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.


Jeannie said...

The intentional use of architectural camouflage poses an interesting problem, particularly as a purposeful design strategy (as opposed to the familiar contamination of everyday life with design innovations first employed by the government for military operations) but your question about the responsible designer reminds me of Donald Albrecht’s great exhibition (and catalogue) at the Building Museum on World War II and the American Dream. In addition to being a fascinating history of the way that wartime production affected postwar American culture, it is also a reminder of the architects (Eames, Breuer, who actively participated in the war effort. Architecture (and design, by extension) is necessarily political, but does it matter where those politics fall? The client list of many prominent architecture firms (both those whose monographs we own and those we fear one day being employed by) suggests that it does not. I would check out the Albrecht book. In the exhibition, at least, there were some images of military facilities (like the Boeing plant in Seattle) covered with fake houses and trees to look like suburban subdivisions from the air. There are industry ‘giants’ like Decra (“Feel the Steel”) that had their humble beginnings precisely as part of this camouflage effort, and searching for their history just now on Google led me to a great image from the Farm Security Administration|Office of War Administration of students at NYU taking a camouflage class that I will email you shortly because I can't figure out how to embed it here. The course description apparently includes an assignment to: “make models from aerial photographs, re-photograph them, then work out a camouflage scheme and make a final photograph.” Given our current (and perpetual) state of war, there surely must be similar efforts afoot. It is, of course, also possible to be elegant and invisible .

Bill said...

Hmm, I should've caught up with the whole blog before posting! Well let me just reiterate what I posted for the previous entry:

I would argue against invisibiliy. Realizing that as architects we are required to serve the ideology in power, there are margins we can work within to raise questions. "Art makes the political landscape visible" is something Natalie Jeremijenco (sp?) once said at a lecture, and it resonated with me. I'd say architecture can also function this way.

After we live with the fortified WTC and other measures, perhaps more and more of us will start asking the important question, "Do we REALLY want to live this way?"

If it remains invisible, or glossed over by visual beauty, it remains insidious, unquestionable, and in my view, extremely dangerous when we consider how much of our political landscape is already hidden from view.

Also I'd like to recommend "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson to you, another great "fast-forward" into a possible future. Although it is now over ten years old, I think it is still relevant. It describes LA as devolving into almost feudal, gated communities, enclaves he calls "burbclaves".

Quick summary: The story takes place in the former United States during the early 21st century. In this hypothetical future reality, the United States Federal Government has ceded most of its power to private organizations. Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts, and private security guards preserve the peace in gated, sovereign housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads rather than the competitors', and all mail deliveries are done by hired couriers. The remnants of the government maintain authority only in isolated compounds, where it transacts business that is by and large irrelevant to the booming, dynamic society around it.
Much of the territory ceded by the government has been carved up into a huge number of sovereign enclaves, each run by its own big business franchise (such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong" or the various residential burbclaves (suburb enclaves)). This arrangement bears a similarity to anarcho-capitalism, a theme Stephenson carries over to his next novel The Diamond Age. Hyperinflation has devalued the dollar to the extent that trillion dollar bills, Ed Meeses, are little regarded and the quadrillion dollar note, a Gipper, is the standard 'small' bill. For physical transactions, people resort to alternative, non-hyperinflated currencies like yen or "Kongbucks" (the official currency of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong).

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john said...

Invisibility/Welcoming/Enticement/Spirit of Enjoyment

In the world of public space adjacent private space,I would argue for invisibility or visual enjoyment. I think the word camouflage is extreme. We are talking about boundaries set up to stop people stealing/vandalising/assaulting, for the vast majority of people these activities never cross their mind. They just want to walk down the street, sit near the sea, wait by the corner, look out to the marina or golf course, they know that some areas are private. Insidious fortressing in this rhelm is regrettable. The focus could better be making more of the footprint of the city 'actually' public - having street based malls for example, and dealing with the other deprivations of poverty and homelessness - such as welfare and education, as well as access to areas of the city.

john said...

Fortress versus Terribly Unsafe Space to start with.

I think anyone who has been bashed or worst in a dark isolated park, abandoned square or remote part of the beach, would know where the initiative for helicopter patrols began. The debate over fortressing may begin with the question why are so many parts of a sprawling city dark, abandoned and isolated. The obvious answer is that the freedom allowed by the automobile has inadvertently removed our freedom to walk around in the light, in company, and in town. The biggest fortress in a city is actually distance.