Monday, February 26, 2007

The Most Beautiful Security Camera

I’ve always been fascinated by the use of camouflage (see Hardy Blechman’s DPM Encyclopaedia sidebar). One question which comes to mind when combining thoughts on security and camouflage (and lets face it, they go hand in hand), architecturally speaking, is it more important to be beautiful or invisible? I ask because I wonder if there’s a responsibility in the hands of the architect to the general public for an honesty of space. That is to say, if one is honest about the intrusion into our private space, can we overcome this through pleasing aesthetic design?

Architectural Push-Overs?

This question is related to the previous post and in response to Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear. In it he describes the extent to which (in Los Angeles specifically) security consultants such as the police department have taken an increasing role in the design of our urban environment. This type of activity is also best seen in the suffocating revisions to the Freedom Tower in New York as mandated by the NYPD. My question is to what end? Is it not the architect’s role to have an understanding of all elements which contribute to the design and creation of the built world around us?

Expectations for Safety

Is it reasonable in this day in age, or any for that matter to expect to be 100% safe and protected by the built world around us? By this I include safety from building structural building failure which one might have a sensible expectation for, but then the question could be asked, should we not expect that damage through attack now be considered in design decisions? If so, where is the line drawn?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A larger discussion

For those just joining in, welcome to the discussion. In an effort to expand the conversation (or in this case start one) from the monologue I’ve got going so far I wanted to put up a post that will allow for your general thoughts about the position of architecture in relation to designing from fear and for safety. In addition to my posts on readings I’ll be posing sporadic questions fishing for your input. Currently this discussion (the blog) is based out of New York but this being a worldwide concern some International perspective is always appreciated.

I welcome your thoughts and insights into this topic.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Building made Me Do It

Is space capable of having a moral character, of being good or evil? Can architecture effect the actions of those who occupy it? Markus Miessen in his piece titled “The Statu(t)e of Liberty; Spatial Location as a Blueprint of Evil”, raises these questions as well.

What I find interesting is Miessen’s examination of the creation of isolated geographical locations to match the isolated political and ethical ground that was created by the United States government and used to ignore and violate basic human rights at places such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. “Camp X-Ray (at Guantanamo Bay) is an island, on an island, on an island” (p.46), this physically isolated spatial setting is used to strip prisoners of access to judicial framework, association to territory (they become placeless) and even the spectacle of punishment (as defined by Foucault). In addition to the effects of detachment from the exterior, the introverted effects of the space are also designed to deprive. Isolated prisoners cells are meant to cause chronic depression, suicide, interpersonal rejection and psychiatric disorder and trauma. Clearly the design of the built space plays a key role on the activity within it but Miessen asks us whether there should be an Architectural Geneva Convention to prevent this from happening. To this I would answer no. Here’s my reason, I think the architecture plays its part as an island of ethical lawlessness and as a psychological hammer because it is supplementary to the conscious will of those who wish to do this. While the architecture can be designed to do these things for these people, it cannot do it without them. What I mean to say is that if the normal laws of the Geneva Convention are followed, there would be no reason for an architectural version. Without human will, I don’t think the architecture can be given a moral character. This means it cannot be judged bad or good.

Miessen cites an experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo carried out in 1971 where he asked “what happens when you put ‘good’ people in a ‘evil space’?” To determine this he placed students in a prison in the roles of guards and prisoners. After six days they had to stop the experiment as the students in the roles of guards became sadistic and the prisoners began showing severe signs of depression. This might seem to be pretty damming evidence for the argument of evil architecture but I would counter this with one observation; when they were given their roles they were also given subliminal instruction on how o behave. They were told to be either guards or prisoners, both being terms loaded with behavioral meaning. Now had they been strictly given instructions on their duties the outcome might have been different.

When we discuss the role of architecture in relation to fear and safety it is impossible to separate it from the events that are associated to them and these events of actual or anticipated terror and tragedy are human (for the purpose of this study). Human interaction with the built environment around us is what ascribes significance, emotion and affect to an otherwise inanimate world. Human emotion is a fickle thing and as a result, meaning in architecture can also change. Because of this potential for a changing understanding of architecture, I feel that the built work itself therefore cannot hold meaning in its own autonomous way and therefore cannot be judged evil or good without the tinted lens of the human eye.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Pure War

We are at war. Well technically it’s actually true; we are at war right now. It’s a phrase that’s heard again and again to the point of insignificance. According to Paul Virilio, a man who knows more about the military apparatus than most men and women who are actually a part of it, we are at war, even when we’re not (when is that exactly?). We’re in a state of Pure War more specifically. Virilio points out that the foundations of the world around us are entwined in the fabric of war, or that is to say, they are the fabric of the war we exist in. He speaks about the cities we live in, the economy we participate in, the technology we use and love and the speed at which this is all happening.

It is Virilio’s obsession with speed with which I wish to start. He makes the case for the fear of the instantaneous, and that we will all be moving, passengers in transit, no longer citizens. His fear is that we are heading for a place where, well, all places will be in the same space as distance will be eroded by speed and time and as such the “city” is being dissolved. In all of this there is the need for a new “politics of speed”. I think that we have a “politics of speed” or at the very worst we have a “speedier politic”.

Virilio argues that democracy takes time and with the ever shrinking world this time has been erased. This is crucial to him because it is the time of democracy that will save us in the event of catastrophe. I think that with the contraction of “democratic time” or let’s say response time, we also have a quicker prevention time. Case in point: things happen quicker but we are also aware of things quicker and not only that, we’re aware of more things quicker. Now I think as an end game one will come out on the negative side of things as one is playing with the odds against them if they think they can see and therefore prevent everything, but I don’t think it’s as black and white as Virilio would lead us to believe.

These quicker reflexes we have are also an indication of what Laugerre would call the “informal” side of politics, that is the true decision making mechanism. On the front we see the “formal” face of government, which obeys its own set of public conventions, but behind the scenes there isn’t much that is democratic about it at all. This I think can also be tied back to speed. With respect to war, decisions are ultimately made by one person, our democracy of speed.

The government’s role is also linked to Virilio’s “War Economy”, in which, you and I and everyone else is a willing or unwilling part of. The logistics of a war economy got me thinking about the scale at which we fight out wars. Virilio connects the scale at which we fight to our ability of deterrence. He claims that the new era of deterrence favours a smaller scale war, “war without the actual declaration of war” (or as some would call it, terrorism). This I think is where we are having trouble protecting ourselves. I think that sometimes the protracted nature of the wars we now fight (multiple battles that drag on for years and don’t really have a definite beginning or end, sound familiar?) hides the smaller scale of these conflicts. The difficulty I will humbly propose is that we have as of yet adapted to the smaller scale that according to Virilio we actually prefer (I say we, I mean the military).

The small scale catastrophe happens on two levels. First, it is smaller in physical size (damage, casualties, etc...) although cumulatively that might not be so and secondly, it occurs in a smaller scale of time. While as mentioned above, we have reacted to the increase in speed of the oldschool “war” but not the new methodology of conflict, this new methodology of conflict also just so happens to fit nicely within the scale of our cities.

I wonder also what happens if say, we continue to adopt a reactionary stance to the problem and come up with a solution to the scale of the “new war” (which is remember, a war without war). My concern is that it’s a problem of spiralling diminution. War was once waged on the scale of entire cities, then it was city blocks, and then individual buildings. What’s the next scale? Are we prepared to be engaged on the scale of the individual?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Fortress LA

We have become obsessed with boundaries. Where one thing ends, where another begins, what is and isn’t included, who is in, who is out. What are boundaries? What defines a boundary? Is it the line that separates two things, the edge? How can an edge exist without the body, a space defined by that edge?

There are different types of edges, hard vs. soft for example. In the architectural battle against fear, the line has been drawn in the sand and it’s a hard line. In Mike Davis’ City of Quartz he touches on this line. He refers to it as the “architectural policing of social boundaries” p223. Davis makes reference to gated communities, panopticon shopping plazas, video surveillance, “armed response” security signs, and the general “hardening of the urban surface”. In this he makes a special case with the erosion of public space.

“…the quality of any urban environment can be measured by whether there are any convenient and comfortable places to sit.” p232. As reactions to perceived and actual increases in crime and general danger Davis points out the destruction of public space. “To reduce contact with untouchables, urban redevelopment has converted once vital pedestrian streets into traffic sewers into traffic sewers and transformed public parks into temporary receptacles for the homeless and the retched.” p226. Through a turning inside out, these spaces have become marginalized. In the specific case of Los Angeles, a Cold War has been declared on the public domain. It has been subjected to unending scrutiny through an electronic lens, segregated and walled off, and devalued through separatist urban planning.

The value of public space as a social condenser, as a social safety valve, as envisioned by Frederick Law Olmstead creates safety through the exact opposite mode that current fortified strategies do. Through creating a space of mixed use, mixed people perhaps even a mixed or blurred boundary, a place is created where security and safety is created by the presence of people, not their absence. In the creation of “public” spaces, that is, spaces that belong to no one and yet everyone, adjacent boundaries are able to bleed into these spaces and erode the hard line that otherwise separates them, one begins to create an interweaving of the community spatial fabric.

What happens when the edge is blurred outside the public space? Davis points out the location of a jail within a commercial neighborhood as an example; “One solution to the conflict between the carceral and commercial redevelopment is to use architectural camouflage to finesse jail space into the skyscape. If buildings and homes are becoming more prison- or fortess-like in exterior appearance, then prisons ironically are becoming architecturally naturalized as aesthetic objects.” p256.

I’m interested in this term “architectural camouflage”. In a previous post, a question about the “good design” of security measures asked whether it was more important to be beautiful or invisible. If the answer is that it's better to beautiful then that’s something I think is easily within reach and might spark aesthetic and formal debate. If the answer is that it is better to be invisible, then I think the debate might burn a little more strongly. I question the ethical implications for a responsible designer who is creating camouflaged work. Who are they responsible to? If the answer is the general public then it still remains foggy. Who is the general public or at least, what side of the general population do you side with? The ones who wish to know what is happening to them, or the ones that wish to live their lives in peace and safety at the cost of ignorance? Where is the line drawn? Again it seems it becomes a question of boundaries.