Infrastructural Domesticity

Because “it takes too long to come down to ground level each day to make it worthwhile,” a crane operator on the Burj Dubai – the world’s tallest building – is rumored to have “been up there for over a year,” the Daily Telegraph reports.

His name is Babu Sassi, and he is “a fearless young man from Kerala” who has become “the cult hero of Dubai’s army of construction workers.” He also lives several thousand feet above the ground.

[Image: The Burj Dubai, via Wikipedia].

Whether or not this is even true – after all, I never think truth is the point in stories like this – 1) the idea of appropriating a construction crane as a new form of domestic space — a kind of parasitic sub-structure attached to the very thing it’s helped to construct — is amazing; 2) further, the idea that crane operators are subject to these sorts of urban rumors and speculations brings me back to the idea that there might be a burgeoning comparative literature of mega-construction sites taking shape today, with this particular case representing a strong subgenre: mythic construction worker stories, John Henry-esque figures who single-handedly assemble whole floors of Dubai skyscrapers at midnight, with a cigarette in one hand and a hammer in the other (or so the myths go), as a kind of oral history of the global construction trade; and, finally, 3) there should be some kind of TV show – or a book, or a magazine interview series – similar to Dirty Jobs in which you go around visiting people who live in absurd places – like construction cranes atop the Burj Dubai, or extremely distant lighthouses, or remote drawbridge operation rooms on the south Chinese coast, or the janitorial supply chambers of inner London high-rises – in order to capture what could be called the new infrastructural domesticity: people who go to sleep at night, and brush their teeth, and shave, and change clothes, and shower, inside jungle radar towers for the French foreign legion, or up above the train tracks of Grand Central Station because their shift starts at 3am and they have to stay close to the job.

How do they decorate these spaces, or personalize them, or make them into recognizable homes? It’s like a willful misreading of Heidegger as applied to the question of building, dwelling inside, and thinking about modern infrastructure.

I’m reminded of a line from Paul Beaty’s new novel, Slumberland. Early in the book he writes, and my jaw dropped: “Sometimes just making yourself at home is revolutionary.”

[Image: The Burj Dubai, via Wikipedia].

In fact, consider this an official book proposal – to Penguin, say: a quick, 210-page look at strange inhabitations, like that guy who lived inside a bridge in Chicago, only not some mindless catalog of quirky stories – like, ahem, that guy who lived inside a bridge in Chicago – but profiles of people with amazingly strange jobs who have to sleep in places no one else would even imagine calling home. Down beneath the streets of Moscow in a subway switching HQ in a little bunkbed. Out on the Distant Early Warning Line of the U.S. Arctic military – where it’s just you, a toothbrush, and the Lord of the Rings on DVD. You dream about forests.

Or perhaps there is a suite of individual employee bedrooms in some South Pacific FedEx re-routing warehouse, where long-haul pilots are required by labor law to sleep for ten hours between flights; they come through twice a year, leaving Robert Ludlum paperbacks behind for themselves to read later.

The micro-tactics of dwelling inside strange but temporary homes.

In any case, while I’m working on that, the rest of the Daily Telegraph article is worth a quick read.

(Spotted on Archinect).

39 thoughts on “Infrastructural Domesticity”

  1. I can definitely relate. I’ve lived in a small dorm room at McMurdo Station, Antarctica for 60 out of the last 84 months including 6 Austral Winters. I definitely dream of forests…and many other odd things!

    Tom Hamann
    McMurdo Station, Antarctica
    Visit my blog: bigblueglobe

  2. I remember hearing of a Dublin developer who bought swathes of the Docklands and had his office high in one of the defunct cranes on the wharf. He would climb up the ladder into the booth and he had his desk and phone and all tucked in there. Not sure if it is an exaggerated tale or the truth though

  3. Gabriel Duarte, an architect/professor in Brazil, writes about similar spaces of layering and crossovers. He calls them “infrascapes”. An interesting read on informal urban growth and appropriation.

  4. It reminds me of a quote attributed to R. Buckminster Fuller:

    “There is something patently insane about all the typewriters sleeping with all the beautiful plumbing in the beautiful office buildings — and all the people sleeping in the slums.”

  5. a friend of mine works by night as a janitor at a local arts performance space/bar. he has all night to do his work, and will often go in after the place closes, curl up on the floor behind the bar, and sleep for a while on the perforated restaurant mats… or stretched across four of the bar stools. it’s definitely a different degree of intimacy with the space, than the people who work there by day have…

  6. I haven’t been able to track down the details online, but not too long ago the authorities in Seattle were tipped off to a guy that had been living under one of the bridges (the 520 bridge, I think) for years — had constructed a well-appointed dwelling beneath the road deck.

  7. My father lives inside a wool storage shed during the week. He sets up a bed and uses wool to make it more comfortable. When the sun rises he puts his bed away and continues his job as a wool packer. He arrives home on Friday nights with smuggled pieces of wool in his hair. Over the course of sixteen years he has smuggled enough wool to make pair of gloves.

  8. It will be interesting to see how often the “sleeps in the crane” story pops up.

    I know that there was a building in lower Manhattan noted for having a mule powered elevator, back in the 1930s, and the mules lived upstairs in some kind stable when they weren’t running the elevators. Of course, the muleteer, or whatever they call the guy who dries the mule team for an elevator, went home at night.

  9. I used to sleep at the airport before early morning shifts years ago.

    Something that’s recently fascinated me is the world of long haul truckers. An entire trucker specific infrastructure has bubbled up along our highways. Last month driving late at night on the freeway between Toronto and Montreal we stopped at a closed truck stop and a friendly trucker used his key card to let us into the lounge, showers and toilets. And yes there were books there.

  10. not as unexpectedly unusual, but in my time as a tanker in the Army we learned to sleep in the turret. You’d be suprised at how many variations there are – my favorite was the bustle rack, on top of the duffle bags, sometimes nine feet off the ground.

  11. When I was an apprentice electrician, part of out job was to inspect air-con systems at the big mining complex where we worked. The Admin Building had two large tunnels about six foot square running under it to distibute cool air to the different wings from a central cooler. We found beds of rags, with dead torch batteries and porno mags fifteen years old down there, all tucked away in a little niche off the main tunnel!

  12. On a trip to China, we met construction workers who lived inside the buildings they erected with their entire family. The man would take the elevator up while the wife cooked dinner between styrofoam insulation blocks and piles of bricks, underlayment, etc. During breaks, the workers would come down to eat and take a nap – there always seemd to be someone lying around on chinese construction sites. Every so often, the family moved up a couple of storeys to shorten time spent on the elevator. And finally, when the building was finished they all packed up their stuff and headed of to the next building-to-be.
    I goes without saying that all the workers and their families are poor immigrants from the countryside who can’t afford a normal home in the city. It’s not just the case of an odd nut living in a crane: in reality there’s a whole community of people living in the buildings they help erect, temporarily settling in an unfinished space and moving on as work progresses, from floor to floor and from site to site.

  13. FInbarr, I saw a movie a few years ago with my wife about Afghan construction workers who lived illegally on Iranian construction sites – can’t recall the title right now, but it sounds similar to your story. That also reminds me of a man who was friends with the woman from whom I once rented a room in Berlin; he was a construction worker, and he kept all his stuff in one of those mobile/modular container houses stacked on a construction site – only to come home one day to find that the entire container was gone, with all his stuff still inside it. I think it all worked out in the end – but I can imagine it being a fairly stressful scenario!

    I love all these stories, though – thanks! I’m not entirely convinced that a book deal will come out of my post, of course – but if it does, you’ll be the first to know!

    Anyway, thanks again for the comments.

  14. Somewhat related to this: deep-sea divers repairing a New York water tunnel “who are living for more than a month in a sealed 24-foot tubular pressurized tank…breathing air that is 97.5 helium and 2.5 percent oxygen” (New York Times)

  15. Reminds me of an obsolete signal post over the east London railway tracks, which used to be inhabited, then when it was abandoned again, an architects’ group called OSA ( did yet another illegal intervention on it. The thing here is that this little office on stilts above the tracks was built like a dolls house and cried out for domesticity from day one. I’ve just learnt it had been demolished. No more room for the heimlich in the area…

  16. I saw a movie a few years ago with my wife about Afghan construction workers who lived illegally on Iranian construction sites – can’t recall the title right now

    Perhaps you’re thinking of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry? It had that segment with an Afghan refugee but it wasn’t a construction site but a cement-making site, and he’s there not illegally but to guard the place. He’s also a seminarian. There are some nice scenes of rocks getting dropped off, lifted and stacked, carted away, broken up, pulverized and flowing down like waterfalls. Geologic time in human scale.

    In any case, on PBS P.O.V. this summer was a documentary about Palestinian construction workers living illegally on Israeli construction sites (or at least around the hills overlooking the new city they are building): 9 Star Hotel.

  17. I think you would love Juan Carlos Rulfo’s documentary En El Hoyo (“In the Pit”), if you haven’t seen it already. It follows/romanticizes the lives of a construction crew in Mexico City, building the superhighway. And it has the sickest, longest aerial shot ever.

    Also, this guy ( washes the windows on Chicago’s Lake Point Tower, using a remote-controlled washer that moves around the propeller-shaped roof on a track. The washer stays in a small garage, where he’s also got a bed, TV, pin-ups, etc.

  18. well, at the end of the day, the family who operate the store next to my flat seem to be in there nearly all of the time – they even have meals in the shop area – the point is; it’s not that exciting to be inextricably tied to ones labour, even if it is x-hundred meters in the sky.

    also – maybe somebody can help me out here – what on earth is the ontology of construction cranes? last time i engaged in thought i was under the impression that one had to be subject to being before one could even begin to talk of having an ontology, but never mind…

    The comp-lit of construction sites is interesting though, especially considering that some buildings (i.e. Burj Dubai) spend many years as skeletons before being finished, hence creating world-wide imaginative expectations that will never be filled… the most interesting point, especially for those involved in the life of the building, is the stage when they are not yet finished…


  19. Sorry, I had to erase a comment because it was messing with the page margins. If possible, inserting URLs as hyperlinks is infinitely preferred! Until I fix the problem on my end.

    So: Choosenick said:

    Some fantastic shots of the Burj here. In particular this image, which turns your computer screen into a real window on the size of this beast:


  20. The guy comes down every night I bet. How do you go to the bathroom?

    Presumably he comes down from the crane itself sometimes, just never all the way to the bottom of the building is the point of the story.

  21. My favorite are the guys repairing NYC’s aqueducts coming out of the Catskills. They leak about 30 million gallons a day, yikes. The tunnels are a few hundred feet underground, thus highly pressurized. To make climitization less worrisome, they sleep in a 10 x 10 pressurized tank. Their shifts last for a few months, so this whole time they sleep in the tank at ground level, transfer to a diving bell, and then descend to do their work. What has me still laughing is that the mixture is 90 some percent helium–yes, they talk in high pitch squeals all the time. Nothing like some hard core deep sea divers plunging hundreds of feet into tunnels built in the 1920s transporting billions of gallons of water to one of the world’s great cities talking like chipmunks.

  22. “the idea of appropriating a construction crane as a new form of domestic space – a kind of [parasitic] sub-structure attached to the very thing it’s helped to construct . . .

    If it’s helping it’s not parasitic. Maybe catalytic or symbiotic.

  23. Having worked on a building site and been up to the crane drivers ‘room’, I’d say this story os perfectly real. Most construction sites start the day with a lift from the crane – if you have a workforce of thousands as this must do, probably starting at 6am, then the crane driver needs to be there at work ready and waiting by then. If he had to climb in the works elevator all the way up the tower each morning…

    no, its far more sensible to just live in a cubicle somewhere near the top. The crane driver normally would just pee in a bottle, try hard not to need to go for a crap during working hours, and the crane drivers i know in the west all have a good collection of porn to relieve the boredom. Might not be such a good idea in Dubai.

    But also, think of it this way: at the moment he lives every day as the top man in the tallest building in the world. He sees the most amazing views in the world. He is, in effect, God of all he surveys.

    The week after this job finishes, he goes back to being an ordinary earth-bound person, and probably never goes back into the building again.

    So wouldn’t you want to stay there as long as you could?

  24. Ask any soldier who has sat at a FOB(forward operating base) in the middle of the mountains of Afghanistan. The decorate with pictures from maxim and spend their evenings concocting new ways to play rummy and telling stories about some girl or some crazy night out. I can’t imagine that it is much diferent for any construction worker suspended several thousand feet up in the air. You have your work and your dreams and some cards on the side.

  25. I think a series on this subject would leave a lot of poeple homeless and looking for new living spaces when they are seen by the buerocrats and the self named upper class, they would not like to think that their slaves weren’t in their tenements “organised slums” at night, where they can more easily subjugate them!

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