The City Has Eyes

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

In the distant summer of 2002, I worked for a few months at Foster + Partners in London, tasked with helping to archive Foster’s old sketchbooks, hand-drawings, and miscellaneous other materials documenting dozens of different architectural projects over the past few decades.

On a relatively slow afternoon, I was given the job of sorting through some old cupboards full of videocassettes—VHS tapes hoarded more or less randomly, sometimes even without labels, in a small room on the upper floor of the office.

Amongst taped interviews from Foster’s various TV appearances, foreign media documentaries about the office’s international work, and other bits of A/V ephemera, there were a handful of tapes that consisted of nothing but surveillance footage shot inside the old Wembley Stadium.

It was impossible to know what the tapes—unlabeled and shoved in the back of the cupboard—actually documented, but the strange visual language of CCTV is such that something always seems about to happen. There is a strange urgency to surveillance footage, despite its slow, almost glacial pace: a feeling of intense, often dreadful anticipation. A crime, an attack, an explosion or fire is, it seems, terrifyingly imminent.

Unsure of what I was actually watching for, it began to feel a bit sinister: had there been an attack or even a murder in the old Wembley Stadium, prior to Foster + Partners’ new design at the site, and, for whatever reason, Foster held on to security tapes of the incident? Was I about to see a stabbing or a brawl, a small riot in the corridors?

More abstractly, could an architect somehow develop an attachment, a dark and unhealthy fascination, with crimes that had occurred inside a structure he or she designed—or, in this case, in a building he or she would ultimately demolish and replace?

It felt as if I was watching police evidence, sitting there, alone on a summer afternoon, waiting nervously for the depicted crime to begin.

The relationship not just between architecture and crime, but between architects and crime began to captivate me.

Of course, it didn’t take long to realize what was really happening, which was altogether less exciting but nevertheless just as fascinating: these unlabeled security tapes hidden in a cupboard at Foster + Partners hadn’t captured a crime, riot, or any other real form of suspicious activity.

Rather, the tapes had been saved in the office archive as an unusual form of architectural research: surveillance footage of people milling about near the bathrooms or walking around in small groups through the cavernous back-spaces of the old Wembley stadium would help to show how the public really used the space.

I was watching video surveillance being put to use as a form of building analysis—security tapes as a form of spatial anthropology.

[Image: Unrelated surveillance footage].

Obsessed by this, and with surveillance in general, I went on to write an entire (unpublished) novel about surveillance in London, as well as to see the security industry—those who watch the city—as always inadvertently performing a second function.

Could security teams and surveillance cameras in fact be a privileged site for viewing, studying, and interpreting urban activity? Is architecture somehow more interesting when viewed through CCTV?

To no small extent, that strange summertime task thirteen years ago went on to inform my next book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which comes out in October.

The book explores how criminals tactically misuse the built environment, with a strong counter-focus on how figures of authority—police helicopter crews, FBI Special Agents, museum security supervisors, and architects—see the city in a very literal sense.

This includes the specialty optical equipment used during night flights over the metropolis, the surveillance gear that is often deployed inside large or complex architectural structures to record “suspicious” activity, and how even the numbering systems used for different neighborhoods can affect the ability of the police to interrupt crimes that might be occurring there.

I’ll be talking about all of this stuff (and quite a bit more, including the sociological urban films of William H. Whyte, the disturbing thrill of watching real-life CCTV footage—such as the utterly strange Elisa Lam tape—and what’s really happening inside CCTV control rooms) this coming Friday night, May 8, as part of “a series about spectatorship” at UnionDocs in Brooklyn.

The event is ticketed, but stop by, if you get a chance—I believe there is a free cocktail reception afterward—and, either way, watch out for the release of A Burglar’s Guide to the City in October 2015.

The Snow Mine

[Image: The “Blythe Intaglios,” via Google Maps].

After reading an article about the “Blythe geoglyphs”—huge, 1,000-year old images carved into the California desert north of Blythe, near the border with Arizona—I got to looking around on Google Maps more or less at random and found what looked like a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, close to an old mine.

Turns out, it was the abandoned industrial settlement of Midland, California—and it’s been empty for nearly half a century, deliberately burned to the ground in 1966 when the nearby mine was closed.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

What’s so interesting about this place—aside from the exposed concrete foundation pads now reused as platforms for RVs, or the empty streets forming an altogether different kind of geoglyph, or even the obvious ease with which one can get there, simply following the aptly named Midland Road northeast from Blythe—is the fact that the town was built for workers at the gypsum mine, and that the gypsum extracted from the ground in Midland was then used as artificial snow in many Hollywood productions.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

As the L.A. Times reported back in 1970—warning its readers, “Don’t Go To Midland—It’s Gone“—the town served as the mineral origin for Hollywood’s simulated weather effects.

“Midland was started in 1925 as a tent city,” the paper explained, “with miners in the middle of the Mojave Desert digging gypsum out of the Little Marias to meet the demands of movie studios. All the winter scenes during the golden age of Hollywood were filmed with ‘snowflakes’ from Midland.”

[Image: The abandoned streets of Midland, former origin of Hollywood’s artificial snow; photo via CLUI].

Like some strange, artificial winter being mined from the earth and scattered all over the dreams of cinemagoers around the world, Midland’s mineral snow had all the right qualities without any of the perishability or cold.

See, for example, this patent for artificial snow, filed in 1927 and approved in 1930, in which it is explained how gypsum can be dissolved by a specific acid mix to produce light, fluffy flakes perfect for the purposes of winter simulation. Easy to produce, with no risk of melting.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

I’ve long been fascinated by the artificial snow industry—the notion of an industrially controlled climate-on-demand, spraying out snowflakes as if from a 3D printer, is just amazing to me—as well as with the unearthly world of mines, caves, and all things underground, but I had not really ever imagined that these interests might somehow come together someday, wherein fake glaciers and peaceful drifts of pure white snow were actually something scraped out of the planet by the extraction industry.

As if suggesting the plot of a deranged, Dr. Seussian children’s book, the idea that winter is something we pull from a mine in the middle of the California desert and then scatter over the warm Mediterranean cities of the coast is perhaps all the evidence you need that life is always already more dreamlike than you had previously believed possible.

(Very vaguely related: See also BLDGBLOG’s earlier coverage of California City).

Ball Games: The Great Escape (1963)

[Image: The Great Escape from MGM].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley, written as part of Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists.

Alongside The Dam Busters and The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape was shown on British TV at least once a month when I was growing up. It is such familiar, comforting fare that, in a 2006 poll, Britons voted The Great Escape their third choice for a film worth watching on Christmas Day (It’s A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz were first and second choice, respectively).

A large part of its appeal, at least for me, lies in the Boy’s Own adventure-style spirit and Heath Robinson-esque ingenuity of the Allied POWs.

The movie begins with the most experienced and determined Allied escapologists arriving at the newly constructed, supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III. Its resistance to casual, opportunistic break outs is demonstrated in the first few minutes, as POWs unsuccessfully attempt to slip out hidden under tree branches, disguised as Russian laborers, and in the blind spots of the guard towers.

[Image: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

An altogether more rigorous approach is required, and, under the direction of Richard Attenborough’s Squadron Leader Bartlett, the entire camp is organized into a tunnel-digging machine, with a strict division of labor, assembly-line document- and clothing-production techniques, and a suite of redundant underground infrastructure (tunnels “Tom,” “Dick,” and the ultimately successful “Harry”).

As in A Man Escaped, breaking out requires “the strategic dismantling and reassembly of all designed objects that aren’t architecture”: powdered milk cans, socks, and bunk bed slats are transformed into tunnel ventilation pumps, supports, and trouser-mounted soil disposal devices.

And, as in Grand Illusion, there is a distinct sense that tunneling is a codified sport, bound to be played in prison camps. Certainly, the Allied POWs seem to be motivated as much by a boyish delight in outwitting the Germans through their own ingenuity and teamwork as by a sense of duty or passionate desire to return home. Stalag Luft III, in this view, is something like a game level, challenging seasoned players to apply their existing tunneling techniques in innovative new ways. (Intriguingly, the camp was used as the basis for Dulag IIIA in the first installment of Call of Duty).

If the design of prison camps and the sport of tunneling have co-evolved from World War I’s Grand Illusion to World War II’s Great Escape, then so, too, has the theater of war, from the defined battlefield of the trenches to a total war embedded into and dispersed throughout civilian landscapes.

The second half of The Great Escape, following the trajectories of those who successfully tunneled out of Stalag Luft III, reveals that, in fact, most of the European continent is a prison camp of sorts, booby-trapped with English-speaking Gestapo, and with its safe havens (Switzerland and Spain) ring-fenced with barbed wire and mountain ranges.

[Images: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

Finally, Steve McQueen, the “Cooler King,” provides future generations of filmmakers with an iconic image of the spatial and temporal experience of solitary confinement: a rubber ball, repetitively bounced off cell walls as if both defining and testing the limits those walls pose to free motion. From The Shining to The Simpsons to Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, the endlessly bouncing ball has since become visual shorthand, indicating that a character is trapped, whether their prison is mental, physical, or both.

(Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography).

Urban Optometry

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

The Solitary Life of Cranes is a short film by Eva Weber about the work performed by construction crane operators in London. I’ve mentioned it many times in various talks I’ve given over the past year, but I realized last night that I never actually posted about it—so I thought I’d correct that. It’s a great film, and it’s worth seeking out. At only 27 minutes in length, as well, it’s also quick to watch.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

As the film describes itself:

Part city symphony, part visual poem, The Solitary Life of Cranes explores the invisible life of a city, its patterns and hidden secrets, seen through the eyes of crane drivers working high above its streets. (…) From their elevated positions, crane drivers are the unsung chroniclers of our ever-changing metropolis: the bulk of their time is spent waiting, looking, observing the wind, the weather, and the people down below. From their airy towers, they do not only have the best overview of the construction site and some of the most impressive panoramic views of the city but also an unparalleled insight into any of the buildings surrounding them.

Looked at one way, Weber has made an oral history of crane operators: documenting where they work, what they think about, what they see, and—perhaps most interestingly—how they view the city.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

These operators, I would suggest, have a view of the metropolis that architects and planners have little or no access to, an optical insight into city life that often gives their job an almost mystic feel. “Many people don’t know that there’s somebody up there, don’t even think that there’s somebody up there,” one of the operators suggests. “They’re quite surprised when you tell them, ‘yeah there’s a guy up there, you know and this guy is me’.”

There are moments of both inadvertent and advertent voyeurism in the process. “You see really private moments of people’s lives… because people can’t see you or aren’t aware of you.” Indeed, “There’s a couple of people in—how can I put this now without sounding like a voyeur? There are flats right opposite me with the same people in, every day, if you know what I mean, and they’re there, you cannot not look.”

“If you did meet the same person on the street,” one of them says, “then you’d think twice… you wouldn’t introduce yourself, but you stop and think and turn your head when they walk by, you know, as if to say, look I’m part of your life but you don’t know it.”

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber, like a shot from Michael Wolf’s book The Transparent City].

One of them even compares the experience to living and working inside a cloud: “Coming down… it’s like coming out of a cloud. You sort of come down it, and it just disappears and then you’re back on normal ground again. You think, ‘Jesus, what a different way of life down here than what it is up there’.”

This terrestrial dislocation is not necessarily a good thing: “We’re getting operators that we all call ‘cab happy’, and they just want to stay on the cab all the time. You know, it’s hard to get them out… I think all crane operators, to a certain degree, I think they’re ‘cab happy’—when you’re on the floor you always miss being in the crane.”

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

One of my favorite moments in the film is when we hear an operator talk about storms. “You can see a storm develop,” he says, looking out over the city, “sort of 10-15 miles away, you can see the cloud shapes, you know, you can watch the rain come in,” and we see moving fronts of English weather cross over the city, “and the rain physically comes in as a wall. You can see that curtain,” he says, “moving across the town, moving across the city.”

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

When I talked about this film at an event in New York City last winter, architect Ed Keller, the event’s host, compared these crane operators to Daedalus figures, looking down into the labyrinth that they themselves have built—only here the labyrinth is London, and the there is not one Daedalus but thousands, and they are awake all the time in overlapping shifts, keeping eyes on the city from above, in perpetuity.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber; the building in the lower left of this image is actually the London office of Foster and Partners].

“The sky is full of stories,” as author Sukhdev Sandhu wrote in an essay for the book A Manual For the 21st Century Art Institution. Looking at the social, economic, and even narrative implicatons of architectural verticality in East London, Sandhu specifically cites Weber’s film:

These men, perched in their metal boxes, invisible to ground-bound Londoners, speak with precision and poetry about the beauty they are afforded by their enhanced perspectives—about the pale delicacy with which the sun rises above the city, the lush greenery of far-off hills, the way streets curve and snake into the distance. They are blessed with the opposite of tunnel vision, able to spot oncoming storms at a distance of fifteen miles, and witnesses to the teeming life that takes place above pavement level: roof-garden parties, office workers taking fag breaks, pigeon fanciers chatting to their birds. London, one of them observes, consists of a series of layers.

Sandhu calls for a need “to gaze out across the callous metropolis—and conjure forth connections,” taking advantage of these unprecedented viewpoints, perspectives on the city that were literally impossible before these buildings and cranes came along, to help fashion a new understanding of how the metropolis works, how people live within it, and where it might yet go. As if the building boom brought with it a new optics of the city—a new picturesque—an angled optometry of everyday space.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

Briefly, I’m reminded of the story of Babu Sassi, a crane operator atop the Burj Dubai/Burj Khalifa who, the legend goes, didn’t come down to earth for a full year, as it would have taken too long to make the trip. You can read more about Babu at that earlier post, but the overall question would be the same: how does your understanding of the social world change after spending time inside these massive, temporary constructs without names or fixed addresses, as if only unofficially present in the built landscape that surrounds them? They are towers that disappear, never to be seen again in the same location, and you are perched there, like some rogue landscape theorist, at fantastic height above the very thing you both assemble and secretly study.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

More information about the film can be found at its—unfortunately Flash-based—website, and the film itself is worth seeking out.

Code 46

On Monday, November 24, I’ll be hosting a live interview at the Barbican in London with director Michael Winterbottom, for a special screening of his film Code 46. You can read a bit more about the event – as well as buy tickets – here.
This is part of an ongoing series called Architecture on Film, curated by the Architecture Foundation.

[Image: From Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, courtesy of United Artists].

The purpose of the event is to talk about film and architecture – or, in this case, cities, urban design, memory, science fiction, landscape, globalization, and the built environment. As you can see from the list of locations used for the film’s production, Code 46 is very well-traveled, stitching together urban – and exurban – environments from London, Shanghai, Dubai, Hong Kong, and even the deserts of Rajasthan.
That the film achieves the feel of science fiction simply through a well-edited depiction of existing landscapes says as much about the film as it does about the nature of city-building today; perhaps one might only half-jokingly suggest that people build cities today in order to live inside science fiction films.

[Image: Shanghai, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

As BLDGBLOG explored the other week in a long post, “cities today are well known for popping up in the middle of nowhere, history-less and incomprehensible.”

That’s what cities now do. If these cities are here today, they weren’t five years ago; if they’re not here now, they will be soon. Today’s cities are made up, viral, fungal, unexpected. Like well-lit film sets in the distance, staged amidst mudflats, reflecting themselves in the still waters of inland reservoirs, today’s cities simply arrive, without reservations; they are not so much invited as they are impossible to turn away. Cities now erupt and linger; they are both too early and far too late. Cities move in, take root and expand, whole neighborhoods throwing themselves together in convulsions of glass and steel.

What does it mean, then, to set a film inside a mix of such spaces? And as more and more instant cities appear in the world, built from zero in less than a decade, how can cinema capitalize on the lack of recognition these historically too-new and culturally all but anonymous environments inspire?
What does it mean, as well, that the depiction of the future in Code 46 – a depiction of the future through architecture – involves no U.S. cities at all and only very brief glimpses of urban infrastructure in Europe?

[Image: Shanghai, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

This brings up one of the more interesting aspects of the film – something not internal to it, but created by the current state of global urbanization. The film makes it deliberately unclear, in other words, that it was shot in multiple locations at all; the opening sequence blurs together landscapes, buildings, and infrastructures from very different cities – yet this unfamiliar new place to which we’re being introduced might very well exist.
For all many viewers know, perhaps Shanghai really is in the middle of a desert; perhaps Dubai really does look exactly like Hong Kong.
This confusion only seems possible, however, within a very narrow window of historical time. As the skylines and iconic hotel interiors of Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere become visually familiar to many more people, it will become much harder to do what Code 46 has done – which is to edit them all up into a convincing pastiche. They are a spatial collage, an urban cut-up – William S. Burroughs as architectural director.
In ten years, then, would this be akin to cutting from a shot of the Empire State Building to a shot of the Eiffel Tower and pretending that these landmarks are in the same city – only to find that almost no one has been genuinely tricked?
In a funny but negative Amazon review of the film, a disappointed viewer actually mocks this very aspect: “If I have to keep seeing these movies with the I haven’t a clue which Metro I’m in look I’m going to scream.”
But what does it mean that Asian cities – cinematically depicted as a kind of monolithic urban Other – are, for the time being, so visually unfamiliar to Western audiences that they can be edited into a seamless Global Metropolis, a vast agglomeration of spatial alterity that we can cut-and-paste together on film?
Where might Code 46 have been made if it had been produced fifteen years from now? What explosive urban outgrowths between now and then will be sufficiently unfamiliar to literally hundreds of thousands of filmgoers that they could be combined into one convincing location?
Will the sci-fi films of tomorrow be set in Lagos, Delhi, Rabat, or Shenzhen? All of the above?
It’s the future science fiction of global third-tier urbanism.
For instance, one of the most striking aspects of the urban environment in The Matrix came simply from the fact that many – though not all – of the outdoor scenes were shot in Sydney, a city with which most American viewers are not visually familiar. The urban world of the Matrix thus took on an uncanny sense of near-resemblance, looking an awful lot like a city everyone has seen before – is that Houston? Tampa Bay? Fresno? – but not enough like any single one of them to be clear.
The film Primer, shot in Dallas, is an amazing example of this: the whole time you’re watching it you have no idea where you are… though absolutely everything about it looks familiar.
The effect, particularly in Code 46, is almost literally uncanny.

[Image: The Shanghai skyline, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

Briefly, I’m also reminded here of Tativille, the massive film-set city built by Jacques Tati to produce his own film Playtime. Constructed solely for the purpose of hosting camera crews – and later disassembled – Tativille was a city of the image, its design shaped only by how it would look on screen. With Tativille in mind, what might future audiences think if, say, Dubai really does run out of money in the global economic downturn, its towers abandoned and eroding back to sand? It will be visible in films like Code 46 – but nowhere else. It will have ceased to exist.
It will have been a kind of Tativille of the Emirates, built only to host film crews and car commercials.
In any case, the film’s visions of desert poverty – scenes in Rajasthan – and desert opulence – scenes in Dubai – bring up the topic of uneven development. If, as William Gibson‘s oft-quoted line goes, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed, then this also appears to be true in the context of architectural form and urban landscapes.
But which one is the future: the nationless desert of rights-deprived exiles or the golf course-filled desert of the stateless business class?
Or are these perhaps one and the same, requiring each other as the flipsides of their own formation?

[Image: The opening titles of Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, courtesy of United Artists].

None of these questions are new, of course, going back in some form or another to Sergei Eisenstein, Fredric Jameson, and many, many others; but the opportunity to discuss all this with Michael Winterbottom himself in reference to a specific – and, as it happens, visually stunning – film, in a monumental and legendary architectural complex like the Barbican, is something of which I’m genuinely excited to be a part.
So if you’re in London on Monday, November 24, consider stopping by. Tickets can be purchased directly through the Barbican’s website, and you can learn a bit more about the film here.

Mars Rover: A New Film by BLDGBLOG


While editing a recent post about the Mars rover, I got to thinking – as you would – about how to make an animated, feature-length children’s film, starring another such rover, set in the immediate future…


In the film, the rover would go tootling around in its cute little animated way, wheeling across unbelievable landscapes, snapping Ansel Adams-like photographs of alien tectonics, volcanoes and basins, systems of canyons that redefine the sublime.


Hills, arches, gorges; mountains surrounded by clouds of methane. Erosion; windstorms; evidence of ancient floods.
Plus, it’s a cute little rover. Kids love the thing. They pressure their parents to name family pets after it. Burger King sells a small plastic version of it with their happy meals, or whatever they make there. T-shirts. Pajamas.


In any case, our erstwhile hero, the little rover, is Artificially Intelligent – and he’s funny. Maybe his voice is by Paul Giamatti. And he gradually sort of wakes up, comes to consciousness, and falls head over heels – monitor over wheels – in love with the world, in love with landscapes, with everything – with emotion and memory – in love with love, and hope, and fear – and he starts to wax poetic over a radio-link back to mission control, his friends and creators, they’re cheering, and to television viewers sitting on sofas at home, going on about how wonderful everything is.
How beautiful that world, in which he travels alone, can really be. It’s not lonely, see. He’s on fire inside. His own little robot mind is as deep as the canyons he explores.
He smiles.


Kids in the cinema aren’t blinking at this point; it’s too amazing. Everyone’s in love with this little rover. It’s like bloody Dead Poets Society out there; everyone’s feeling it. Everyone’s alive. Cynics are vomiting into popcorn boxes.
But then the Martian seasons change, and the rover has to shut down – to be shut down, by mission control. The kids in the cinema start to worry. Frowns appear. Dads grow nervous, re-crossing their legs, only vaguely reassured that the film is rated PG.
You see people on-screen, back at mission control, wringing their hands, preparing to remotely shut off the rover – but the rover loves life, damn it, he loves what he’s seeing, he wants to see more! He wants to live – and he’s funny – and he’s got a friend back at mission control who has to push the button, but she can’t because she loves him – what do you mean shut him down?! – she loves his silly robot eyes, and his enthusiasm, and his stupid voice, and these amazing things he’s been showing to everyone back on earth, and she can’t do it.
She can’t kill the little guy.


Some kids are crying now; she’s crying. Not the little guy! With his tiny wheels pushing further into life and alien landscapes.
Not him!
Enter some sinister, technocratic boss figure – with a voice by Robert Duvall – and he forces her: the button is pushed, mission control sends the command, and our friendly, naive robot hero of off-planet landscape exploration, in the midst of a sad why are you doing this to me? weepy monologue, his AI-eyes wide and worried and scared of that darkness into which his circuits will go – overlooking the most beautiful canyon he’s discovered so far – suddenly he is no more.


The rover’s little eye-lights fade. Martian winds erase his tracks. Grown men wipe away tears before their wives can see them.
The credits roll.
Kids leave the cinema howling. Moms give out hugs left and right. Oscar nominations roll in. I retire to Arizona on the proceeds and begin carving strange topological forms into the desert floor.
Movie producers: you know where to find me.