A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

The Soft Spot

geoborder[Image: Close-up of the 2010 State Geologic Map of California].

An interesting story published last month in the L.A. Times explored the so-called “sweet spot” for digging tunnels along the California/Mexico border.

“Go too far west,” reporter Jason Song explained, “and the ground will be sandy and potentially soggy from the water of the Pacific Ocean. That could lead to flooding, which wouldn’t be good for the drug business. Too far east and you’ll hit a dead end of hard mountain rock.”

However, Song continues, “in a strip of land that runs between roughly the Tijuana airport and the Otay Mesa neighborhood in San Diego, there’s a sweet spot of sandstone and volcanic ash that isn’t as damp as the oceanic earth and not as unyielding as stone.”

More accurately speaking, then, it is less a sweet spot than it is a soft one, a location of potential porosity where two nations await subterranean connection. It is all a question of geology, in other words—or the drug tunnel as landscape design operation.

border[Image: Nogales/Nogales, via Google Maps].

With the very obvious caveat that this next article is set along the Arizona/Mexico border, and not in the San Diego neighborhood of Otay Mesa, it is nonetheless worth drawing attention back to an interesting article by Adam Higginbotham, written in 2012 for Bloomberg, called “The Narco Tunnels of Nogales.”

There, Higginbotham describes a world of abandoned hotel rooms in Mexico linked, by tunnel, to parking spots in the United States; of streets subsiding into otherwise unknown narco-excavations running beneath; and of an entire apartment building on the U.S. side of the border whose strategic value is only revealed later once drug tunnels begin to converge in the ground beneath it.

Here, too, though, Higginbotham also refers to “a peculiar alignment of geography and geology,” noting that the ground conditions themselves are particularly amenable to the production of cross-border subterranea.

However, the article also suggests that “the shared infrastructure of a city”—that is, Nogales, Arizona, and its international counterpart, Nogales, Mexico—already, in a sense, implies this sort of otherwise illicit connectivity. It is literally built into the fabric of each metropolis:

When the monsoons begin each summer, the rain that falls on Mexico is funneled downhill, gathering speed and force as it reaches the U.S. In the 1930s, in an attempt to control the torrent of water, U.S. engineers converted the natural arroyos in Nogales into a pair of culverts that now lie beneath two of the city’s main downtown streets, Morley Avenue and Grand Avenue. Beginning in Mexico, and running beneath the border before emerging a mile into the U.S., the huge tunnels—large enough to drive a car through—created an underground link between the two cities, and access to a network of subterranean passages beneath both that has never been fully mapped.

This rhizomatic tangle of pipes, tubes, and tunnels—only some of which are official parts of the region’s hydrological infrastructure—results in surreal events of opportunistic spelunking whereby “kids would materialize suddenly from the drainage grates,” or “you would see a sewer plate come up in the middle of the street, and five people would come up and run.”

Briefly, I’m reminded of a great anecdote from Jon Calame’s and Esther Charlesworth’s book Divided Cities, where the split metropolis of Nicosia, Cyprus, is revealed to be connected from below, served by a shared sewage plant “where all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated.” The authors interview the a local waste manager, who jokes that “the city is divided above ground but unified below.”

In any case, the full article is worth a read, but a tactical geological map revealing sites of likely future tunneling would be a genuinely fascinating artifact to see. I have to assume that ICE or Homeland Securitylet alone the cartels—already have such a thing.

(L.A. Times article originally spotted via Nate Berg).

Machine Quarantines and “Persistent Drones”

scout[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a “Scout” UAV, via Wikipedia].

There’s an interesting short piece by Jacob Hambling in a recent issue of New Scientist about the use of “persistent drones” to “hold territory in war zones,” effectively sealing those regions off from incursion. It is an ominous vision of what we might call automated quarantine, or a cordon it’s nearly impossible to trespass, maintained by self-charging machines.

Pointing out the limitations of traditional air power and the tactical, as well as political, difficulties in getting “boots on the ground” in conflict zones, Hambling suggests that military powers might turn to the use of “persistent drones” that “could sit on buildings or trees and keep watch indefinitely.” Doing so “expands the potential for intervention without foot soldiers,” he adds, “but it may lessen the inhibitions that can stop military action.”

Indeed, it’s relatively easy to imagine a near-future scenario in which a sovereign or sub-sovereign power—a networked insurgent force—could attempt to claim territory using Hambling’s “persistent drones,” as if playing Go with fully armed, semi-autonomous machines. They rid the land of its human inhabitants—then watch and wait.

Whole neighborhoods of cities, disputed terrains on the borders of existing nations, National Wildlife Refuges—almost as an afterthought, in a kind of political terraforming, you could simply send in a cloud of machine-sentinels to clear and hold ground until the day, assuming it ever comes, that your actual human forces can arrive.

NATO’s Underground Roman Super-Quarry

[Image: An entrance to the quarry in Kanne; photo by Nick Catford via Subterranean Britannica].

There is an underground Roman-era quarry in The Netherlands that, when you exit, you will find that you have crossed an invisible international border somewhere down there in the darkness, and that you are now stepping out into Belgium; or perhaps it’s the other way around, that there is an underground Roman-era quarry in Belgium that, when you exit, you will find that you have crossed an invisible international border somewhere down there in the darkness, and that you are now stepping out into The Netherlands.

However, this is not just a disused quarry—not just an archaeological site on the fringes of the Roman empire that was once mined for blocks of limestone. Its afterlife is by far the most interesting part of the story.

For nearly a century, beginning in the 1800s, these underground hollows were used by Jesuit monks as a secluded place for prayer, study, and meditation, and even for the carving of elaborate and impressive forms into the soft rock walls; then the Nazis took over, transforming this weird underworld into a subterranean factory for World War II airplane parts; then, finally, pushing the stakes yet higher, the whole complex of former Roman limestone mines, straddling an international border underground between two modern European nations, was turned into a doomsday bunker for NATO, a dark and mold-prone labyrinth within which military commanders constructed a Joint Operations Center for responding to the end of the world (whenever the time finally came).

[Images: Monks underground; via De Limburgse Mergelgrotten].

“There was even a 3-hole golf course complete with artificial turf,” Subterranean Britannica reports in a recent issue of their excellent magazine, Subterranea.

“The complex was on average 50 meters below ground covering an area of approximately 6750 acres with eight miles of corridors, 400 branches and 399 individual offices,” SubBrit explains. There were escape tunnels, as well, “one going out to the banks of the Albert Canal in Belgium, and one which came out in a farmer’s potato store in the village of Kanne.” It had its own water supply and even a dedicated wine cellar for NATO officers, who might need a glass of Europe’s finest chardonnay to help feel calm enough to launch those missiles.

Just look at this thing’s mind-boggling floor plan.

The “streets” were named, but not always easy to follow; however, this didn’t stop officers stationed there from occasionally going out to explore the older tunnels at night. A former employee named Bob Hankinson describes how he used to navigate:

Most corners were roughly 90 degrees, but only roughly. Going through the caves was an exercise in left and right turns every 50 feet or so. Navigation was helped by street names. Unlike in the USA, where streets are numbered on a sort of grid pattern, these were zigzag streets. My office on Main Street and J Street, so if I got lost I would just keep walking until I came to either Main or J, and join it. If I went the wrong way, eventually the street would peter out either at the perimeter or a T-junction, and you would just turn round and go back the other way.

As another former employee—a man named Alan Francis—explains, “If I did have spare time, I would wander through the dark tunnels where there were very few lights on at night, thinking how strange it was to be working in a Roman stone quarry.”

Writing in Subterranea, SubBrit explains that “nothing ever came out.” This was “a strict rule: apart from people, anything that went in never came out. All waste material ranging from redundant furniture to foot waste was dumped in one of the sixteen underground landfill sites” designated within this sprawling whorl of rooms and passages. Shredded documents were even mixed with water and applied directly to the walls as a kind of fibrous paste, used for insulation.

Such was the secrecy surrounding this place that it was officially classified as “a ‘forbidden place’ under the Protection of State Secrets Act which forbade people to even talk about it.”

One reason why the underground galleries are so vast, meanwhile, is apparently because of the character of the limestone they were carved through; in fact, “the limestone was so soft that the workers used a chainsaw to cut it.”

The notion that I could just cut myself a whole new room with a chainsaw—just revving this thing up and carving an entire new hallway or corridor, pushing relentlessly forward into what looks like solid earth, possibly even sawing my way into the roots of another country—is so awesome an architectural condition that I would move there tomorrow if I could.

Just imagine building this titanic doorway into the earth with a small group of friends, a case of beer, and a few chainsaws. It’s like Cappadocia by way of the Cold War. By way of Husqvarna.

[Image: An entrance into the NATO complex; via this thread].

Sadly, the whole place is contaminated with asbestos and has been badly saturated with diesel fuel. At least one environmental analysis of the underground maze found that “diesel fuel from the [copious emergency fuel] tanks had leaked into the porous limestone over a long period and had penetrated to a depth of about forty feet into the rock.”

You can imagine the weird bonfires that could have resulted should someone have been stupid enough to light a match, but “this area had to be removed and disposed of,” we read—presumably by chainsaw.

Nonetheless, today you can actually take a tour of this place—this now-derelict doomsday logistics hub that straddles international borders underground—courtesy of the Limburg Landscape Foundation.

If you can take the tour, let me know how it goes; I’d love to visit this place in person someday and would be thrilled to see any photographs.

(If you like the sound of underground NATO quarries and want to see more, don’t miss these vaguely related photo sets: NATO Quarry, N.A.T.O. Quarry, N.A.T.O. Quarry, France, Urban Explorers Discover Corroding Military Vehicles in Abandoned Subterranean Bunker, and Nato Quarry, Paris Suburbs May 2011).

Where Borders Melt

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

One of the most interesting sites from a course I taught several years ago at Columbia—Glacier, Island, Storm—was the glacial border between Italy and Switzerland.

The border there is not, in fact, permanently determined, as it actually shifts back and forth according to the height of the glaciers.

This not only means that parts of the landscape there have shifted between nations without ever really going anywhere—a kind of ghost dance of the nation-states—but also that climate change will have a very literal effect on the size and shape of both countries.

[Image: Due to glacial melt, Switzerland has actually grown in size since 1940; courtesy swisstopo].

This could result in the absurd scenario of Switzerland, for example, using its famed glacier blankets, attempting to preserve glacial mass (and thus sovereign territory), or it might even mean designing and cultivating artificial glaciers as a means of aggressively expanding national territory.

As student Marissa Looby interpreted the brief, there would be small watchtowers constructed in the Alps to act as temporary residential structures for border scientists and their surveying machines, and to function as actual physical marking systems visible for miles in the mountains, somewhere between architectural measuring stick for glacial growth and modular micro-housing.

But the very idea that a form of thermal warfare might break out between two countries—with Switzerland and Italy competitively growing and preserving glaciers under military escort high in the Alps—is a compelling (if not altogether likely) thing to consider. Similarly, the notion that techniques borrowed from landscape and architectural design could be used to actually make countries bigger—eg. through the construction of glacier-maintenance structures, ice-growing farms, or the formatting of the landscape to store seasonal accumulations of snow more effectively—is absolutely fascinating.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

I was thus interested to read about a conceptually similar but otherwise unrelated new project, a small exhibition on display at this year’s Venice Biennale called—in English, somewhat unfortunately—Italian Limes, where “Limes” is actually Latin for limits or borders (not English for a small acidic fruit). Italian Limes explores “the most remote Alpine regions, where Italy’s northern frontier drifts with glaciers.”

In effect, this is simply a project looking at this moving border region in the Alps from the standpoint of Italy.

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

As the project description explains, “Italy is one of the rare continental countries whose entire confines are defined by precise natural borders. Mountain passes, peaks, valleys and promontories have been marked, altered, and colonized by peculiar systems of control that played a fundamental role in the definition of the modern sovereign state.”

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

However, they add, between 2008 and 2009, Italy negotiated “a new definition of the frontiers with Austria, France and Switzerland.”

Due to global warming and and shrinking Alpine glaciers, the watershed—which determines large stretches of the borders between these countries—has shifted consistently. A new concept of movable border has thus been introduced into national legislation, recognizing the volatility of any watershed geography through regular alterations of the physical benchmarks that determine the exact frontier.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

The actual project that resulted from this falls somewhere between landscape surveying and technical invention—and is a pretty awesome example of where territorial management, technological databases, and national archives all intersect:

On May 4th, 2014, the Italian Limes team installed a network of solar-powered GPS units on the surface of the Similaun glacier, following a 1-km-long section of the border between Italy and Austria, in order to monitor the movements of the ice sheet throughout the duration of the exhibition at the Corderie dell’Arsenale. The geographic coordinates collected by the sensors are broadcasted and stored every hour on a remote server via a satellite connection. An automated drawing machine—controlled by an Arduino board and programmed with Processing—has been specifically designed to translated the coordinates received from the sensors into a real-time representation of the shifts in the border. The drawing machine operates automatically and can be activated on request by every visitor, who can collect a customized and unique map of the border between Italy and Austria, produced on the exact moment of his [or her] visit to the exhibition.

The drawing machine, together with the altered maps and images it produces, are thus meant to reveal “how the Alps have been a constant laboratory for technological experimentation, and how the border is a compex system in evolution, whose physical manifestation coincides with the terms of its representation.”

The digital broadcast stations mounted along the border region are not entirely unlike Switzerland’s own topographic markers, over 7,000 “small historical monuments” that mark the edge of the country’s own legal districts, and also comparable to the pillars or obelisks that mark parts of the U.S./Mexico border. Which is not surprising: mapping and measuring border is always a tricky thing, and leaving physical objects behind to mark the route is simply one of the most obvious techniques.

As the next sequence of images shows, these antenna-like sentinels stand alone in the middle of vast ice fields, silently recording the size and shape of a nation.

[Images: From Italian Limes. Photos by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

The project, including topographic models, photographs, and examples of the drawing machine network, will be on display in the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale until November 23, 2014. Check out their website for more.

Meanwhile, the research and writing that went into Glacier, Island, Storm remains both interesting and relevant today, if you’re looking for something to click through. Start here, here, or even here.

[Image: From Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani, courtesy of Folder].

Italian Limes is a project by Folder (Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual) with Pietro Leoni (interaction design), Delfino Sisto Legnani (photography), Dawid Górny, Alex Rothera, Angelo Semeraro (projection mapping), Claudia Mainardi, Alessandro Mason (team).

A Building For Measuring Borders

The so-called “Yolo Buggy” was not a 19th-century adventure tourism vehicle for those of us who only live once; it was a mobile building, field shelter, and geopolitical laboratory for measuring the borders of an American county. Yolo County, California.

The “moveable tent or ‘Yolo Buggy,'” as the libraries at UC Berkeley describe it, helped teams of state surveyors perform acts of measurement across the landscape in order to mathematically understand—and, thus, to tax, police, and regulate—the western terrain of the United States. It was a kind of Borgesian parade, a carnival of instruments on the move.

The resulting “Yolo Baseline” and the geometries that emerged from it allowed these teams to establish a constant point of cartographic reference for future mapping expeditions and charts. In effect, it was an invisible line across the landscape that they tried to make governmentally real by leaving small markers in their wake. (Read more about meridians and baselines over at the Center for Land Use Interpretation).

In the process, these teams carried architecture along with them in the form of the “moveable tent” seen here—which was simultaneously a room in which they could stay out of the sun and a pop-up work station for making sense of the earth’s surface—and the related tower visible in the opening image.

That control tower allowed the teams’ literal supervisors to look back at where they’d come from and to scan much further ahead, at whatever future calculations of the grid they might be able to map in the days to come. You could say that it was mobile optical infrastructure for gaining administrative control of new land.

Like a dust-covered Tron of the desert, surrounded by the invisible mathematics of a grid that had yet to be realized, these over-dressed gentlemen of another century helped give rise to an abstract model of the state. Their comparatively minor work thus contributed to a virtual database of points and coordinates, something immaterial and totally out of scale with the bruised shins and splintered fingers associated with moving this wooden behemoth across the California hills.

(All images courtesy UC Berkeley/Calisphere).

Border Town

[Image: Photo by m.joedicke, via Border Town].

From Border Town, an independent research and design workshop to be held in Toronto this summer, from 16 June-18 August, now seeking applications:

Your farm is completely surrounded by a foreign country because the king lost it in a game of cards. You live in Cooch Behar.

You are eating at a café when you are informed that it must close. If you’ll just shift to a table in the other country, service is still available. This café is in Baarle/Hertog.

You work in the mayor’s office. Down the hall is a parallel mayor’s office with a whole mirror set of city officials to govern the other half of your city. You work in Texarkana.

We believe that a great deal can be learned by investigating the strange edge cases of the world. Border towns are the extreme edge of where geography and politics collide. They throw the abstractions of governance into sharp physical relief. They are a fertile site for investigation into questions of security, freedom, architecture, immigration, trade, smuggling, sovereignty, and identity.

Border Town is a 10-week, multi-participant collaborative design studio that will investigate the conditions that surround life in cities situated on borders, divided by borders, or located in conflict zones. By investigating these strange specimens of political geography, we can being to think and design about the interaction of legal and physical architecture and how these forces shape the built environment and the lives of the people living in it.

The workshop is organized by Tim Maly and Emily Horne, and applications are due by 2 June.

By way of my own hypothetical reading list for such a course, I might suggest checking out a few of the following books: The City & The City by China Miéville, Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia by Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation by Eyal Weizman, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo by Teresa P. R. Caldeira, Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson, A Wall in Palestine by René Backmann, and any number of other books, films, essays, and chapters elsewhere on the subjects of smuggling, demilitarized zones, police jurisdiction, international espionage, the Berlin Wall, the Jewish ghetto, quarantine, border survey teams (and the equipment they utilize), segregation and apartheid, political gerrymandering, micronations, and much more.

In any case, Border Town promises to be an interesting experience for all involved—and I should add that it’s great to see people putting together this kind of independent educational workshop outside of the university system. If you end up being one of the participants, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Alexander’s Gates

One of many books I’ve been enjoying this autumn is On Monsters by Stephen T. Asma, an extended look into where formal deviation occurs in the world and what unexpected, often emotionally disconcerting, shapes and forces can result.

[Image: The Dariel Pass in the Caucausus Mountains, rumored possible site of the mythic Alexander’s Gates].

According to Asma, measuring these swerves and abnormalities against each other—and against ourselves—can shed much-needed light on the alternative “developmental trajectories” by which monsters come into being. This speculative monsterology, as he describes it it, would thus uncover the rules by which even the most stunning mutational transformations occur—allowing us to catalog extraordinary beings according to what Asma calls a “continuum of strangeness: first, nonnative species, then familiar beasts with unfamiliar sizes or modified body parts, then hybrids of surprising combination, and finally, at the furthest margins, shape-shifters and indescribable creatures.” Asma specifically mentions “mosaic beings,” beings “grafted together or hybridized by nature or artifice.”

In the book’s fascinating first-third—easily the book’s best section—Asma spends a great deal of time describing ancient myths of variation by which monsters were believed to have originated. From the mind-blowing and completely inexplicable discovery of dinosaur bones by ancient societies with no conception of geological time to the hordes of “monstrous races” believed to exist on the imperial perimeter, there have always been monsters somewhere in the world’s geography.

Of specific relevance to an architecture blog, however, are Alexander’s Gates.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, mythic isotope to Alexander’s Gates].

Alexander’s Gates, Asma writes, were the ultimate wall between the literally Caucasian West and its monstrous opponents, dating back to Alexander the Great:

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration.

(…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

Beyond this wall was a “monster zone.”

[Image: The geography of Us vs. Them, in a “12th century map by the Muslim scholar Al-Idrisi. ‘Yajooj’ and ‘Majooj’ (Gog and Magog) appear in Arabic script on the bottom-left edge of the Eurasian landmass, enclosed within dark mountains, at a location corresponding roughly to Mongolia.” Via Wikipedia].

Interestingly, a variation of this story is also told within Islam—indeed, in the Koran itself. In Islamic mythology, however, Alexander the Great is replaced by a figure called Dhul-Qarnayn (who might also be a legendary variation on the Persian king Cyrus).

Even more interesting than that, however, the Koran‘s own story of geographically distant monsters entombed behind a vast wall—the border fence as theological infrastructure—appears to be a kind of literary remix of the so-called Alexander Romance. To quote that widely known religious authority Wikipedia, “The story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur’an… matches the Gog and Magog episode in the Romance, which has caused some controversy among Islamic scholars.” That is, the Koran, supposedly the exact and holy words of God himself, actually contains a secular myth from 3rd-century Greece.

The construction of Dhul-Qarnayn’s wall against the non-Muslim monstrous hordes can specifically be found in verses 18:89-98. For instance:

“…Lend me a force of men, and I will raise a rampart between you and them. Come, bring me blocks or iron.”
He dammed up the valley between the Two Mountains, and said: “Ply your bellows.” And when the iron blocks were red with heat, he said: “Bring me molten brass to pour on them.”
Gog and Magog could not scale it, nor could they dig their way through it.

Think of it as a kind of religious quarantine—a biosafe wall through which no moral contagion could pass.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, via Wikipedia].

But as with all border walls, and all imperial limits, there will someday be a breach.

For instance, Asma goes on to cite a book, published in the 14th century, called the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There, we read how Alexander’s Gates will, on some future day blackened by the full horror of monstrous return, be rendered completely obsolete:

In the end, Mandeville predicts, a lowly fox will bring the chaos of invading monsters upon the heads of the Christians. He claims, without revealing how he comes by such specific prophecy, that during the time of the Antichrist a fox will dig a hole through Alexander’s gates and emerge inside the monster zone. The monsters will be amazed to see the fox, as such creatures do not live there locally, and they will follow it until it reveals its narrow passageway between the gates. The cursed sons of Cain will finally burst forth from the gates, and the realm of the reprobate will be emptied into the apocalyptic world.

In any case, the idea that the line between human and not-human has been represented in myth and religion as a very specifically architectural form—that is, a literal wall built high in the mountains, far away—is absolutely fascinating to me.

Further, it’s not hard to wonder how Alexander’s Gates compare, on the level of imperial psychology, to things like the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the U.S./Mexico border fence, or the Distant Early Warning Line—even London’s Ring of Steel—let alone the Black Gates of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

[Image: A map of the Distant Early Warning Line, an electromagnetic Alexander’s Gates for the Cold War].

Perhaps there is a kind of theological Hyperborder waiting to be written about the Wall of Gog and Magog.

Or could someone produce an architectural history of border stations as described in world mythology? I sense an amazing Ph.D. research topic here.

Until Proven Safe: An Interview with Krista Maglen

[Image: Airfield at Guantanamo Bay converted for the quarantine of 10,000 Haitian migrants; via Wikimedia].

Krista Maglen is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University, where her research explores the nature of infectious disease prevention, including quarantine, during the latter part of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

In her published work, which includes “‘In This Miserable Spot Called Quarantine’: The Healthy and Unhealthy in 19th Century Australian and Pacific Quarantine Stations” and “‘The First Line of Defense’: British Quarantine and the Port Sanitary Authorities in the 19th Century,” she focuses on the interrelationships between quarantine defenses, economic traditions, and medical restrictions on immigration.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Maglen about the ways in which different economic and cultural forces have shaped the practice of quarantine in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.A. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss the absence of a design philosophy for quarantine, quarantine’s potential for political misuse, and the differences between quarantine and other forms of incarceration.

• • •

Edible Geography: What led to your interest in quarantine?

Krista Maglen: My original interest was immigration, and I was looking at the way that immigrants had been restricted from coming into Britain for medical reasons. I had some assumptions about how that process occurred, but I realized it wasn’t as straightforward as in the U.S.A. or in Australia. When I looked a bit more deeply, I realized that this was because of the relationship that Britain had towards quarantine.

There is a long-standing opposition to quarantine in Britain, which meant that when Britain started to enact restrictions on immigration and immigrants, it was quite difficult, because those restrictions use many of the same mechanisms and much of the same language as quarantine. Both of them are designed to exclude certain groups of people, and they’re very closely interrelated.

That intersection between immigration and quarantine was where I began—and then I started to see all these amazing things about quarantine. It doesn’t only relate to medical and public health policy, or even just to immigration policy—it’s also very bound up with economic and political policy, as well. It is both shaped by, and a tool of, these larger geopolitical forces.

[Image: Map of the Australian Quarantine Service].

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in your understanding of the relationship between quarantine and the construction of national borders.

Maglen: Quarantine differs very much depending on where a country is in relation to a disease source or perceived disease source. Australia, for example, has actually historically had one of the strictest quarantine policies, even though it’s so far away. Quarantine became a very big deal there. First of all, there’s a perceived proximity to Asia, which in the West has traditionally been seen as this great source of disease—the “Yellow Peril.” Quarantine is also a way to draw a line around White Australia, racially, just as much as it is to draw a line around the notion of a virgin territory that doesn’t have the diseases of the rest of the world.

Britain has a different relationship to quarantine because its borders are much more fluid. It can’t have borders as rigid as somewhere like Australia, for lots of different reasons: because of its empire; because it relies on maintaining open borders to let trade flow; and because Britain is itself quite undefined, in a way. It’s a composite of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The borders of Britain are much more fluid, so quarantine takes a different form there and has a very different history.

Edible Geography: You’re now based in the States, where I would assume quarantine is different again?

Maglen: Yes, exactly. Quarantine is closely tied to immigration in the United States: Ellis Island was a quarantine processing site, as well as an immigration processing site. Until the 1920s, immigrants arriving into the United States came into facilities that were also quarantine stations, and also places where you could isolate people for disease control reasons. Part of the processing of who can and can’t get into the United States is always about quarantine—what bodies are seen to be diseased and undesirable.

[Images: Asian immigrants arriving at the Angel Island immigration station, San Francisco, and a man quarantined at Ellis Island; courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

Edible Geography: That raises an interesting question: By looking at a particular country’s quarantine regulations, can you construct in reverse what that country wishes it could be, or imagines it is?

Maglen: I think you can. Quarantine borders—just like national borders—are seeking to draw a line between us and them, inside and outside, desirable and undesirable, and so on. The United States is interesting because it has land borders as well as sea borders. The defining of a biological border, and its role in defining a national border, becomes more complex on land.

Edible Geography: Could you discuss the design of quarantine facilities and the way that also varied from country to country?

Maglen: When you’re thinking about quarantine, one really important thing to keep in mind is that there is a distinction between quarantine and isolation. Quarantine is a word that’s used quite freely. The way it’s used quite often now is to refer to the isolation of sick and infected people. But quarantine more accurately refers to the isolation of anyone who’s deemed to be a risk. That means that you can have perfectly healthy people in quarantine—and being held in quarantine for quite a long time.

One difference is that, in Australia, the quarantine facilities are designed to house all quarantined people—people who are sick and people who are healthy, but have either been in contact with an infected person or have come from somewhere that’s perceived to be an infected place. Australian quarantine stations have an isolation hospital—which is separated, but still part of the main facility—and then they have a big dormitory for all the healthy people who are having to be quarantined as well.

In Britain, the facilities that are set up are almost exclusively for the reception of sick and infected people. They’re really isolation facilities rather than quarantine facilities. Britain has a long history of taking the stance that quarantine is completely unnecessary, because you’re perfectly able to look after healthy people who may have been in contact with an infection if you have a public health system within the country, and that system works properly. From the 1870s or so onwards, Britain says that they’ve got the best sanitary system in the world, so they don’t need to worry about quarantine. Even today, there’s an argument made in Britain along very similar lines, which says that people arriving into Britain potentially carrying tuberculosis shouldn’t be excluded from the country or put into any type of isolation—they just need to be monitored within the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS, in this argument, has everything that is needed to control the spread of tuberculosis from immigrants to the population of Britain, so you don’t need to exclude immigrants on a medical basis.

[Image: “Testing an Asian immigrant” at the Angel Island immigration station, San Francisco; courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

BLDGBLOG: Does some of the difference in attitudes towards quarantine stem from different national political traditions and notions of individual human rights? For example, do the British have a stronger history of arguing for the right to resist involuntary government-imposed detention?

Maglen: It’s an interesting question but, in my research, I haven’t found much of that. Quarantine is much more closely tied to economic political traditions. Britain has a tradition of economic liberalism and free trade, which requires, to a great extent, open borders. Trade requires ships to come in and out, and those ships carry people.

Of course, discussions about human rights and individual liberty are a little bit beyond my period—but everywhere, even now, the argument is made that there are times and instances where individual liberty has to be given over to the greater good. Quarantine, in that argument, is just one of these instances where an individual’s liberty has to be curtailed in order to protect the broader community.

Something that was talked about a lot in the nineteenth century, and still now, is the difference between quarantine and other sorts of incarceration. Quarantined people might be perfectly healthy—they’re not necessarily physically or mentally ill—and they don’t really fit into the normal categories of people with reasons to be incarcerated.

What’s interesting about quarantine is that it assumes that people have the potential to cause harm without having to prove it; it presupposes guilt, in a way.

There’s a quotation from the Australasian Sanitary Conference in 1884 that I think captures a very important aspect of quarantine. It says, “Quarantine differs from a measure of criminal police in this respect: That it assumes every person to be capable of spreading disease until he has proven his incapacity; whereas the law assumes moral innocence until guilt is proven.”

Quarantine is really one of the singular instances in a liberal democracy where it’s possible for the state to incarcerate somebody without proven guilt. It’s a complete inversion.

What I’ve found in my research—which is focused on the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, so I can’t speak for today—is that most people who were quarantined agreed in principle with their incarceration and with quarantine. They believed that it was a just thing for them to be quarantined—in principle. They often talk about that at the very beginning of their period of quarantine. Once they’ve been placed into quarantine, it all seems quite different.

So, in theory, people believe in quarantine—but when you’ve been sitting for two months in a facility that often isn’t very well-equipped for people to live there, because they’re set up just for the occasions they might be needed, and often they’re not very nice or comfortable places to be, things seem very different.

One of the things that comes across consistently in people’s quarantine experiences is boredom. They complain about the accommodation and the food, and they get sick of the people they’re quarantined with—all those very normal human responses.

[Image: Medical inspection station at Ellis Island. The 1891 U.S. immigration law called for the exclusion of “all idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease,” as well as criminals. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

Edible Geography: Following on from that, I’m interested in hearing more about your research into the experiences of the quarantined, but also about the experiences of those who were doing the quarantining. Are there recurring similarities or differences between those two points of view? And are there changes in the perception of their experience over time, or residual stigma, post-quarantine?

Maglen: The question about residual stigma is really interesting. My research hasn’t uncovered anything that reveals anything about that. If there was residual stigma, people aren’t talking about it. Not that I can find, in any case.

As I argue in my article, “In This Miserable Spot Called Quarantine,” it seems that quarantine is set up to deal with the singular problem of keeping people who are a potential risk away from the rest of the community. How that then works itself out in practice is really an afterthought. You put in place a facility, whether it’s on an island, a remote peninsula, or a huge moored boat, and you put in place the regulations that govern how a long a ship or people are supposed to stay in quarantine—but that’s about it. People are put there and forgotten about until it’s time for them to be released. Something that people who are being quarantined and people who work in quarantine both have in common is that most of them express great frustration at this.

It’s a “What do we now?” kind of thing: we’ve all got to sit around and wait, but there’s probably not sufficient accommodation for people, and we’ve been given these really crappy rations, and there’s no way of getting away from the other people held there.

[Image: Isolation Section, Sydney Quarantine Station].

Edible Geography: It’s as though the only design philosophy that exists for quarantine is keeping people away. You get a community that isn’t designed to function; it’s simply designed to contain. It’s a place that’s not designed as a place. It’s designed as a non-place.

Maglen: Exactly—that’s a perfect description. It’s designed as somewhere to deposit people temporarily—although, in some cases, that meant several months–but that’s about it. We just shut the doors and leave.

That’s what’s really great about reading the personal sources and stories of people who were in quarantine, because none of the official sources or government agencies see quarantine as anything other than a way to solve a problem. They don’t see it as individuals with their liberty being curtailed and their economic autonomy being frozen. They don’t see any of these problems; they’re just looking at the larger public health issue. It’s more of a macro view of disease control rather than a micro view of individual people’s lives.

[Image: A “Quarantine Act” banner from the Torrens Island Quarantine Station collection, held by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra].

BLDGBLOG: Talking about quarantine stations as a place simply to dump people reminds me of a bit of the architectural criticism of refugee camps. Refugee camps are often criticized as being nothing but utilitarian: built with no concern for community, culture, or how people will live once they’re placed there. Have you found other spatial types that are similar to quarantine facilities—whether that’s refugee camps or supermax prisons—where the same types of psychological and cultural issues emerge?

Maglen: Absolutely. The places I have studied that are similar are detention centers for asylum seekers in Australia.

There was a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrived in Australia; they were put in horrible camps out in the middle of the desert until they could be processed. There was an assumption that if you were a “proper” refugee, you would have stayed in the refugee camps, in wherever it was that you were from, and waited until your application had been processed. You would have been given a visa saying that you were a refugee, and then you would have come to Australia on a plane and gone through the immigration line with the requisite stamp in your passport. This is obviously ridiculous—the life of a refugee doesn’t usually work that smoothly.

In any case, people who arrived in boats—or any way they could—in Australia and who didn’t have a refugee stamp in their passport—or a passport at all—were put in detention centers for long periods of time, sometimes years. The psychological problems that occurred amongst people who were isolated and detained in these places for that long were enormous. Not only were many of the people already psychologically damaged by the experiences that had led them to become asylum seekers and refugees, but they were then put into these temporary camps and isolated in the middle of nowhere.

The difference, however, between that example and people who have been put in quarantine, or people who are put in solitary confinement in prisons and so on, is that quarantine has a time limit. It’s limited, by definition—although, of course, it can be continued and extended. In fact, one of the problems of not setting quarantine facilities up properly is that you then get situations where poor design can lead to unnecessary extensions to the period of incarceration. So, for example, if I have been in quarantine for 15 days of a 20 day quarantine incarceration—with only 5 days left until I am released—and then you are newly placed in quarantine with me, if we are not adequately separated, I will have to start the 20 day quarantine period all over again—making my total quarantine 35 days. This is because I have been freshly exposed to a suspected disease source—you—and so my previous quarantine is rendered useless.

Quarantine facilities, therefore, need to be able to separate instances of exposure in order to avoid compounding the duration of incarceration. However, poor design of quarantine facilities—created essentially, as we said before, only to keep people away from the broader community and with little thought given to internal structures—has, at times, resulted in quarantines that have, unnecessarily, lasted for months.

Even so, there is always a limit with quarantine. First of all, epidemics only have a limited lifespan. Secondly, quarantine periods often have something to do with incubation periods, although the relationship is not as direct as you might think.

So, to speak to your question, I haven’t seen any long-term residual damage inflicted by quarantine, strictly as quarantine. When quarantine is strictly about disease, it doesn’t have the same kind of psychological effects, because you know that, in two months or so, you’re going to be let out. When quarantine is tied to other ideas, or when it becomes a way of keeping a particular class or race—or whatever category of people—outside, it quickly shades into something else.

[Image: View through the perimeter fence at Port Hedland Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in Western Australia, June 2002, from the Australian Human Rights Commission].

Edible Geography: If quarantine has an end date, then surely it doesn’t actually function to exclude people from a country. In that case, is the point to use quarantine as a way of reinforcing prejudice and social hierarchies, so that people know their place, as it were, before they even come in the door?

Maglen: Quarantine can do that. It can also be designed as a way to dissuade people from wanting to try to come to your country in the first place. Quarantine is also very much about reaffirming models and stereotypes within the community: to create a feeling that “everybody knows that people from a particular country or region are dangerous, because look, the government has to quarantine everybody from there.” It gives a seemingly scientific backing for ethnic or racial prejudice.

An example of that is people from Haiti being quarantined by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, because of the risk of HIV and AIDS. You can read much more about this in Howard Markel’s book, When Germs Travel. There’s a really interesting chapter in there called “No One’s Idea of a Tropical Paradise: Haitian Immigrants and AIDS.” In it, Markel talks about how Haitian immigrants were being quarantined off-shore because they might be HIV-positive, and how that just re-confirmed—and put a government stamp on—prejudices against Haitians as being a dangerous and untrustworthy people.

That raises another very interesting point about quarantine: it can manipulate the public’s understanding of a particular disease. A disease might not be transmissible person-to-person, or it might not be highly contagious, but the imposition of quarantine automatically implies that there’s a person-to-person mode of infection (in the sense that, if I was sick and I stood in the same room and breathed on you, you would get sick). Quarantining people with HIV/AIDS implies that just coming into contact with them will expose you to infection.

Edible Geography: It seems, then, by virtue of being a practice of detention, quarantine can be misused very easily.

Maglen: Absolutely. It’s not just because it’s a practice of detention, but because quarantine, unlike isolation, is about keeping people who are deemed to pose a risk to public health separate. They’re not known to be a danger, but they’re judged to be a risk—and it’s that idea of risk that can be very easily manipulated. Risk could mean that they’re carrying a pathogen, or it could be that the place that person has come from is deemed to be diseased. It’s a very loose and dangerous term.

Edible Geography: What direction is your research taking now? Are you still exploring aspects of quarantine, or has it led you on to somewhere else?

Maglen: At the moment, I’m working on a book to develop my work on quarantine in Britain. I’m particularly looking at the border, and the idea of British ports being in-between spaces—spaces that are much more fluid than their American or Australian equivalents. I’m using that idea to examine the reasons behind the difficult relationship the British have with quarantine and immigration control, and also to explore how Britain sees itself within the United Kingdom and its former empire. I’m hoping to show how looking at immigration and quarantine can help us understand what’s happening in Britain as a nation and why it behaves as it does, both internally and internationally.

In the future, I want to continue looking at quarantine, but I want to move back to looking at Australia, and in particular, the Western Pacific. The French, British, and German imperial forces came in and tried to divide the islands up between them, even though the island populations had a long history of moving around in completely different patterns. I want to look at how disease control and quarantine were then used by the imperial powers as a way to control that movement of people.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik, Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford

[Image: Thermal scanners at the Seoul international airport; photo by Jung Yeon-Je for Reuters, via Time].

Alison Bashford is Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science, as well as Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney. Her work has examined the politics, culture, and spaces of quarantine at a variety scales, from immigration law and geopolitics to the design of nineteenth-century hospitals. She is the author of Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, and co-editor of both Contagion: Historical and Cultural Studies and Medicine At The Border: Disease, Globalization and Security, 1850 to the Present.

[Image: Map of Lawlor Island Quarantine Station, showing 1st and 2nd Class accommodation].

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Bashford about the ways in which quarantine can both define and blur borders, the use of vaccination scars as health passports, and quarantine’s role in enforcing social hierarchy and racial prejudice.

• • •

Edible Geography: To start with, how did you become interested in quarantine?

Alison Bashford: I got to quarantine through my early work on the concepts of purity and pollution. My first book, Purity and Pollution, was about how ideas about clean and dirty spaces and clean and dirty bodies, and the separation between them, came into being in the nineteenth century in the context of hospitals, and the discovery of germs, and so forth. After that first book, I started studying infectious disease management on a larger scale. I fairly quickly moved into looking at maps of early quarantine stations and the division of pure and polluted spaces there, as well as the various diseases that were managed that way.

My work is not always focused on Australia, but I quickly realized there was quite a particular Australian history to be sorted through here. Many diseases that have been endemic and epidemic in other parts of the world, such as cholera, never even arrived in Australia. In Australia, the quarantining of the entire continent came to be important in terms of keeping diseases out, but it was also symbolically incredibly important as part of the project of producing White Australia. I gradually realized what a rich history there was in terms of thinking about the racializing of the new nation in 1901 as, essentially, a public health project.

After that, I became very interested in island spaces as well—places where people with various diseases were quarantined in a much more permanent way. Amusingly, I live right next to the quarantine station in Manly. I’d written about quarantine for a long time—long before I lived there—and it’s just been terrific, living on the place that I was writing about for so many years.

[Images: (top) The North Head Quarantine Station, Manly, Australia; photo by Nicola Twilley. (bottom) Spa treatment at Q-Station hotel retreat, Manly, Australia].

Edible Geography: It’s interesting what they’ve done to the quarantine station at Manly, in terms of turning it into a luxury hotel. The afterlife of quarantine stations is a fascinating topic in and of itself.

Bashford: Yes, absolutely. The developer gave me a good tour around it just before it opened. It was extraordinary listening to him talk about the concept of putting a day spa on the site of the old hospital buildings, which is where the most infected were kept.

[Image: As Egypt and Sudan gained their independence from Britain, the border between the two countries was determined by drawing a straight line from the sea through Wadi Halfa, a quarantine station on the Nile (which is now an underwater archaeological site due to flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam)].

BLDGBLOG: A great deal of your work examines the political nature of quarantine and the relationship between quarantine and the border. I was particularly struck by the fact that, in some cases, the biological border has preceded the national border, as in the case of the line between Egypt and Sudan.

Bashford: A lot of historians have written about borders, but I think what’s sometimes overlooked is that this temporary line, marked by quarantine practices that maintain a disease on one side of the border and not the other, is often the earliest sign of what later becomes a national, territorial border.

This is also the case with regional borders. The boundary between the nineteenth-century Orient (as the Near East used to be called) and Europe was the place where cholera was controlled. Various quarantine practices were set up every year in and around the Mecca pilgrimage, because there was constant European anxiety that this mass movement—in a place that is just adjacent to Europe—would introduce cholera into Europe itself. So that boundary, which was not an actual territorial border but, rather, an important part of how Europe defined itself in relation to its most adjacent neighbor, the Orient, was made meaningful through very specific, very grounded, practices of inspecting people, putting them in quarantine camps, and monitoring or restricting their movement.

[Images: Routes to Mecca, and pilgrims on the Hajj (second image via Gizmowatch)].

Edible Geography: You’ve also examined the way these kind of disease borders can define cities as well.

Bashford: Yes—in Imperial Hygiene, I really explored this idea of boundaries at different scales. I structured that whole book spatially. I started with a chapter about smallpox, vaccination, and the border of the body and skin, and I looked at the way that a vaccine introduces disease into the body, in order to create immunity.

Then I moved outwards to the scale of the city. I took Sydney as a place that had certain diseased zones that were quite disordered, and analysed the way in which the establishment of the quarantine station on North Head—in Manly—was an attempt to create clean and dirty spaces within an urban environment.

Then I moved outwards again to think about the entire Australian continent—and outwards again to consider international hygiene and quarantine measures, and the way that the entire globe, due to immigration restriction acts over the twentieth century, became criss-crossed by all kinds of lines of quarantine.

Edible Geography: In that context, I was particularly interested in your paper tracing the origins of the World Health Organization—and public health as a globally regulated phenomenon—back to the International Sanitary Conferences, which were themselves convened to implement quarantine.

Bashford: The question of how to manage infectious disease is foundational for the League of Nations Health Organization, and then the World Health Organization. In fact, even the large philanthropic organizations, like the Rockefeller’s International Health Board, were attempts to prevent infectious disease, both by quarantine and also by hygiene education. In nineteenth-century Europe, the International Sanitary Conventions and Conferences were, in the first instance, about cholera, and the concern about the annual pilgrimage.

What’s intrigued me for many years are the way immigration restriction lines dovetail as quarantine lines. In spatial terms, I’m fascinated by the way this division of pure and polluted spaces can be architectural at a very small and local level, but can also come to structure the globe as a whole.

Edible Geography: Can you give an example of an encounter with one of these quarantine lines today?

Bashford: Airports are places where the demarcations of quarantine lines are very clear, and biological or biomedical terms like “Sterile Zone” still cling to the various clean and polluted zones. “Sterile Zone” doesn’t actually mean sterile zone—it indicates a zone into which only authorized people can go.

Airports still make the link between quarantine and the regulation of movement very clear. Historically, quarantine laws were the main way in which people’s movement over national borders was regulated. Almost all of the immigration acts that proliferated around the globe in the nineteenth century (which we still live with, every time we hand over our passport) were about quarantine regulations. Every immigration restriction act across the world, even now, always has a “loathsome disease” clause in it.

[Image: An Italian Health Passport, via the Disinfected Mail Study Circle].

Edible Geography: Can you talk a little more about the relationship between health passports, or pratique, and quarantine?

Bashford: What’s interesting is that all of these identity documents—passports, visas, health vaccine certificates, and so forth—only become attached to an individual relatively late in time. Through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and into the twentieth century, in some cases—these documents would refer to the vessel on which you arrived into a zone, rather than to you as an individual.

For a ship arriving in Sydney Harbor, for example, there would be a certificate of freedom from disease that pertained to the entire ship, and that would be determined by the route on which the ship had come. If the ship had come to Sydney from London via what was then Ceylon, and if there was known to be an epidemic of cholera or smallpox in Ceylon, then that entire ship would be understood to be diseased and it would be put in quarantine for a certain period of time. I’m very interested in the way that, in the maritime world, the passengers and ship became one body, which could then be categorised as infected or clean, irrespective of the health or otherwise of the individuals on board.

One thing that I’ve always wanted to do more work on is the actual bodily inspection of people to determine whether they’ve got a vaccine scar, from the smallpox vaccine. It’s something that I know was practiced, particularly during an epidemic. Historically, before you had a passport or even a piece of paper that authorized your movement from one zone into another, people were not infrequently checked for a vaccination scar. You could only move from what was understood to be an infected zone into a healthy zone if you had a vaccination scar. It became a kind of bodily passport.

The other fascinating thing about quarantine is that it dreams of being non-porous, but in fact, quarantine lines are always leaky. Quarantine, like today’s passports and visas, is much more about letting some people through and keeping other people out, than enforcing a total border.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also interested in the phenomenon of proto-states testing the limits of their power through bio-political practices—that is, experimenting with how they can control and regulate individual people, and doing so in the arena of medicine. Medical power becomes a kind of stepping stone toward national sovereignty.

Bashford: Certainly, the display of a line around a country—and hence territorial sovereignty—can be put into practice very clearly through quarantine practices. That’s where we started our conversation. Immigration restrictions and quarantine practices go hand-in-hand as the two intertwined practices that determine a border as a border for modern kinds of territory. This takes place at an imaginary level.

But there is a flip side to all of this: the apparent imperative to maintain hygiene and keep out disease sets up the territorial boundaries of a nation, but it also gives that nation an almost humanitarian license to step over its own border and into the territory of another state. Patrick Zylberman and Alexandra Minna Stern wrote about this in my book, Medicine at the Border.

Alexandra Minna Stern, in particular, writing about U.S. quarantine and yellow fever, discussed the way that quarantine at Ellis Island was about inspecting migrants and excluding some people, and thus setting up a sovereignty for the United States. She then went on to show us how the very concern about yellow fever was also a way in which the United States government could offer assistance to, intervene in, and set up hygienic measures in all of the nations adjacent to the south, as a kind of a first way in. Unsurprisingly, this was followed pretty quickly, either by territorial acquisition of those places or by transnational agreements and other extensions of influence. After the Spanish-American War, in a whole lot of places like Cuba, and eventually Panama, Puerto Rico, and even Guam, the first U.S. inroads were around quarantine and infectious disease measures.

So while quarantine and infectious diseases function to set up territorial borders and national sovereignties, for powerful nations and nations with pretty good internal health structures the management of infectious disease in a place over the border is quite a common way to extend sovereignty into that territory.

[Image: Tuberculosis seen via x-ray].

Edible Geography: So quarantine contributes to both a spatial out-sourcing or in-sourcing of the border?

Bashford: Exactly. One article that I wrote about quarantine and tuberculosis is called “Where is the border?” It came out of work I was doing with colleagues in the UK about the difference between the Australian history of quarantine and the British tradition.

In Australia, quarantine took place from the physical borders of the nation outwards—the border was pushed way back to the point of origin of any intending migrant. Most people came to Australia from England, and your certificates of health had to be secured before you even got on the ship. This is completely different to the British tradition, because the UK was not, until after World War II, a country of immigration. In fact, the UK had very, very weak, and sometimes completely absent, quarantine laws.

My UK colleagues told me that, today, if you have tuberculosis and you arrive at Heathrow airport, you’re not asked to get back on the plane or to get back on the ship as you would be in Australia. Instead, your name and address are taken and you’re asked to see a doctor in your local area. You’re entirely brought within the borders of the country, and then quarantined or monitored.

These island nations have very different histories of where the border is located. Recent British governments have tried to bring in what they call the Australian model—a system where people get their health checks done at the point of departure. It seems to be much more problematic in the UK than it is for nations that have a long history of rigid quarantine rules.

[Image: The leper colony at Molokai].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, what examples come to mind in terms of places of quarantine that are particularly striking for spatial reasons?

Bashford: Molokai, Hawaii—that’s one of the original leper colonies dating back to 1865. It’s currently managed by the National Park Service, but there’s a community of people with Hansen’s Disease still living there. It’s a fascinating place. It’s an island within a very remote archipelago, and it’s also on a peninsula. It juts out sensationally underneath the world’s tallest sea cliff. The cliff separated the lepers from everybody else, even on the island, and the island itself was clearly chosen to be separate from the other islands in Hawaii. Natural geographies are being put to use here as a way to create a place of quarantine and isolation.

In addition, nineteenth-century maps of quarantine stations are fascinating for the way that they demarcate zones even within spaces of quarantine. Usually they are divided by race and class—in the nineteenth century, there is typically a specific building within the quarantine station for Chinese passengers, for example. To me, these intricate divisions of space within quarantine stations capture social divisions instantly, and almost too obviously.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, and The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.

Baarle-Hertog

In response to the previous post, a reader kindly pointed me to the fascinating town of Baarle-Hertog, Belgium.
Baarle-Hertog borders the Netherlands – but, because of its unique history of political division, the town is sort of marbled with competing national loyalties. In other words, pockets of the town are Dutch; most of the town is Belgian. You can thus wander from country to country on an afternoon stroll, as if island-hopping between sovereignties.
Check out the town map.

[Image: The strange, island-like spaces of micro-sovereignty within the town of Baarle-Hertog; a few more maps can be seen here, and you can read more in this two-page article].

Being in a bit of a rush at the moment, I’ll simply have to quote Wikipedia:

Baarle-Hertog is noted for its complicated borders with Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands. In total it consists of 24 separate pieces of land. Apart from the main piece (called Zondereigen) located north of the Belgian town of Merksplas, there are twenty Belgian exclaves in the Netherlands and three other pieces on the Dutch-Belgian border. There are also seven Dutch exclaves within the Belgian exclaves. Six of them are located in the largest one and a seventh in the second-largest one. An eighth Dutch exclave lies in Zondereigen.

The border is so complicated that there are some houses that are divided between the two countries. There was a time when according to Dutch laws restaurants had to close earlier. For some restaurants on the border it meant that the clients simply had to change their tables to the Belgian side.

Sarah Laitner, at the Financial Times, adds that “women are able to choose the nationality of their child depending on the location of the room in which they give birth.”
Another website, apparently drawing from the Michelin Guide to the Netherlands, explains the origins of Baarle-Hertog’s bizarre geography: it can all be traced back to the 12th century, it seems, when the town was first divided. The northern half of the town became part of the Barony of Breda (later home to the Nassau family), and the southern half went to the Duke of Brabant (Hertog means Duke in Dutch).
But that same website also mentions this:

The municipality limits are very complicated. Nowadays, each municipality has its city hall, church, police, school and post office. The houses of the two nationalities are totally mixed. They are identified by the shield bearing their number: the national flag is included on it.

I hate to refer to Thomas Pynchon twice, in back-to-back blog posts, but there something’s remarkably Pynchon-esque about this final detail.
In any case, also check out this site for more historical information.
While we’re on the subject of micro-sovereignties, though, be sure to check out Neutral Moresnet, a tiny, politically independent non-state formed around a zinc mining operation in eastern Belgium. There’s also Cospaia, “a small former republic in Italy” which “unexpectedly gained independence in 1440” after Pope Eugene IV sold the land it stood on. “By error,” we read, “a small strip of land went unmentioned in the sale treaty, and its inhabitants promptly declared themselves independent.”
The Free State Bottleneck, Åland Islands, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are all also worth checking out.
Finally, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with Simon Sellars, co-author of The Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations.

(With huge thanks to Scott Gosnell, Christopher, Claus Moser, and Blinde Schildpad for the tips!)