War as Architecture

by Tom Vanderbilt

[published summer 2003 in The Knowledge Circuit, Design Institute, University of Minnesota] http://design.umn.edu/go/knowledgeCircuit/smr03.1.vanderbilt

 

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 Husseins 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 environments, 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, pixilated 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 conflict."

 

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

work."

 

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.)