Monday, March 31, 2008

Policetown, UK

[Image: Policetown: the £50m mock-up / Telegraph, 2008. Click here to enlarge photo.]

Real quick, here's an aerial shot of one of the largest police training facilities in the world hunkered down in the luscious green pastures of Gravesend, Kent, where England’s formidable Metropolitan Police force tackles hypothetical anarchy in a lot that looks like a amusement park more so than a staging ground for urban unrest and abatement. The 9,250 square meter site (38-hectare) was opened back in 2003 by the private company Equion, according to the BBC “through the government's Private Finance Initiative, using both public and private money.”
Like several of its architectural relatives, this mock conflict training facility is in essence an entire town unto itself designed in true British fashion, with “mock roads, houses, shops, a bank, a pub, a nightclub, a football stadium, a life-size section of a plane and train and underground stations with full-size carriages”, as well as “classrooms and lecture theatres, an abseil tower, stables for 10 police horses and accommodation for more than 300 people.”

These urban replicants always fascinate me, I guess for their sheer artificiality and hybridity, and that quintessentially postmodern sense of non-placedom they occupy, shrouded in secrecy, assembled like some bizarre mock Hollywood blockbuster film set that begs the curiosity of a future global tourist brigade fiending for an endless spectacle of war play, sparking like black magic at the end of the state’s multifarious arm of control.

I have to admit, I’d love to travel around for a year to go check out these eerie simulations just sitting out there in the countryside. What do these pop-up combat zones look like close up suddenly shedding their disguise in the landscape? How does power operationalize architecture this way, for the purposes of practiced and perfected warfare? Creepy surreal craziness, but titillating nonetheless. Someone is getting paid to do this, to take a kind of tour of 'the desert of the real,' meandering around the outbacks of the world, counting the notches in this great global gun belt of urban imaginaries and ‘othered’ netherworlds of violent simulacrum and pretentious planetary conflict. It sure isn't me...

Whatever. It is, after all, just a small scrappy hint of a city standing on the planet for one purpose: to be rioted, hijacked, trashed, held hostage, sacked, and overrun by thousands of chaotic scenarios, only so that it can be reclaimed, retaken, re-propped in circuitous loops of more dazzling proto-militant exercise, stormed by a thousand coordinated boots for eternity, targeted by hundreds of synchronized crosshairs of both lethal and non-lethal weapons; it is a silly little city that lives to paradoxically sustain conflict and its own remedy. How can you not want to go check out a place like this? It's like some new theater of the absurd, if you ask me. I'd like to stand off to the side, as explosions are ignited, hail storms of bullets are hurled into facades, and read over some loud speaker extracts from Gravity's Rainbow. Stand up on my petty little soap box and conduct the functional madness with some Pynchonian wisdom. "...a million bureaucrats are diligently plotting death and some of them even know it..." Or, give the dicey air there a good old dose of some Hunter S. What a tour guide he would have made for this plasticene playscape.

There is now apparently a new plan to add a £90 million firearms training center that would feature a larger mock-up airport terminal and new London Underground train carriages to the facility, clearly expanding the training capacity of this place from mere urban chaos control to full-on anti-terrorism tactics, timed nicely as the 2012 London Olympics begins to climb over the horizon.
Anyway, add “Policetown” to Subtopia's tourist geography of globalized private military training battle arenas that I’d one day like to somehow visit and document in a nifty little travelers' brochure for all you itchy footed heads out there who are just as curious as I am about this strange space lurking in the world's shady corners.


[Related: Blackwater packs it up in Potrero; Tracking Blackwater in Potrero; Resisting Blackwater Sprawl; MOUT Urbanism; Peering into the Arenas of War; The "Village"; Sim Baghdad; War Room; Peripheral Milit_Urb 5; Cities Made by War; Good Buildings, Bad Buildings; A miniature city waiting for attack; War Play]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Suicidal Urbanism: The City as IED

[Image: The World Trade Center 7 collapsed on September 11, 2001.]

An Oxford study came out recently suggesting there are particular psychological factors that make up a ‘universal mindset of engineers,’ which may make them more predisposed towards terrorism when aligned with certain negative social conditions found, for instance, under repressive governments in parts of the Muslim World. There’s been quite a bit of research in the past showing that many terrorists and members of radical movements have been highly educated, but little investigation apparently has been made into their given background and academic discipline. Surprisingly, this study indicates a large portion of identified radicals have had engineering backgrounds.
The research looked at 404 individuals of 30 nationalities who had participated in radical Islamic groups from the 1970s to the present. Of that group, 196 had pursued higher education, and the researchers were able to identify the academic fields of 178. Those with engineering backgrounds constituted 44 percent of the group. (See "Study traces tech link to radical '70s groups")

I’m not sure how reliable this study—entitled ‘Engineers of Jihad’—actually is, but personally I don’t find a link between would-be terrorists and engineering extraordinarily surprising. It may sound utterly basic, but plotting takes scheming, planning, critical structural and systems analysis, especially considering the high degree of challenge terrorists face with this new techno-militaristic state of global Empire, of which the counter-imperial responses have proven both ingeniously primitive and sophisticated. In some ways I think it makes perfect sense, that someone—or, a group of someones—who would be interested in pulling off the sort of dramatic political urban disruptions that seem to define modern terrorism today would be naturally inclined towards the challenge and solution based logistics of engineering. After all, subversion is a craft, a science, and it most definitely requires a design.

[Image: A Japanese-funded bridge under construction in southern Vietnam collapsed September 26, 2007 killing 60.]

However, the study is not an examination of engineers in and of themselves, but uses its research into the ‘engineer’s mindset’ as a prism to try and better understand Islamic political violence, which is certainly a fascinating topic. And, again, which makes sense to me if we think of both globalization and even the stifling conditions under extremist regimes as spatial systems of leviathan government control (both in the form of democracy and dictatorship), each functions as a kind of systemic architecture with impenetrable bureaucracy that functions as a matrix of exclusion in its own right. If you think of government in terms of a kind of abstract superstructure, it doesn’t seem farfetched then to me that the logical counter to the urban expansion of Empire (or dictatorship, for that matter) would seem to be something requiring at the very least engineering, of all types—this is, if we accept the western city as the monolithic piston of a global capitalist machine, the fundamentalist state as the bastion of its opposite, and the urban environment as the medium of contemporary conflict where the forces of neoliberal hegemony and fundamentalist anti-capitalism collide. In this light the 'terrorist engineering' is a form of anti-western undoing, or neoliberal de-engineering, perhaps.

<[Image: SF Freeway Collapses, Leading Some to Question Steel's Integrity, April 30, 200, Wired.]

The researchers Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog of Oxford’s Department of Sociology look at the psychology of the engineer as being partially defined by overtures of ‘monoism’ and ‘simplism’ and the notion that engineers are driven to develop the best, or often the ‘right’ solution, as well as promulgating rationality as a means to interface with and streamline large scale societal solutions. Furthermore, they conclude, citing prior research from the U.K., U.S. and Canada, that engineers are stereotypically also inclined towards the conservative side of the political spectrum as well as having a religious affiliation. All of which, they conclude makes for a volatile concoction of psychological and socioeconomic elements that could theoretically, in an environment that limits opportunity and generates a sense of injustice, lead to a sort of terrorist engineering syndrome, or a pathological deconstructivist complex bent on rules, organization, and grandiose reconstitution lured by the tendency of radicalism.
Though, I, and am sure many others, too, would argue that the qualitative assertion of the Muslim World being more depriving of opportunity than the Western World would need to be much more examined. Certainly, most would agree that the Western world provides far more opportunity in general, but how exactly should we measure the sense of injustice and frustration that stems from that? Are Americans any less frustrated by their own society? Without stooping to the obvious answer, I ask, how do we need to compare the relativism of that? Are the likely provocative scenarios to rendering Jihadi engineers really indigenous to the Muslim world? I don’t think the research gets at the acute relationship between Arab society and the plight of the engineer there, or maybe it does, I must admit I have not read the entire paper. But, in order to turn Arab engineers into would-be terrorists I would think tons of data would need to be collected not only on the qualitative mindset variables of engineers but on the symptomatic social conditions in order to explain this phenomenon in comparison to other cultures. Further, I wonder then if the researchers conclude that terrorism is then merely some displacement of Muslim rage against their own system. And, how do we even define terrorism in this case, given that the west has its own brand of fundamentalism, its own brand of inner political violence, its own internal terrorism. Not to mention its own military backed brand of foreign terrorism. How then might we diagnose American engineers? Are they too inclined towards some sort of radicalism?
Researchers don't know exactly how the various elements--the mindset, expectations and experience--combined to produce the radicalization of engineers … Being an engineer isn't the cause of anything, he said. And if you know that someone is an engineer, it doesn't tell you anything about his or her political preferences and personality, he added.

But, it is of course curious to think about a set of identifiable personality traits that not only jive with terrorism but specifically translates in the form of an engineer’s mindset. I don’t know, the research could be brilliantly onto something, or may be desperately reaching.

Either way, should there actually exist a direct engineering/terrorist correlation, from our whacked perspective the prospect is pretty fascinating. If this could be gauged somehow during the epistemological development of a person’s childhood, what would the profile of an immature pre-terrorist look like, what thought patterns would emerge, characteristically, how would that identity be expressed—through what behaviors, specifically in relation to an engineering motive? What would mark their knowledge interests? How would this mindset be engineered? Would these epistemological leanings be more dualist in nature, or relativist? Hell, what kinds of toys would these little prodigious harbingers of destruction play with, what meanings could we read into the heaps and mounds they’d fancy in the sandbox? What would their earliest terrorizations serve up in the classroom, in what forms? What patterns would mark their relation to authority, to the built world, and when would this cultural frustration that Hertog speaks of first take hold in their lives? Through what youthful manifestations or imaginations might this ‘mindset’ come to reveal itself, to enact itself on the world? Would brand new teams of developmental psychologists inscrutably screen children for their terrorist potential based on their love of Legos? I guess I am as interested in any intrinsic engineer/terrorist connection as I am in the cultural explanations, which is what the study is trying to do, I think—saying, in effect: take this mindset in these cultural conditions and increase the propensity for terrorism.
I wonder though would some universities quickly become intensely skeptical of any inclination towards engineering if such an association with a terrorist propensity were proven, while other universities might become increasingly fostering of the discipline? What if the world became divided into warring armies of pro and anti terrorist engineers? To a degree that it is not already, of course.

[Image: The Cypress viaduct which was part of Interstate 880 in Oakland, CA. 17 October 1989.]

What if one day we come to find out that a sprawling metropolis had been mysteriously designed to more or less terrorize its population, where architects were used as proxies for rogue engineers and their secret marvels of sudden civil collapse? And we find that terrorists have become land-developing moguls quietly expanding their portfolios to new hot spots abroad, investing billions in this future city only with the intention of eventually setting it ablaze at the most opportune moment. Our researchers here might call them Jihadi Cities.

[Image: Partial collapse in Albany NY, 29 Jul 05 13.]

Promising new lifestyles for the global urbane this city attracts westerners from all over with exotic flourishes of foreignality, and innovative projects in urban design that guides people through refreshing arteries of transit into magnificent public spaces that seem to hint at some kind of revolution in the next iteration of the global city. The street culture and urban experience are so attractive people spend a majority of their days outdoors basking in the presence of a bubbling publicity, the constant ooze of festivity. Then, when the fervor of commerce and showy neoliberal fanfare reaches an afternoon peak, just like that, the metropolis suddenly blooms into a masterful display of chaos and disaster, as it has been designed to tear itself apart from the inside, cave-in in a matter of minutes like a great urban crater. Megastructures meticulously tumble to the ground with geomechanic landslide-like wizardry, timed impeccably with the instant fall of dozens of other buildings through out the city’s inner core that fulfill their destinies in splendid calculations of self-dismantling sidewalk tragedy. Volumes of architectural mass merely wait for their cues to spill into a plume of concrete dust at any second. Then a network of hillside towers, stilted highway structures, breathtaking sky bridges, subterranean traffic tubes, sewage tunnels, and the loftiest architecture in between collapse in a spectacularly synchronized flattening of the built world, as the entire city comes to reveal itself as some mega contraption for carrying out the grand plot of someone's terrorism, as the new colossal IED (improvised explosive device) of the future world.

[Image: Minnesota bridge collapse, Aug, 2007.]

Could you imagine how insane that would be?
If 9/11 dawned a new age of architectural terrorism—not just architecture made into a weapon, but architecture designed as a weapon—might we one day see a whole sinister machine city function as a kind of regional IED? I mean, I know this is obscenely ridiculous to ponder for even a second half-seriously, it would take the terrorist engineers decades of unfathomable secrecy and butt loads of cash and builders to erect and develop such an IED City, but what if cities became large scale architectural traps in the future, massive ploys for terrorism? What if we ended up unknowingly living in some futuristic Dummy City? What if cities could be entirely faked for the purposes of espionage and terrorism? What if the future of urban development fell under the rubric of some sort of War On Terror tactic where both sides began to establish entire decoy downtown districts for the purposes of attracting each other’s legions into a certain geography to mark their own death? It’s certainly something for a bad Sci-Fi flick, but consider it akin to an earthquake prompted by the push of a button, setting off an abominable domino effect of architectural crumbling and wilting and widespread panic. Only Tom Cruise could survive such an absurd thing, and perhaps Will Smith.

[Image: THE damage caused by the collapse of a Tesco development on to a commuter rail line was revealed yesterday. The picture shows the view from inside a tunnel that caved in over one of the main lines between London and Birmingham, at Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire. August, 2005.]

What about the CIA, who would surely find such a tactic equally appealing, to erect some kind of quasi city, say, in Sudan, under the pretenses of foreign investment and international diplomacy, completely catering to an urban planning of Islamic radicalism, only to scoop up "jihadi suspects" in some kind of city-sized net. So that Mosques could function like massive Venus flytraps, while newly funded souqs became the unassuming detention facilities for a whole new range of terrorist suspects. Terrorist round-ups would somehow manage themselves under the disguise of an enclosed central bazaar.
If architecture has always possessed the capacity to terrorize, then what would that look like by the end of the 21st century?
Or, perhaps these rogue engineers would decide to take a far less overt tactic. What if the next great starchitect turned out to be a political conspirator who secretly programmed the building with subtle nuances of architectural trauma? For instance, using the building’s design to grossly influence the occupant’s pathology, so the engineer becomes a kind of stealthy psycho-spatial terrorist behind the scenes, a radical builder, a mindbender—architecture and engineering as a subversive act—subjecting his victims to a more or less silent warfare through the softer phenomenology of the architectural experience? What if these future terrorist engineers were heavily versed in the science of spatial cognition, fully aware of how geometries, curves, light and spatial perception could influence a person’s mood, tweak their cognitive structures, and ultimately harness a person's destructive behavior? Using architecture to program Jihad. He would be a sort of neo-Freudian masterbuilder; part Da Vinci, John O’keefe, Cecil Balmond, Lynn Nadel, Bin Laden all fused into a reinvented Karl Stromberg kind of Bond villain. He would be a genius in the art of designing cities for the purposes of their inimitable seduction and collapse. He would be a mythic sorcerer of urban decay, and heading deeper and deeper into an age of hyper-urbanization people would fear natural disasters only half as much as they would his brutal and stylish suicidal urbanism.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Blackwater packs it up in Potrero

Well, in a letter (pdf) from Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater vice president, to the City of San Diego, the company stated that after additional analysis they were withdrawing their request for permits to build and operate a massive training facility there, that would have given them a huge presence on the west coast and along the southern border with Mexico. According to the Union Tribune, "the decision came down to noise – gunfire tests at the 824-acre site in Potrero exceeded county standards – and not fiery opposition from residents, environmentalists and those politically opposed to Blackwater's role as a contractor guarding officials in Iraq."

[Images of landscape via Chris Curry for The Virginian-Pilot.]

You may recall from our earlier coverage the loud community uproar Blackwater created with their plan to expand their base of operations to the sleepy hill town of Potrero. For a small population the volume of opposition was pretty impressive. And while this news is not exactly a direct community victory, it is surely just as satisfying for them I am sure. More background here, with some additional stories found at the bottom of this news link here as well.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Walling Up the Rio Grande

[A great video by Valley News Line (Ron Whitlock) on the local Rio Grande Valley's diverse but united community response to the Department of Homeland Security's threat to take private land and erect miles of border fencing for millions of dollars through the Valley between the United States and Mexico. Particularly, comments made at the end by Texas State Representatives Aaron Peña and Eddie Lucio III who very simply and eloquently state the sheer absurdity of the fence with regards to the perilous local economic impact, the enormous waste of money that could be so much better spent investing in Mexico instead, not to mention the failed cultural and symbolic legacy the fence would prolong with Mexico, overtly sabotaging international relations, and the message a wall would send to the rest of the world ignorant of the larger global history of border walls and ultimately their inevitable backlash. Check it out.]

A town against the wall
Border barrier to skirt Rio Grande, avoid private land
Richard D. Vogel, "Nature v. the Department of Homeland Security: Eco-War on the Rio Grande"
Chertoff being sued at Texas border

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Urban Radiologist

Unfortunately I didn’t get this message out in time for the grand opening, but I wanted to quickly draw your attention to a show that you absolutely must go check out if you are in New York City. My friend and brilliant photographer, Stanley Greenberg, whom I met for the first time at Postopolis! just last year, has filled the Gitterman Gallery with photographs from 4 of his projects spanning the last 15 years.

If you are not familiar with his work then you definitely need to investigate it. I’ve been repeatedly blown away by his images not just for their stark and mysterious urban qualities, but for what they also represent, about breaching borders of what we are allowed and not allowed to see in terms of restricted space, and even how we are to view these places. He shoots underground water drains, the innards of building structures, places of urban secrecy, the hidden and often inaccessible underbelly of cities where buildings and infrastructures quiver in their own nightmares asleep in the dark hollows of night. He photographs a kind of naked urban clandestinism, if you will, and all I can say, is they are SO up our alley, it's ridiculous.

Many of his photographs seem to almost take and show us these gorgeous x-rays of the city, of the subcutaneous architectures that constitute the modern landscape in various morphological states of becoming. There is always this milky bone white structuralism—caught in a web of subterranean light—about the structures that live and breathe among us, I can never seem to get enough of his work. They almost emit their own smells, sounds, full on ambient soundtracks; wood and steel creaking, drain drops, the murmured conversations of massive building laying in wait for something; the sounds of architectural weight.

I think of Stanley as a kind of architectural, or urban radiologist, visually illuminating the marrow of our built world, the shapeliness of its geometrically diverse body parts, the unseen joints of bridges, the quiet heroics of load-bearing walls, the covered tensegrity of the steel and concrete world.

Anyway, see for yourself. Attached is the gallery press release for more details.

FEBRUARY 29 – MAY 10, 2008

T 212.734.0868 F 212.734.0869

Gitterman Gallery is proud to announce our representation of Stanley Greenberg, a contemporary artist we have admired for many years. We will exhibit photographs from his four series of work spanning the last 15 years. The exhibition will open with a reception for the artist on Thursday, February 28th from 6 to 8 p.m. and continue through Saturday, May 10th.

Stanley Greenberg’s work is an investigation of sites often inaccessible to the people they serve. His photographs make us wonder at the extraordinary places that most of us are unaware of and the evolution of technology required to create them. They remind us of how much public space, and the knowledge of it, is now kept from us.

Stanley Greenberg (b. 1956) was born and raised in Brooklyn , New York . After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from SUNY Stony Brook and a Masters in Public Administration from Syracuse University , he worked in New York City government for most of the 1980s.

Greenberg’s first series explored New York City ’s hidden infrastructure. This work exists both as evidence of our ability to construct a metropolis and as sculptural imagery of mysterious places. At the time, many of these places were difficult to reach, and now it is almost impossible to gain access to them. This project led to the publication of his first two books, Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City, published in 1998 by Johns Hopkins University Press, and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey Through New York’s Hidden Water System,published in 2003 by Princeton Architectural Press.

Greenberg continued to explore unusual and less accessible sites with his next project, construction of contemporary architecture. He was intrigued by the emerging digital technologies that led to innovative designs and building techniques. The skeletons and viscera of the buildings are both intimate and monumental. They reveal the collaborative efforts of the architects, engineers, and construction workers who create the site as much as they remind us of the past and future. In 2005 Greenberg received a Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation to complete this project. A book of the work will be published by the University of Chicago Press in early 2009.

In the summers of 2003 and 2004, Greenberg photographed sand castles at Coney Island and Brighton Beach . Some of these images look like archaeological sites where nature has come to reclaim the land, while others appear to be creations by alien civilizations. They are a reminder of the ephemeral nature of construction, large and small.

Greenberg’s work is included in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum , Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of the City of New York and Whitney Museum of American Art.

For visuals or further information, please contact us at: 212 734 0868 or

Also, check out BLDGBLOG's conversation with Stanley, and also Stanley's Postopolis! presentation on You Tube.

[All Images by Stanley Greenberg.]