John — War as Architecture

Topic(s): architecture | Comments Off on John — War as Architecture

by Tom Vanderbilt
[published August 2003 in The Knowledge Circuit, Design Institute, University of Minnesota]
NEW YORK, NY. War, as the old Clausewitzian saw goes, is the extension
of politics by other means. As we have been reminded in recent months,
there may be cause for a new dictum: War is the extension of
architecture by other means.
Apart from the obvious architectural connotations of war–the need for
defensive shelter, the status of architecture as a target–there is a
breadth of associative meaning between the two enterprises: both are
about the exercise of control over a territory; both involve strategic
considerations of the most apt site-specific solutions; both involve
the use of symbol, rhetoric, and cultural context.
In the Iraq campaign, the architectural connotations were legion, from
the New York Times Op-Ed writer who commented upon the fact that the
Hausmannian avenues and relatively low, dispersed skyline of Baghdad
boded well for its military penetration; to the surgical extraction of
architectural assets, shown in remarkable overhead clarity by the
satellite imagery of Evans and Sutherland, looking like the aerial
mosaics employed by urban planners (in fact, aerial warfare and urban
planning have long shared an eerie confluence of language and tactics,
and even practioners, as in the Air Forces Curtis LeMay, who studied
urban planning before overseeing the devastating aerial campaign on
Japan); to the mere fact that the rebuilding of Iraq will cost far
more than its invasion. More than a war of destruction, this is a
war of construction. The terrain itself was filled with three-
dimensional militarism; an absolutist regime produces absolutist
architecture, after all, and nowhere was that better signified than
in Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords monument, fashioned from the
melted metal of Iraqi weaponry, festooned with myriad helmets (some
even functioned as speed bumps) taken from some of the one million
soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war. Architecture, or a gesture
of war itself?
Architecture, like war, is never entirely one thing, but a condition,
occasioned by culture and history, mediated by time and opinion. As
Wayne Ashley, curator of Thundergulch (the new media initiative of the
Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) and organizer of “The Future of War,”
said in leading off the event, buildings can be seen as secure environ-
ments, but also as objects to be destroyed. Is that really a hospital,
or a weapons cache? Is that an office building, or a symbol of
imperialist domination? As participants were to reiterate in
different ways, architecture can be the object of terrorism, or it
can be terrorism: Mohammed Atta was a student of urban planning; and
as cultural theorist Benjamin Bratton pointed out, a member of the
“Black September” team of terrorists at the 1976 Munich Olympics was
an architect who had worked on the complex they occupied. War can be
erased by terrorism or in some strange way constructed by terrorism;
who knew anything about the unremarkable Alfred P. Murrah building
before “Oklahoma City” as the event itself has come to be known? The
entire city has been collapsed by the metaphoric weight of the
bombing, turning the building into a shrine, more visited than any
architectural landmark known for its aesthetic merits.
One might reduce war to violence and art to aesthetics, but it is more
useful, albeit more unsettling, to explore what happens when one
removes those perceived oppositions. This was one of the underlying
themes of the “Future of War” conference, to “challenge comfortable
categories” as moderator Helen Nissenbaum phrased it at the outset
of the opening panel, “The Aesthetics and Politics of Technologized
Warfare.” While the first presenter, the artist Joy Garnett, spoke
while behind her on the screen flashed images of her paintings drawn
from the haunting imagery of the military complex, stark images of
contrails streaking through a night sky (“Tracer Fire”) or stealth
bombers in patterned flight. Her paintings, which seek to use a
more primal medium to wrest meaning out of an image saturated
environment, evoked from one audience member a comparison to the
recent use of “satellite phones” by embedded correspondents in
Iraq. Did the shaky, pixellated images, with literal and
figurative gaps in their composition, obscure the “reality” of
what was happening or did their low-tech immediacy actually
enhance the realism? We needed a McLuhan–was the satphone a
“hot” or “cool” medium?
Imagery is another condition shared by war and architecture: just as
most of us do not experience war, we often do not experience
architecture; rather, we “know” a building (through its repeated
transmission) via photography. But images do not just happen, they
are created, and for a reason. Many of Garnett’s paintings were
drawn from weapons effects testing in the Nevada desert in the
1950s. The hundreds of thousands of images (still and moving)
generated by this activity were, largely, classified for many
decades. These were “images as dangerous as the isotopes that
produced them,” she noted. Images as toxic waste, to be buried
beneath the sand. Inherent in her work is a questioning of the
“effects” of classifying these “effects tests.” What happens when
imagery is removed, left in the dark for decades? What happens
when it is returned to the light? Scratchy footage of atomic
tests from the Nevada deserts, as men in goggles look on,
functions nowadays more as historical kitsch than pure horror.
It has been sanitized by time, rendered as a strictly historical
document. “Declassification” speaks to their political and
aesthetic impotence. Of course, the weapons tests were hardly
secret–people gathered on predawn Las Vegas rooftops to view
them. They saw in the blasts–(they never saw the “effects”)-
something else: perhaps a sublime beauty, felt perhaps an
awed speechless and frightened reverence towards man’s ability
for self-destruction.
Tom Keenan, director of the Human Rights project at Bard College,
presented a countervailing narrative of sorts: He wanted to explore
what he calls “the paradoxes of openness.” In other words, contrary
to the idea that war is a secret activity whose violence occurs off
camera, away from the public eye, and contrary to the notion that
it could thus be fought against if people only knew what was going
on–“mobilizing shame” in the words of human rights groups–Keenan
argued that there is “nothing in art that resists violence.” Images
and exposure do not necessarily stop war–in fact they may even
“lead the charge,” according to Keenan. He screened footage from
the Kosovo campaign that showed Serbian troops looting villages
near Pristina. They did not seem to be taking much, the BBC
correspondent noted, they merely seemed to be putting on a symbolic
display. The fatal moment came when one militia member, Kalishnakov
rifle in hand, waved to the cameras. The casualness of the gesture was
disturbing: They were not afraid of their violence being exposed,
indeed they seemed to welcome it. Keenan followed with another
example, this time the humanitarian intervention of U.S. troops in
Somalia. He used the example of the first Marine landing, a
supposedly secret, “tactical” approach that came ashore to a
cavalcade of some 600 journalists, in full klieg light, drawn like
moths to the flame. As one Marine commander worried about the
presence of the press, a journalist chided back: “Like you didn’t
know we were going to be here.” The military, the media, both
were joint players in a performance, each feeling a bit awkward
in the role. Later, when an audience member decried the corporate
ownership of the U.S. media and the shortage of available imagery
and information from Iraq, Keenan begged to differ, noting the
abundance of information sources made possible by the internet
and other outlets. The question was not, as he put it, what the
media was doing about the war, it was what we were doing about it.
Art has been intricately intertwined with war at least since the
days of Leonardo da Vinci, whose drawings of siege engines and
other commissions for the Borgias rival anything in his corpus
in terms of technique and mastery. Those drawings, which in some
cases presented fantastic new visions of what war could be, are
echoed in the simulation programs the military now uses, created
by partnerships involving the film and computer programming
industries. Art can even be used in the conduct of war–e.g., it
was recently revealed by a Spanish historian that a group of
anarchists in Spain during the Civil War had employed specially
designed cells, outfitted with surrealist decor inspired by
Dali and Bunuel, for what they called “psychotechnic” torture;
as El Pais described, “The avant garde forms of the moment-
surrealism and geometric abstraction–were thus used for the
aim of committing psychological torture.”
So too can architecture become a weapon, as revealed in a fascinating
presentation (part of a panel entitled “Architecture, Violence, and
Social (In)Security”) by Eyal Weizman, a Tel Aviv-based architect.
Weizman, detailing the spread of Israeli settlements in the West
Bank, noted their “panopticon” like arrangement over neighboring
Palestinian villages (usually at a lower elevation) as well as their
linkage, in certain cases, by infrastructural devices (roads,
tunnels) that bypass intervening zones of Palestinian autonomy.
Thus the Israeli superhighway soars over Palestinian farmland,
creating, as Weizman put it, “sovereignty in three dimensions.” The
landscape as a whole, as he put it, is “in effect an artificial
arrangement of a totally synthetic environment, as designed as
any built environment, within which all ‘natural’ elements like
streams and mountains, forest orchards, rocks and ruins function
not as the things being fought for but as the very weapons of the
Weizman surveyed the architectural history of West Bank settlement,
from the frontier like “tower and stockade” outposts of the 1930s,
in which walled compounds were connected visually by tower
reconnaissance and Morse Code; to the energetic campaign to
colonize the mountaintops (so often containing the historical
sites where Zionists hoped to return) in 1967. As Weizman noted,
as there was little experience of building in the mountains, the
“battle for the hilltops” began with an intensive aerial
photography project; the West Bank became “the most photographed
terrain in the world,”–to the topographic groundwork for
occupation and cultivation. His photos of settlements were
haunting, capturing such bizarre imagery as the trompe l’oeil
paintings of an idealized rural scene on a looming wall dividing
Israelis from Palestinians. His images of stucco-and-tiled
houses surrounded by walls and deserts eerily replicated Las
Vegas suburbia (the American gated community represents a similar,
if less overtly political, securitization of space). For Weizman, the
land-use patterns–characterized by vast walls, barricades, even the
planting of pine trees to forestall the planting of olive groves (by
Palestinians)–amount to a military action, and he says architects
should be prosecuted for war crimes. Weizman did not disagree when
an audience member compared the settlements (a “postmodern
diaspora,” he called it, ad hoc nation-building) to some new
version of the shtetl, the Jewish ghetto so ruthlessly and
architecturally demarcated by the Nazis. The “two-state
solution,” Weizman conclude, “is a design solution that doesn’t
During the weeks of war coverage, it became typical to see a military
analyst or general standing before an aerial photograph of Baghdad,
pointer in hand, cataloging the damage done to a ministry building
while its neighbors, in most cases, appeared remarkably intact
(Michael Sorkin recently referred to this as a “good building/bad
building” dichotomy)-no indication of casualties, no “on the ground”
perspective. And yet how often have we seen this same presentation
by architects and planners, this Olympian perspective of spatial
rearrangement in which humans are absent or simply a statistical
“user mix”? Listening to a number of presentations, it soon occurred
to me, as I grew lost in the fog of architectural discourse, that
much of what passes for the language of architecture–icy, jargon-
laden, bolstered by a reliance on dehumanized, abstract “spatial
production” and other clinical terms–bears a certain resemblance
to the language of modern military planning, with its “battlespace,”
“kill boxes,” “network-centric warfighting operations,” and
the deck of cards depicting high ranking Iraquis as characters.
What both of these languages, and both of these practices–which both
involve the physical manipulation of human relations–neglect is the
human equation, the people who live and die in these theorized
constructs. When Bratton discussed the suicide bomber as the
proponent of a “counter-habitation” of space, the act of bombing a
“suspension of the premise of habitation itself,” or when he described
the World Trade Center attack as a form of architectural criticism,
he was, beyond offering an implicit condonement, resorting to the
spatial, strategic primacy of military thinking itself (suicide
bombing victims would thus be “collateral damage” to act of counter
-habitation), wherein there are no crimes, no victims. Bratton’s
formulation was of a symbolic piece with that influential Naval War
College thesis, which bore the infamous title “Shock and Awe,” with
the lesser known subtitle, “Achieving Rapid Dominance.” That document,
which seeks the immediate control of the “operational environment,”
articulates its mantra thus: “The goal of Rapid Dominance will be to
destroy or so confound the will to resist that an adversary will
have no alternative except to accept our strategic aims and
military objectives.”
Neither war nor architecture are immune from the violence of language.
“The Future of War: Aesthetics, Politics, Technologies” took place at The
New School, New York, NY, USA, May 2-3, 2003 and was organized by the
Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s new media initiative, Thundergulch:
Tom Vanderbilt is a Brooklyn-based writer and the author of Survival City:
Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural
Press, 2002.) http://www.papress.com/bookpage.tpl?isbn=1568983050