overlook the Iranian city of Yazd, their simple cylindrical walls giving no indication of the gruesome scenes that once took place within them. The structures are known as dakhma, or towers of silence. The Zoroastrians of Yazd used these places as open burial pits, placing their deceased relatives in rows so their bodies would be feasted upon by birds of prey.

Sky burial—placing a deceased human body in an exposed location so that animals and the elements will hasten its decomposition—has long been a part of Zoroastrian tradition. According to the religion’s beliefs, a body becomes impure at death, when evil spirits, or nasu, arrive to attack the flesh and soul of the deceased. By contaminating the corpse, nasu also threaten the living. Sky burial is considered a clean death because it prevents putrefaction—birds of prey such as vultures can eat a body down to the bones in just a few hours.

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At Yazd, bodies were hauled up to the towers and arranged in concentric circles with their feet pointing toward the center. Children were placed in the innermost ring, women in the next, and men in the outside ring. Once bodies had been stripped of flesh, muscle, and organs, and the skeletons bleached and weakened in the sun, the bones were placed in a central pit to break down.

When they were first built millennia ago, Yazd’s Towers of Silence were far from the bustle of the city. Development and urbanization resulted in a sprawl that skirted too close to the towers. They are no longer used for burial—Zoroastrians have adopted alternative “clean death” methods, such as burying bodies in cement-lined coffins to prevent contamination of the earth.

Though Yazd’s Towers of Silence are now relics, Zoroastrians elsewhere maintain the dakhma tradition. The Parsi Zoroastrians of India still practice sky burial—although the ritual has become more difficult to conduct in recent decades due to the dramatically diminishing vulture population. In 2012, NPR reported that Mumbai Zoroastrians have been experimenting with solar concentrators to hasten decomposition via intense heat. Vulture sanctuaries have also been proposed in order to raise more birds of prey to feast on the human dead.

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The central bone pit at one of the Towers of Silence.

Photo: PetrAdam Dohnálek/Creative Commons

To find out more about sky burial traditions around the world, read Meg Van Huygen’s article “Give My Body to the Birds: The Practice of Sky Burial.”

Oct. 14 2014 12:18 PM

Concrete Carcasses: Where to See Rare Wrecked War Ships Made of Cement

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook,Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

When building a ship, steel is your best bet for optimum seaworthiness and cost efficiency. But there are other options. Concrete, for example.

Though not the material of choice for your average shipbuilder, concrete was used to create experimental fleets during World War I and II, when metal shortages caused transport manufacturers to look to alternative materials. (Remember the Spruce Goose?)

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After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Woodrow Wilson quickly established the Emergency Fleet Corporation to oversee the construction of cargo ships. In addition to thousands of steel ships, the corporation commissioned 24 ships made of ferrocement, or reinforced concrete. By the time the war ended, however, only a dozen were under construction. None were finished in time to carry supplies to the troops, but one, the S.S. Atlantus, was deployed in late 1918 to bring soldiers home from Europe.

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A postcard, circa 1930-1945, of the S.S. Atlantus, which has been in Cape May since running aground there in 1926.

Photo: Boston Public Library/Creative Commons

A similar shipbuilding situation took place during World War II. In 1942, the U.S. government commissioned two dozen concrete ships from Philadelphia firm McCloskey and Company. This time, all 24 ships were completed before the end of the war. Many functioned as store ships during combat in the South West Pacific.

The post-war fates of these concrete vessels have been mixed. Many lie half-sunk in bays, having either run aground or been placed there deliberately. At Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia, nine of the McCloskey ships have been lined up to form a breakwater for the park's pier. Birds nest in the ships' pock-marked hulls and the concrete has eroded to reveal rusting rebar skeletons. It's a similar sight at Powell River, near Vancouver in Canada, where nine of the World War II ships, along with World War I oil tanker the S.S. Peralta, have been arranged to form a breakwater.

Other ships are all by their lonesome. The wrecked WWI oil tanker S.S. Selma, launched in 1919, sits half-submerged off the coast of Galveston in Texas, after a 1920 collision with a jetty ripped a big hole in her side and took her out of commission. The S.S. Atlantus, or what's left of it, sits in New Jersey's Delaware Bay, having run aground there during a storm in 1926. The S.S. Sapona, commissioned for World War I, rests in the Bahamas, its wrecked hull a playground for fish and divers. 

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World War II ships forming a breakwater at Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia.

Photo: Ajblanck/Creative Commons

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One of the ships in the Kiptopeke fleet.

Photo: vastateparkstaff/Creative Commons

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Birds have settled into the ships at Kiptopeke.

Photo: bobistraveling/Creative Commons

Oct. 10 2014 10:09 AM

Undulatus Asperatus: The First New Cloud in 60 Years

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In an attempt to codify cloud vocabulary and aid in weather prediction, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) published the first International Cloud Atlas in 1896. The Atlas divides clouds into 10 genus, 26 species, and 31 varieties, and includes important tips for cloud identification as well as appropriately whimsical descriptions—cloud species range from praecipitatio, "to fall (down a precipice)" to castellanus, "a castle of a fortified town." Though many updates and new editions have been published since, no new cloud types have been added to the Atlas since cirrus intortus ("an entangled lock of hair") was added in 1951. Until now. 

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