What makes good architecture and urbanism depends on your perspective. If you are an architect, you might want to make beautiful and cozy places for people to live and work. The labyrinth of the medieval city, with its sense of community defined by small streets and plazas, might be an attractive model. You might like façades that are modest but interiors that are expansive and flexible. You might applaud the recent development in “bottom up” or “tactical” urbanism that seems to be breaking down grand edifices and barren public spaces we have inherited from more heroic days, interconnecting them with new technologies and designs inhabitants and users have pieced together.
If you are a military planner, on the other hand, your perspective would be altogether different. You would want order, clarity, and, above all else, controllable space. Faced with the complex forms and spaces architects have designed or communities have built, a military analyst seeks to create order by deconstructing them. Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller describe these two processes in their book, Fronts: Military Urbanisms and the Developing World, published in June by Applied Research & Design:
“Architectural notion of stereotomy and tectonics are given the military treatment, with poetics of assembly translated into actionable intel. Common construction methods, like ‘stacking’, ‘framing’, and ‘hanging’, are presented to acquaint the urban operative with insight into the logics and paradigms of the wall section. From visual cues in the elevation of a building, trainees are taught to deduce the material composition and thickness of the wall construction at each floor, determining which level of the building would provide the most concealment or cover, and which might be more readily breached. Depending on the construction method, a building’s exterior envelope might signal a straightforward interior, or something more secret and potentially sinister. Load-bearing exterior walls telegraph predictable, repeated layouts on each floor, while open frames and curtain walls belie the dangerous uncertainty of the Modernists’ free plan beyond.”
Kripa and Mueller have made a careful, comprehensive, and simultaneously enlightening and frightening study of how the military has created a shadow version of architecture. The armed forces have built villages and urban districts, buildings and sequences of rooms, as well as open spaces of various sizes and configurations, that mimic what soldiers might expect to encounter in theaters of operation that are increasingly urbanized. If previous generations of military planners studied geography and hydrology as well as purpose-built structures such as forts and encampments, current war-scenario planners spend their time looking at the both the dense warren of urban streets in which more than half of the globe’s population now live, and at the amorphous—and to a traditional army very dangerous—terrain of urban sprawl. The kind of landscape the Marines encountered when they raided Osama Bin Laden's compound, a mini-neighborhood in a mixed landscape of villages, fields, informal settlements, and a nearby military base, is typical of what they will find in future operations.
In response, the U.S. Army in particular has built increasingly sophisticated simulations in which to train. Sometimes they have taken over villages or towns, but more often the Army Corps of Engineers has built purpose-built urban sets in which soldiers can stage everything from house-to-house searches to targeted bombing. As the authors point out:
“Simulated cities become repositories of building construction techniques, sampling the material compositions and finishes of urban streetscapes in dimensional bricolage. The material composition of building surfaces throughout the facilities oscillates intermittently between theatrical applique and authentic construction. Cosmetic, painted textures on some structures provide a loose sense of material scale and realism. Buildings become backdrops, stage-sets, urban-scale imagery provoking the desired atmosphere of material decay. Others are built to more authentically mimic the weight, heft, and construction methods of the targeted urban environment, in order to provide realistic material challenges to sensing, and movement, as well as analog resistance to explosives, comparable to their real-world counterparts. Breach facilities are conceived as architectural sampler platters…”
In tracing, documenting, and analyzing these stage-sets, an effort that took Kripa and Mueller several years and whose results fill most of the book, the authors have unearthed some larger points. The first is that the military realized long before any other branch of government that states are neither the main actors nor the centers of political life. Rather, we should understand the power and the danger of the amorphous territory of metropoles, which develop in unpredictable ways, are hard to understand, and have a materiality as well as a porous density that defies our expectations of concentrations of buildings in cities surrounded by countryside. Those zones are where the military now expects to fight.
Kripa and Mueller also point to the emergence of Postmodernism as having created more problems for the military. That is because of its emphasis on“façadism,” in which appearances express one set of issues and do not indicate the interior shape or give any clue to the building's structures, as well as in its dependence on types, rather than functionally zoned buildings. The authors point out that it is exactly this lack of relation between image and structure that exasperated military planners as they tried to assess hidden urban dangers. In a way, then, the Army offered a critique of Postmodernism (and also the free flows of Modernism) long before architects did. Architects may celebrate and try to “improve” the collage-like complexity, the façades and the complex forms of the modern city, while the military figures it out in order to bust through it, both analytically and in staged missions.
Moreover, the search for order and the possibilities of chaos are, as Robert Venturi pointed out 60 years ago in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, not only related, but might be two sides of the same coin. This is true also on an urban level. As Kripa and Mueller write, the growth of the informal city can lead to a form of spatiality that we might applaud:
“Informal development maps new itineraries, a series of ‘soft’ spatial insurgences that combat impending securitization and offer an alternative, negotiated stability. These spatial tactics produce a type of tenuous, defensible space. Mirroring the logics of contemporary urban warfare, these urban agents counteract them, by using the tools of soft power to establish social networks, economic co-dependencies, legal boundaries, and regulatory infrastructures that seek to stabilize—and therefore legitimize—informal development in the contested city … While the military deploys surveillance, barricades, and advanced weaponry to index, control, and re-order the apparent chaos of the city, informal agents effectively and pre-emptively counterstrike, deploying guerilla infrastructures, adopting renegade land planning practices, and appropriating sites and buildings ‘off the grid’."
It is exactly this kind of guerilla urbanism the U.S. military now trains to fight against.
Left out of this otherwise invaluable work is how both the informality or self-build quality of sprawling cities in developing countries and the efforts to suppress those urban agglomerations are now arriving on the American stage. The book was finished before the recent civil unrest, but already in the last decade it has become clear that the American metropolis is also becoming an arena of contest, and I, for one, wonder whether there are secret facilities beyond this book’s catalog that simulate not only downtown Minneapolis, but also the suburbs and exurbs where the next scenes of combat might be located.
Also missing here, though referenced briefly, is the Army's increasing reliance on training methods in the virtual realm. The U.S. military is actively recruiting gamers, and much of its warfare now takes place via drone and other remote-controlled devices. Virtual sets are also cheaper. This combat now extends to the Internet, either via direct sabotage or through Infowars. What will be the impact of this intertwining of the real and the projected?
Fronts shows us once again that war is the ultimate R&D lab for the future of designed environment. The army has more toys, more knowledge, and is more clear-eyed about the appearance of new forms of habitation and design. Kripa and Mueller have created a great foundational volume. I hope others will further worm their way into the military-industrial complex, steal its secrets, and help us figure out how to fight the fight for good architecture–open, inclusive, and sustainable.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.