[Image: A carved sandstone model of the incredible walled fortress-city of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, found where else but within the walled fortress-city of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan; photo by BLDGBLOG].
In his new book Oblique Drawing, architectural historian Massimo Scolari refers in a footnote to a story that I have to assume is familiar to many readers, but one that was new to me, connecting architectural models to acts of espionage.
“A significant example [of this connection] is reported by Vasari in the case of the siege of Florence of 1529,” Scolari explains.
During the night, Tribolo and an assistant secretly built an accurate relief model in cork, several meters wide, of the city and its fortifications. It was smuggled out of the besieged city in various pieces concealed inside bales of wool. This allowed the pope, aided by Baldassarre Peruzzi, to direct operations from a distance.
“Although the relief was made in the style of a pictorial view,” Scolari adds, “it was considered evidence of espionage.”
This cork model, meanwhile, conjures images from some as-yet-unwritten novel in which small, seemingly discontinuous models of a city are made in cork and then set floating down the river out of town; guards seeing the models float past simply assume some toymaker’s cart has overturned upstream or that a careless woodshop has tossed its inventory into the river.
But these models are acts of war, to be assembled into a complete model later, and the spatial details they reveal are the vulnerabilities of the city.
[Image: Model of Jaisalmer; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Elsewhere, Scolari refers to other connections between spatial representations of the city and the possible military implications of those representations, once they reach their intended audience. He describes, for instance, “painter-spies who depicted the enemy’s fortresses,” under the guise of a leisurely aesthetic pursuit, and even Goethe once being forced to watched powerlessly as “local authorities” in Malcesine, Italy, “tore up the drawing he had made for his own pleasure of an abandoned castle.” After all, they reasoned, it might have been a fortifications study, or what we might call structural espionage disguised as sketching.
Among many things here, what’s interesting about all this—aside from the dizzying variety of possibilities that arise when thinking about a kind of alternative history of the architectural model as a tool for heists, espionage, assassination, and urban warfare—is that this feared dual-use of architectural images is still alive and well today. We need look no further, for instance, than to often-illegitimate photography bans inside government buildings (or subways), or limits on cameras inside retail stores, or, in the case of my trip to India earlier this year from which the above photos come, a ban on taking photographs from a boat of the Mumbai harbor and even a nationwide ban on aerial photography that was only lifted back in 2004.
In all cases, images depicting architecture are seen not as representationally innocent parts of architectural history but, we might say, as warfare by other means. Indeed, one could easily imagine an entire wing of a spy museum somewhere consisting of nothing but declassified architectural models made with whatever raw materials were available at hand, assembled for no other purpose than to undercut the very spaces they aim to depict.
8 thoughts on “Model Warfare”
I remembered after posting this that I had discussed the idea of the architect-as-spy several years ago on Twitter, and I've thus managed to dig up that exchange, at least in part. Here, in all of Twitter's glorious broken half-communication, it is:
"Sir John Vanbrugh in 1718 was an architect and spy for William of Orange. http://tinyurl.com/ccdkvz" (RT @dacheah)
9:54 AM Mar 17th
"Barthelemy Lafon, architect and planner of the New Orleans Garden District, was also a pirate. Just as good IMO." (RT @outsideagency)
9:57 AM Mar 17th from twhirl
"Antonin Raymond (during WWI) and Bruno Zevi (worked for OSS during WW2)" (RT @enriqueramirez). Plus Lord Burlington was archi-spy.
9:59 AM Mar 17th
Continuing with the architect-as-spy meme: "lots of architectural skulduggery here http://tinyurl.com/cmkxwk" (RT @tragedyhatherle)
10:00 AM Mar 17th
.@tragedyhatherle also reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright's suspicions that Philip Johnson had been spying on him for the government.
10:02 AM Mar 17th
On architect-soldiers: "Jim Stirling was a Black Watch paratrooper. Learned to jump out of planes at Hardwick Hall." (RT @enriqueramirez)
10:03 AM Mar 17th
More architect-spies: "Schinkel and Muthesius, visiting industrial England in the service of Imperial Prussia/Germany." (RT @archispeak)
10:17 AM Mar 17th
A couple of Czech game developers are in prison in Greece currently, accused of espionage, for taking research photos for their game while they were on vacation.
Back in '86 I was visiting my dad in Lagos, Nigeria (when it was under a dictatorship). There was a beautiful metal sculpture on the side of the Nigerian Telephone and Telegraph headquarters, at least a story tall, maybe two, of an elongated person playing a drum between his legs.
I had my family stop on the side of the road and I got out to take a picture. A traffic cop came over to me and asked me if I had permission to take the picture. When I told him 'no', he asked me to come with him to the building, where I was soon in an argument with at least four security guards who accused me of being CIA and/or KGB, and if I didn't hand over the film, they'd take the camera, and if I didn't give them the camera, they'd toss me in jail.
I argued with them for a while. But gave them the film.
When I got back in the car, my mom, livid, said 'That would NEVER happen in the United States!!!'
I wish they'd put that beautiful statue on some building that wasn't the hub of communications for the entire country…
The UK's Official Secrets Act (1911) declares that
If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State […]
(b) makes any sketch, plan, model, or note which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy
… then they're a spy.
Sketch, plan, model, or note. I have visions of the Kaiser's secret agents making tiny papier-maché models of naval yards, railway junctions, and what have you, and clipping them to hapless pigeons to be ferried back to the Fatherland.
When Lord Baden-Powell was still a British spy in the Boer Wars (before he founded the Boy Scouts), he would often pose as an amateur-gentleman entomologist from the British Natural History Museum – disguising espionage sketches-from-estimates as precise drawings of insects. See his description (and illustrations) in My Adventures as a Spy: Part Two, from the section 'Concealing a Fort in a Moth's Head'
Please look up what recently happened to two developers from Czech game studio Bohemia Interactive when they were caught on a Greek island they were modeling for an upcoming game.
Geoff, do you know about the Musee des Plans-Reliefs in Paris. Lovely old military models of french fortified cities. Strange hybrids of medieval villages and bold geometric abstraction. Just put the name in google image search for a real treat.
I will also suggest another image search with the name of the Japanese artist Yutaka Sone who does detailed models carved in marble of cityscapes including the beloved 10/110 freeway exchange in downtown Los Angeles.
As always Thank you!