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 Electromagnetic Fortification of the Suburbs

[Image: A drone from DJI].

It’s hardly surprising to read that drones can be repurposed as burglars’ tools; at this point, take any activity, add a drone, and you, too, can have a news story (or Kickstarter) dedicated to the result.

“Why not send an inexpensive drone, snoop in your windows, see if you have any pets, see if you have any expensive electronics, maybe find out if you have any jewelry hanging around,” a security expert wonders aloud to Hawaii’s KITV, describing what he sees as the future of burglary. Burglars “can do all that with a drone without ever stepping a foot on your property line.”

“So what’s a homeowner to do?” the TV station asks.

They suggest following the drone back to its owner, who, due both to battery life and signal range, will be nearby; or even installing “new expensive high-tech drone detection systems that claim to detect the sounds of a drone’s propellers.” This is absurd—suggesting that some sort of drone alarm will go off at 3am, driving you out of bed—but it’s such a perfectly surreal vision of the suburbs of tomorrow.

Fortifying our homes against drone incursion will be the next bull market in security: whole subdivisions designed to thwart drone flights, marketed to potential homeowners specifically for that very reason.

You go home for the weekend to visit your parents where, rather than being enlisted to mow the lawn or clean the gutters, you’re sent you out on drone duty, installing perimeter defenses or some sort of jamming blanket, an electromagnetically-active geotextile disguised beneath the mulch. Complex nets and spiderweb-like antennas go on sale at Home Depot, perfect for snaring drone rotors and leading to an explosion in suburban bird deaths.

[Image: A drone from DJI].

This news comes simultaneously with a story in Forbes, where we read that drone manufacturer DJI is implementing a GPS block on its products: they will no longer be able to fly within 15.5 miles of the White House.

The company is issuing “a mandatory firmware update to all Phantom drones that will restrict flight within a 15.5 mile radius centered around downtown Washington D.C. Pilots looking to operate their Phantom drone will not be able to take off or fly within the no-fly-zone.”

Based off a drone’s GPS coordinates, the technology to geo-fence drones from entering a particular airspace, especially around major airports, has been around in Phantoms since early last year. The new update will add more airports to its no-fly-zone database as the 709 no-fly-zones already in the Phantom’s flight controller software will expand to more than 10,000, with additional restrictions added to prevent flight across national borders.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that firmware updates and geography now work together to disable entire classes of products within a given zone or GPS range. Put another way, drones today—but what tomorrow?

Geofencing or “locationized” firearms have already been discussed as a possible future form of gun control, for example, and it would not be at all surprising to see “locationized” smartphones or geofenced cameras becoming a thing in the next few years.

All a government (or criminal syndicate) would have to do is release a (malicious) firmware update, temporarily shutting down certain types of electronics within range of, say, a presidential inauguration (or a bank heist).

[Image: A drone from DJI].

More to the point of this post, however, GPS-based geofencing will also become part of the electromagnetic armature of future residential developments, a new, invisible layer of security for those who are willing to pay for it.

Think, for example, of the extraordinary geographic dazzle effects used by government buildings to camouflage their real-world locations: as Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote for The Washington Post back in 2012, “most people don’t realize when they’re nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade’s, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.”

If half the point of living in the suburbs is to obtain a certain level of privacy, personal safety, and peace of mind, then it is hardly science fiction to suggest that the electromagnetic fortification of suburbia is on the immediate horizon.

You won’t just turn on a burglar alarm with your handy smartphone app; you’ll also switch on signal-jamming networks hidden in the trees or a location-scrambling geofence camouflaged as a garden gnome at the edge of your well-mown lawn. Drones, dazzled by invisible waves of unpredictable geographic information, will perform U-turns or sudden dives, even racing off to a pre-ordained security cage where they can be pulled from the air and disabled.

The truly high-end residential developments of tomorrow will be electromagnetically fortified, impervious to drones, and, unless you’ve been invited there, impossible for your cars and cellphones even to find.

Nakatomi Space

[Image: From Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe].

While watching Die Hard the other night—easily one of the best architectural films of the past 25 years—I kept thinking about an essay called “Lethal Theory” by Eyal Weizman—itself one of the best and most consequential architectural texts of the past decade (download the complete PDF).

In it, Weizman—an Israeli architect and prominent critic of that nation’s territorial policy—documents many of the emerging spatial techniques used by the Israeli Defense Forces in their high-tech, legally dubious 2002 invasion of Nablus. During that battle, Weizman writes, “soldiers moved within the city across hundred-meter-long ‘overground-tunnels’ carved through a dense and contiguous urban fabric.” Their movements were thus almost entirely camouflaged, with troop movements hidden from above by virtue of always remaining inside buildings. “Although several thousand soldiers and several hundred Palestinian guerrilla fighters were maneuvering simultaneously in the city,” Weizman adds, “they were so ‘saturated’ within its fabric that very few would have been visible from an aerial perspective at any given moment.”

Worthy of particular emphasis is Weizman’s reference to a technique called “walking through walls”:

Furthermore, soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells, and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors.

Weizman goes on to interview a commander of the Israeli Paratrooper Brigade. The commander describes his forces as acting “like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. We were thus moving from the interior of homes to their exterior in a surprising manner and in places we were not expected, arriving from behind and hitting the enemy that awaited us behind a corner.”

This is how the troops could “adjust the relevant urban space to our needs,” he explains, and not the other way around.

Indeed, the commander thus exhorted his troops as follows: “There is no other way of moving! If until now you were used to moving along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!”

[Image: Israeli troops scan walls in a refugee camp; photo by Nir Kafri (2003), from Eyal Weizman’s essay “Lethal Theory”].

Weizman illustrates the other side of this terrifyingly dislocating experience by quoting an article originally published during the 2002 invasion. Here, a Palestinian woman, whose home was raided, recounts her witnessing of this technique:

Imagine it—you’re sitting in your living room, which you know so well; this is the room where the family watches television together after the evening meal. . . . And, suddenly, that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the other, screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else. The children are screaming, panicking. . . . Is it possible to even begin to imagine the horror experienced by a five-year-old child as four, six, eight, twelve soldiers, their faces painted black, submachine guns pointed everywhere, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look like giant alien bugs, blast their way through that wall?

In fact, I’m reminded of a scene toward the end of the recent WWII film Days of Glory in which we see a German soldier blasting his way horizontally through a house, wall by wall, using his bazooka as a blunt instrument of architectural reorganization—”adjusting the relevant space to his needs,” we might say—and chasing down the French troops without limiting himself to doors or stairways.

In any case, post-battle surveys later revealed that “more than half of the buildings in the old city center of Nablus had routes forced through them, resulting in anywhere from one to eight openings in their walls, floors, or ceilings, which created several haphazard crossroutes”—a heavily armed improvisational navigation of the city.

So why do I mention all this in the context of Die Hard? The majority of that film’s interest, I’d suggest, comes precisely through its depiction of architectural space: John McClane, a New York cop on his Christmas vacation, moves through a Los Angeles high-rise in basically every conceivable way but passing through its doors and hallways.

[Images: From Die Hard].

McClane explores the tower—called Nakatomi Plaza—via elevator shafts and air ducts, crashing through windows from the outside-in and shooting open the locks of rooftop doorways. If there is not a corridor, he makes one; if there is not an opening, there will be soon.

[Images: From Die Hard].

Over the course of the film, McClane blows up whole sections of the building; he stops elevators between floors; and he otherwise explores the internal spaces of Nakatomi Plaza in acts of virtuoso navigation that were neither imagined nor physically planned for by the architects.

His is an infrastructure of nearly uninhibited movement within the material structure of the building.

The film could perhaps have been subtitled “lessons in the inappropriate use of architecture,” were that not deliberately pretentious. But even the SWAT team members who unsuccessfully raid the structure come at it along indirect routes, marching through the landscaped rose garden on the building’s perimeter, and the terrorists who seize control of Nakatomi Plaza in the first place do so after arriving through the service entrance of an underground car park.

[Images: From Die Hard].

What I find so interesting about Die Hard—in addition to unironically enjoying the film—is that it cinematically depicts what it means to bend space to your own particular navigational needs. This mutational exploration of architecture even supplies the building’s narrative premise: the terrorists are there for no other reason than to drill through and rob the Nakatomi Corporation’s electromagnetically sealed vault.

Die Hard asks naive but powerful questions: If you have to get from A to B—that is, from the 31st floor to the lobby, or from the 26th floor to the roof—why not blast, carve, shoot, lockpick, and climb your way there, hitchhiking rides atop elevator cars and meandering through the labyrinthine, previously unexposed back-corridors of the built environment?

Why not personally infest the spaces around you?

[Images: From Die Hard].

I might even suggest that what would have made Die Hard 2 an interesting sequel—sadly, the series is unremarkable for the fact that each film is substantially worse than the one before—would have been if Die Hard‘s spatial premise had been repeated on a much larger urban scale.

For example, Weizman outlines what the Israeli Defense Forces call “hot pursuit”—that is, to “break into Palestinian controlled areas, enter neighborhoods and homes in search of suspects, and take suspects into custody for purposes of interrogation and detention.” This becomes a spatially extraordinary proposition when you consider that someone could be kidnapped from the 4th floor of a building by troops who have blasted through the walls and ceilings, coming down into that space from the 5th floor of a neighboring complex—and that the abductors might only have made it that far in the first place after moving through the walls of other structures nearby, blasting upward through underground infrastructure, leaping terrace-to-terrace between buildings, and more.

An alternative-history plot for a much better Die Hard 2 could thus perhaps include a scene in which the rescuing squad of John McClane-led police officers does not even know what building they are in, a suitably bewildering encapsulation of this method of moving undetected through the city.

“Walking through walls” thus becomes a kind of militarized parkour.

[Image: Inside Nakatomi space, from Die Hard].

Indeed, recent films like The Bourne Ultimatum, Casino Royale, District 13, and many others could be viewed precisely as the urban-scale realization of Die Hard‘s architectural scenario. Even The Bank Job—indeed, any bank heist film at all involving tunnels—makes this Weizmanian approach to city space quite explicit.

[Image: From Die Hard; it’s hard to see here, but an LAPD SWAT team is raiding the Nakatomi Building by way of lateral movements across the surrounding landscape].

Tangentially, I’m reminded of Matt Jones’s thought-provoking 2008 blog post about the urban differences between the Jason Bourne and James Bond film franchises. Jones writes that “there’s no travel in the new Bond”; there are simply “establishing shots of exotic destinations.” By the end of a Bond film, he adds, you simply “feel like you are in the international late-capitalist nonplace,” a geography with neither landmarks nor personal memory.

Compare the paradoxically unmoving, amnesiac geography of James Bond, then, to the compressed spaces of Paul Greengrass-directed Jason Bourne films. These films are “set in Schengen,” Jones writes, “a connected, border-less Mitteleurope that can be hacked and accessed and traversed—not without effort, but with determination, stolen vehicles and the right train timetables.” Indeed, Jones memorably suggests, “Bourne wraps cities, autobahns, ferries and train terminuses around him as the ultimate body-armor.”

Rather than Bond’s private infrastructure [of] expensive cars and toys, Bourne uses public infrastructure as a superpower. A battered watch and an accurate U-Bahn time-table are all he needs for a perfectly-timed, death-defying evasion of the authorities.

The space of the city is used in profoundly different ways by Bond and Bourne—but to this duality I would add John McClane of the original Die Hard.

If Jason Bourne’s actions make visible the infrastructure-rich, borderless world of the EU, then John McClane shows us a new type of architectural space altogether—one that we might call, channeling topology, Nakatomi space, wherein buildings reveal near-infinite interiors, capable of being traversed through all manner of non-architectural means. In all three cases, though—with Bond, Bourne, and McClane—it is Hollywood action films that reveal to us something very important about how cities can be known, used, and navigated: these films are filled with the improvisational crossroutes that constitute Eyal Weizman’s “Lethal Theory.”

As I wrote the other day, crime is a way to use the city.

[Image: From Die Hard].

On the other hand, as Weizman points out, this is not a new approach to built space at all:

In fact, although celebrated now as radically new, many of the procedures and processes described above have been part and parcel of urban operations throughout history. The defenders of the Paris Commune, much like those of the Kasbah of Algiers, Hue, Beirut, Jenin, and Nablus, navigated the city in small, loosely coordinated groups moving through openings and connections between homes, basements, and courtyards using alternative routes, secret passageways, and trapdoors.

This is all just part of “a ghostlike military fantasy world of boundless fluidity, in which the space of the city becomes as navigable as an ocean.”

[Image: From Die Hard].

Treated as an architectural premise, Die Hard becomes an exhilarating catalog of unorthodox movements through space. I would suggest again, then, that where the various Die Hard sequels went wrong was in abandoning this spatial investigation—one that could very easily have been scaled-up to encompass a city—and following, instead, the life of one character: John McClane. But, when taken out of Nakatomi Plaza—that is, out of the boundless, oceanic fluidity of Nakatomi space—McClane is reduced to an action film cliché whose failing charisma no amount of wise-cracking can salvage.

(I remembered while writing this post that I actually discussed Die Hard on National Public Radio last year; you can listen to that show here).

Crime is a way to use the city

[Image: Published in the New York Tribune, September 11, 1910].

Someday I’d like to write a book about the architectural side of burglary—bank heists, home invasions, jewelry thefts, wall-scaling girl gangs of the Global South, trans-metropolitan tunnels dug vault-to-vault through crypts by men with names like Terry Leather, smoke & mirrors, props and decoys, CCTV control rooms, lock-pickers’ guides, hourly updated routes of gold trucks leaving Manhattan, deterritorialized histories of the getaway car, impersonations and forgeries, spatial camouflage, criminal blueprints and future dream-technologies of the ultimate break-in—all in the name of looking at buildings, and the city itself, as puzzles, spatial systems you try very hard to get into. The well-guarded entrance and its multiple delays. Kafka meets HSBC.

Perhaps an Architectural Guide to the Ultimate Bank Heist—a 108-page pamphlet of speculative break-ins—or Pamphlet Architecture #31, in which incomprehensible robberies are outlined, complete with floorplans and renderings, or even next year’s best-selling stocking stuffer, a quasi-sequel to 15 Lombard Street, the BLDGBLOG Field Guide to Robbery. Illustrated by eBoy.

Until then, I’ll just post images like this one, above, originally published in the New York Tribune on September 11, 1910, in which gangs of silent-airplane enthusiasts raid the metropolis from above. They coast down onto moonlit roofs while unsuspecting homeowners sleep soundly in the comfort of darkness.

15 Lombard Street

[Image: The cover and a spread from 15 Lombard St. by Janice Kerbel].

15 Lombard St. is a book by artist Janice Kerbel, published back in 2000. It presents itself as “a rigorously researched masterplan of how to rob a particular bank in the City of London.”

By observing the daily routine in and around the bank, Kerbel reveals the most detailed security measures such as: the exact route and time of money transportation; the location of CCTV cameras in and around the bank along with precise floor plans that mark the building’s blind spots.
Kerbel’s meticulous plans include every possible detail required to commit the perfect crime.

The book was pointed out to me by Sans façon in relation to an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG about the city re-seen as a labyrinth of possible robberies and heists that have yet to be committed – a geography of tunnels yet to be dug and vaults yet to be emptied.

But is there a literary genre of the crime plan? An attack or robbery outlined in its every detail. Is this fiction, or some new form of illicit literature, detailing speculative and unrealized crimes hidden in the city around us? Is robbing a building just another type of architectural analysis? Or does one put such a thing into the category of counter-geography – a minor cartography, a rogue map? Or perhaps radical cartography, as the saying now goes? Would there be an impulse toward censorship here?

There’s a fascinating series of interviews waiting to be done here with people who work in building security – how a building is deliberately built to anticipate later actions. Or, should we say: how a building is built to contain the impulse toward certain, more radical uses.

When the burglars get to this door, they’ll become frustrated and will try to break through the nearby window, instead – so we must reinforce this window and put a camera nearby.

The building has within it certain very specific possible crimes, the way this house contained a “puzzle.” I’m reminded of the famous Bernard Tschumi line, and I’m paraphrasing: Sometimes to fully appreciate a work of architecture you have to commit a crime.

Architectural space becomes something like an anticipatory narrative – the exact size and shape of a future heist, nullified. It outlines future crimes the way a highway outlines routes.

(Thanks again to Sans façon for the tip!)

The Atlas of All Possible Bank Robberies

[Image: From The Bank Job].

It occurred to me that you could make a map—a whole book of maps—detailing all possible routes of bank robbery within the underground foundations of a city. What basements to tunnel through, what walls to be hammered down: you make a labyrinth of well-placed incisions and the city is yours. Perforated from below by robbers, it rips to pieces. The city is a maze of unrealized break-ins.

A whole new literary genre could result. Booker Prizes are awarded. You describe, in extraordinary detail, down to timetables and distances, down to personnel and the equipment they would use, how all the banks in your city might someday be robbed. Every issue of The New Yorker, for instance, includes a short, 600-word essay about breaking into a different bank somewhere in Manhattan, one by one, in every neighborhood. Ideas, plans, possibilities. Scenarios. Time Out London does the same.

It soon becomes a topic of regular conversation at dinner parties; parents lull their kids to sleep describing imaginary bank robberies, tales of theft and architectural transgression. Buildings are something to be broken into, the parents whisper. It’s what buildings have inside that’s your goal.