Assignment Baghdad

[Image: Screen-grab from a YouTube compilation of Desert Storm missile strikes].

In the summer of 2016, I heard an incredible story from a retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. It combined architectural history, international espionage, an alleged graduate research seminar in Washington D.C., and the first Gulf War. I was hooked.

According to this story, a graduate class at a school somewhere in D.C. had set out to collect as much architectural information as it could about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This meant, at one point, even flying to Europe on a group field trip to visit engineering firms that had done work for Saddam Hussein.

Given the atmosphere at the time, the students most likely thought that their class was an act of protest, a kind of anti-war gesture, meant to help record, document, and even preserve Iraqi architecture before it was destroyed by the U.S. invasion.

Ironically, though, unbeknownst to those students—possibly even to their professor—the seminar’s research was being used to help target U.S. smart bombs. Or, as I phrase this in a new article for The Daily Beast, “there was a reason U.S. forces could put a missile through a window in Baghdad: they knew exactly where the window was. Architecture students in Washington D.C. had unwittingly helped them target it.”

[Image: YouTube].

But then things got complicated.

When I called my source back a few weeks later to follow up, it felt like a scene from a spy film: he said he didn’t remember telling me this (!) before joking that he was getting old and maybe saying things he shouldn’t have. This obviously only made me more determined to find out more.

I called every major school in Washington D.C. I FOIA’d the CIA. I started down a series of rabbit holes that led me from true stories of Gulf War espionage, involving U.S. attempts to collect blueprints for Saddam’s bunkers from engineering firms all over Europe, to a conversation with the head of targeting for the entire U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.

Along the way, I also kept finding more and more examples of architects and espionage, from Baron Robert Baden-Powell’s incredible use of butterfly sketches to hide floor plans of enemy forts to a 16th-century Italian garden designer who was, most likely, a spy.

[Image: Robert Baden-Powell’s clever use of entomological sketches to hide enemy floorplans, from his essay “My Adventures as a Spy.” See also Mark David Kaufman’s interesting essay about Baden-Powell for the Public Domain Review].

Even Michelangelo gets involved, as his designs for urban fortifications outside Florence, Italy, were secretly modeled in cork and snuck out of the city by an architect named Niccolò di Raffaello dei Pericoli—or Tribolo—in order to help plan a more effective siege (an anecdote I have written about here before).

In any case, I was sitting on this story for the past two years, waiting for my FOIA request to come back from the CIA and trying to set up interviews with people who might have known, first-hand, what I was asking about. The resulting article, my attempt to track down whether such a class took place, is finally up over at The Daily Beast. If any of the above sounds interesting, please click through to check it out.

Finally, of course, if this rings any bells with you—if you took a class like this and, in retrospect, now have doubts about its real purpose—please be in touch.

Governor General of Fortifications

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

As part of some tangential research for an article of mine coming out this weekend, I found myself looking at Michelangelo’s incredible sketches for fortifications and defensive works designed for the city of Florence.

Michelangelo served as “Governor General of Fortifications” for this massive military project, undertaken in the late 1520s to protect the city from an eventual 11-month siege.

[Image: From Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, by Carmen C. Bambach].

While Michelangelo’s walls play only the most marginal role in the actual article I was writing, I was so taken by the images that I thought I’d post a few here. Graphically bold and interestingly layered with other sketches and drawings, they’re surprisingly beautiful.

Indeed, as the late Lebbeus Woods wrote, “For all their practical purpose, these drawings have uncommon aesthetic power.”

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

This wouldn’t be surprising. In a paper called “‘Dal disegno allo spazio’: Michelangelo’s Drawings for the Fortifications of Florence,” historian William E. Wallace points out that, “In the Renaissance, military engineering was an important aspect of the profession of being an artist.”

Designing defensive works to protect his own city from attack was thus a natural continuation of Michelangelo’s expertise, and his artistic sensibility only made the resulting designs that much more visually captivating.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

The vocabulary for these structures is also, in its own way, strangely mesmerizing.

As Wallace writes, for example, this is “a design for an extremely complex detached bastion, a triangular-shaped defensive work usually projecting from a rampart or curtain wall, but here situated in front of a rectangular city gate which is drawn toward the bottom center of the sheet. The fortification is actually composed of three separate outworks or lunettes, and two ravelins, the long narrow constructions placed in front of the defensive work in order to break up a frontal assault. The various parts of the fortification are linked by removable log or plank bridges, and the whole complex is surrounded by a ditch repeatedly labeled ‘fosso,’ the outer rim of which, the counterscarp, has a stellate outline echoing the pincerlike (tenaille) form of the fortification.”

Bastions, counterscarps, outworks, lunettes. Ramparts, ravelins, stellate outlines.

[Image: Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence].

In any case, you can see more over at Lebbeus Woods’s site, or in Carmen C. Bambach’s gorgeously produced exhibition catalog, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.

(Related: The City and its Citadels. Thanks to Allison Meier for helping obtain a copy of William E. Wallace’s paper.)

Waller

[Image: Otherwise unrelated photo of a wall in Malta; photo by the author].

It’s a slow morning, so perhaps the laziness of linking to Wikipedia can be excused… Immurement is “a form of imprisonment, usually for life, in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits.”

In folklore and myth, “immurement is prominent as a form of capital punishment, but its use as a type of human sacrifice to make buildings sturdy has many tales attached to it as well. Skeletal remains have been, from time to time, found behind walls and in hidden rooms and on several occasions have been asserted to be evidence of such sacrificial practices or of such a form of punishment.”

In terms of literature and film, an obvious example would be Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” but there was also an absolutely God-awful horror movie a few years ago called, yes, Walled In.

The examples given by Wikipedia include a Moroccan serial killer sentenced to death in 1906 by being walled alive—or immured—and whose screams, inside the walls, were audible for two days; immurement as a tactic for military revenge; and a horrific photo of a woman “immured” inside a wooden crate with only her arm and head visible, left to die outside in Mongolia.

Vaguely related to this, anchorites are self-isolated religious hermits, but ones who “take a vow of stability of place, opting instead for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches.” While not immurement in a technical sense, becoming an anchorite was nonetheless also a radical act of bodily enclosure, using architecture as an extreme kind of “stability of place,” a permanent habitation.

I suppose exile would be the opposite spatial condition, a state in which one is permanently disallowed from ever entering architecture, always locked outside. Walled out, as it were.

Sound House


[Image: Robert Fludd’s “Temple of Music,” via Public Domain Review].

The next generation of car audio might not require speakers at all, according to the New York Times, with interesting implications for architecture.

“Continental, a German auto-components supplier, has developed technology that makes parts of the car’s interior vibrate to create high-fidelity audio on a par with any premium sound system on the road now,” the newspaper reports. “The approach turns the rear window into a subwoofer. The windshield, floor, dashboard and seat frames produce the midrange. And the A-posts—the posts between the windshield and the doors—become your tweeters… The result is something like an enhanced version of surround sound.”

The architectural applications are pretty obvious—for example, transforming your home’s windows, pillars, floors, and even foundation walls into pieces of an inhabitable sonic ensemble. The results would be sound everywhere. “You can’t tell where it’s coming from,” a Continental engineer remarks.

Should the tech find a foothold in car design, its leap over into architecture will not be far behind: first up would no doubt be amusement parks, cinemas, and other venues where immersive sound without origin is a premium service, followed closely by luxury home construction and then, finally, the rest of us. The whole article, in fact, has descriptions of future car audio—noise-cancellation, cones of silence, and more—that should be of interest to architectural designers.

Journey of a Single Line

[Image: A1 (1930) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

I meant to write about these way back when they first appeared in the Paris Review, but alas. In any case, Wacław Szpakowski was a trained architect who dedicated an inordinate amount of his own free time to hand-drawing elaborate mazes and patterns using only a single line.

[Image: B9 (1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

“When he was eighty-five,” Sarah Cowan writes in a review of a show mounted by the Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York City, “Wacław Szpakowski wrote a treatise for a lifetime project that no one had known about. Titled ‘Rhythmical Lines,’ it describes a series of labyrinthine geometrical abstractions, each one produced from a single continuous line. He’d begun these drawings around 1900, when he was just seventeen—what started as sketches he then formalized, compiled, and made ever more intricate over the course of his life.”

[Image: F3 (1925) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

Szpakowski’s notebooks are, according to Cowan, “a twentieth-century version of Leonardo da Vinci’s, with enthusiastic scribblings next to observations of architecture and diagrams of natural phenomena, from ocean currents to fir-tree needles.”

[Image: C4 (1924) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

It’s hard to exaggerate how interesting these are from an architectural point of view: labyrinths of a single line, suggesting possibilities for infinite complexity along single paths of circulation. Room after room after room, laid out along a sufficiently complex corridor, becomes a building as large as a city.

[Image: F13 (1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

I’m reminded of a recent project by Andrew Kudless of Matsys called “The Walled City (10-Mile Version),” which also featured a single megastructure made from one continuous 10-mile wall.

[Image: “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

But the appeal of Szpakowski’s work would appear to extend well beyond the architectural. At times they resemble textiles, weaving diagrams, computer circuity, and even Arts & Crafts ornamentation, like 19th-century wallpapers designed for an era of retro-computational aesthetics.

[Images: (top to bottom) D4 (1925), D5 (1926), and D7 (1928) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

Woodworking templates, patent drawings for fluidic calculators, elaborate game boards—the list of associations goes on and on.

[Image: B10 (ca. 1930) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

For more, check out the write-up in the Paris Review,”>Paris Review and be sure to click through the various images over at the Miguel Abreu Gallery.

[Image: F1 (1925-1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

(Originally spotted via Paul Prudence. Also of interest: The Switching Labyrinth.)

Literary Architecture

[Image: Photo via ].

There are still a few days left to apply for a spot in Matteo Pericoli’s Laboratory of Literary Architecture, this time setting up shop in Prague from June 7-11.

“Architectural space is made of sequences, revelations, expectations and rhythm,” Pericoli explains, so “why not try to create a piece of architecture that explicitly embodies the structure of a literary text?” The program “is neither an architecture workshop nor a literature workshop,” he adds. “It is an exploration of the tight interconnection between narrative and space. We will use principles of architectural design to describe literary structures.”

Learn more about the LabLitArch website, where you can also see some of Pericoli’s own visual explorations of architectural narrative.

Wood from the Witch House

[Image: Via LASSCO].

This is amazing: shortly after writing an earlier post, I found this anecdote from an architectural salvage company in England called LASSCO. It’s like the beginning of a blockbuster film. A customer came in one weekend looking for “an oak beam for his fireplace lintel.” As LASSCO explains, the company tries to keep “a selection of them in stock—salvaged, prepped up and ready to sell. It was only when placing one of the beams aside we happened to put it down with daylight glancing along its length and we spotted that it held a secret. It was covered in apotropaic markings.”

Apotropaic markings, or protection marks, are basically magic symbols thought to ward off evil influences and keep malevolent fates at bay—and they are more common in traditional architectural practice than you might think. LASSCO even recommends checking your own house for them.

“If you live in a timber-framed house dating back earlier than the eighteenth century,” they advise, “look out for scratchings on the bressumer beam, sometimes only very lightly inscribed at the top corners of the fireplace, like the scratching of a cat. Look for a repeated ‘W’—thought to be a double ‘V’ for ‘Virgo Virginum’. Look for daisy wheels—a circular device with petals, or runic symbols—a ‘P’ incorporating a cross, or a ‘W’ incorporating a ‘P’. Look for two verticals with a ‘Saltire’ cross between them—a motif also much used on iron door latches and bolts and wrought iron firedogs.”

What an incredible setup for a horror film or novella: an architectural salvage firm uncovers strange ritual markings on pieces of timber in their inventory, and the macabre knock-on effects this might have as these bits of weird wood are incorporated into someone else’s home.

Alas, LASSCO’s tale is from 2013 and the oak beam has since been sold.

Cathedral Apprentice

[Image: Lincoln Cathedral, via Visit Lincoln].

This sounds incredible: England’s Lincoln Cathedral is looking for an Apprentice Stonemason.

This is a three-year post, including training leading to NVQ Level 3 in Stonemasonry. Working within a supportive team you will be mentored by qualified Cathedral masons and other heritage craft professionals. You will work within the workshop and out on site, and you will undertake block release training at college. Please note that, as the local colleges do not offer a stonemasonry course, this post will require you to live away from home for the periods of block release training. (We will pay all essential travel, accommodation and subsistence costs as well as all college fees.)

As a Cathedral apprentice you will learn the masonry conservation skills to care for one of the finest buildings in the world, and you will lay the foundation for a meaningful career in the built heritage sector. A strong passion for working within the heritage sector is an absolute must, as is some proven expertise in practical skills.

Applications are accepted until June 1st, so hop to it.

Color Veil

[Image: From Color Space by Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne].

For those of you near New York, stop by the Cooper Union before March 30th to see a small exhibition called Color Space, featuring the work of architect Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne.

[Images: From Color Space by Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne].

Color Space focuses “on working with new digital scanning techniques to draw space through the lens of color,” the accompanying text explains. “Relying on the camera as a simple perspective-machine, spatial coordinates and RGB values are combined to produce digital environments that connect color and space in a form of architectural pointillism.”

[Image: From Color Space by Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne].

The result are diaphanous islands of space, like partially transparent veils or loose skin peeled from a sunburn, ancient rooms afloat in the void.

[Images: From Color Space by Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne].

You can read much more context, including the project’s grounding in the difference between disegno and colore, over at Ultramoderne.

[Image: From Color Space by Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne].

For example, Vobis writes there, Giorgio Vasari once “characterized a fundamental split between drawing and color in artistic production, linking disegno to Apollonian rationalism and colore to Dionysian intuition and lack of control. Disegno has been taken up as the primary mode of architectural design ever since”—but color, reduced now merely to “a surface treatment,” Vobis adds, “deals directly with regions and gradients, fields and potential environments. By reconsidering colore in conjunction with disegno, fresh possibilities for architecture arise.”

[Image: From Color Space by Yasmin Vobis of Ultramoderne].

(Related: Previous BLDGBLOG coverage of ScanLAB Projects).

Stairway to Nowhere

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The Estonian Academy of Arts continues to produce interesting site-specific installations in the nation’s remote and often extraordinary landscapes, the most-recent example being an observation tower and staircase built amidst the sprawling Tuhu bog.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

According to the project’s accompanying text, “the design challenge was to provide a better view of the bog landscape and allow people to monitor the movement of moorland birds, raising observers above the landscape.”

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The site came with some obvious constraints: “How to design an observation tower that takes its delicate environment into account whilst adding a layer of contemporary spatial design?” the school asked.

“What kind of space would hikers and ornithologists appreciate? What are the restrictions when constructing something for a location that is flooded several times a year, where the temperature can change from +25C to -25C, easily, and which is a home to a number of protected species?”

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The piece does, admittedly, look much better in the snow, where it blends into the surrounding landscape and can even be difficult to distinguish against the quiet background; without snow, the structure looks a bit more ramshackle.

[Images: Drone photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the whole project is perhaps the overall educational context: the department of interior architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts has teamed with architects b210 and Estonian Forest Management Centre to teach “a special class on small-scale buildings… focused on nature infrastructure—resulting in a number of observation towers and shelters. The purpose of the educational process is to show how considerate spatial design can add to the beauty of natural landscapes through human-scale, site-specific structures, and to advance local spatial culture.”

If some enterprising multimillionaire or ambitious school administrator is reading this, please bring this sort of collaboration here to Southern California. Observation towers for the San Andreas Fault. Desert shelters for the canyons near Joshua Tree. Acoustic listening platforms for the coast near Point Mugu.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Forest Megaphone).

Rumored Chutes

For a piece published by The New Yorker back in October, writer Joshua Yaffa looked back at the history of his Moscow apartment complex, “a vast building across the river from the Kremlin, known as the House on the Embankment. In 1931, when tenants began to move in, it was the largest residential complex in Europe, a self-contained world the size of several city blocks.”

Among many other such stories and details, one stood out: the interior of the building, Yaffa learned, was allegedly used against the people who lived in it. He explains that, “throughout 1937 and 1938 the House of Government was a vortex of disappearances, arrests, and deaths. Arrest lists were prepared by the N.K.V.D., the Soviet secret police, which later became the K.G.B., and were approved by Stalin and his close associates. Arrests occurred in the middle of the night.”

However, it’s how the police were rumored to access individual apartments that caught my eye: “A story I have heard many times,” Yaffa continues, “but which seems apocryphal, is that N.K.V.D. agents would sometimes use the garbage chutes that ran like large tubes through many apartments, popping out inside a suspect’s home without having to knock on the door.”

This vision of vermicular control from within—of agents of the state sliding around within our walls and utility ducts like animals—is both unsettling and Kafkaesque, a nightmare and the setup for a surreal tragicomedy.

An undercover cop stuck in the walls between floors four and five for nearly three weeks is fed homemade soup by a young boy who takes pity on him, this unknown man caught in the fabric of the building and abandoned there by his superior officers out of embarrassment.

Gradually, the boy and this agent of the state strike up something like a friendship, sharing their hopes for the future, complaining about perceived limitations in life, confiding in one another about random things they’re both inspired to recall, and looking forward to future adventures—until, finally, one day after a shower leak raining down from a luxury apartment somewhere much further above, the man is able to slip free.

He slides into the boy’s room feet-first, covered in wood shavings and dust—where he promptly follows through on his initial mission and arrests the boy’s entire family.

Read Yaffa’s piece over at The New Yorker.