Feral Cities, Indirect Streets, and Soft Fortification

[Image: “Thomas de Leu, engraver. Perspective view of an ideal city, 1602. From Jacques Perret, Architectura et perspectiva des fortifications & artifices de laques Perret. Courtesy CCA].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

In 1564, the Tuscan urban planner, archaeologist, military theorist, mathematician, and writer Girolamo Maggi published a work of military urbanism called Della fortificatione delle città, written by his colleague Giacomo Fusto Castriotto.

That work, on the fortification of cities, devoted several passages to what might be called indirect or soft fortification: protecting an urban population from attack not through the use of heavy walls, inner citadels, or armed bastions—although the book is, of course, filled with such things—but through nothing more than a complex street plan.

Indirect streets and narrow walkways could be put to use, Castriotto argued, as agents of spatial disorientation, leading an invader everywhere but where they actually wanted to go. It was a kind of urban judo, or the city as martial art.

The city itself could be weaponized, in other words, its layout made militarily strategic: you could transform the speed at which your enemy arrives into exactly what would entrap him, lost, unable to retrace his footsteps, fatally vulnerable and spatially exposed.

The CCA exhibited much of its collected manuscripts on urban fortification seventeen years ago, under the name The Geometry of Defence: Fortification Treatises and Manuals, 1500–1800.

In the accompanying pamphlet, curator and former CCA historiographer Michael J. Lewis describes the geometric complexification that the fortified cities of the Renaissance underwent in the name of self-protection (Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science also contains a lengthy history of this same material and is worth consulting in full). A constantly shifting imbalance of power between the wall-builders and the invaders led to new spatializations of the metropolis. Whether due to the invention of gunpowder, massed assaults or simply new building techniques, the urban landscape was constantly reformatted according to the weapons that might be used against it.

Of course, this will be a very familiar story to most readers, so I don’t want to repeat it; I do, however, want to focus on the idea of forsaking mass—thick walls—for complexity in the name of strategic disorientation. There are well-known stories, for instance, of English coastal villages during World War II removing their road and street signs so as to prevent logical navigation by German aggressors, even erecting dummy signs to send confused Nazi paratroopers wandering off in the wrong direction.

But if the well-fortified Renaissance city could be seen, for the sake of argument, as something like the Hummer of military urbanism, what is the city-as-Bruce-Lee? A city that is lean, even physically underwhelming, but brilliantly fast and highly flexible? What is the city that needs no defensive walls at all?

[Image: “Unknown engraver. Series of views showing the development of the modern bastion system from its medieval origins. Plate A from Matthias Dögen, Matthiae Dögen Dramburgensis marchici Architectura militaris moderna, 1st ed. (Amsterdam, Ludovic Elzevir, 1647).” Courtesy CCA].

There are a variety of possible answers here, all of which would be interesting to discuss; but I’m most struck by the possibility that the phenomenon recently dubbed the “feral city” is, in a sense, an anti-fortress in precisely this spatial sense.

In a now-canonical 2003 paper for the Naval War College Review, author Richard J. Norton describes the feral city as “a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power.”

From the perspective of a war planner or soldier, Norton explains, the feral city is spatially impenetrable; it is a maze resistant to aerial mapping and far too dangerous to explore on foot. Indeed, its “buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles,” Norton writes, creating, in the process, an environment where soldiers are as likely to die from rabies, tetanus, and wild dog attacks as they are from armed combat.

I’m led to wonder here what a twenty-first-century defensive literature of the feral city might look like—from temporary barricades to cartographically incoherent slums experimenting with limited forms of micro-sovereignty. If the feral city is a city with no external walls but an infinite interior—endless spaces made of oblique architecture and indirect streets—then its ability to defend itself comes precisely through letting invaders in and fatally disorienting them, not by keeping them out.

So if a city does away with defensive walls altogether, what specific spatial strategies are left for it to protect itself? For instance, can a city deliberately be made feral as an act of preemptive self-defense—and, if so, what architectural steps would be necessary to achieve such a thing? Channeling Archigram—or perhaps even Cisco—we might call this the insurgent instant city complete with its own infrastructural practices, its own rogue designers, and its own anti-architects.

How, then, could the spatial practice of urban feralization be codified, and what architectural lessons might be learned if this were to happen?

Michael J. Lewis, describing the treatises on display at the CCA nearly two decades ago for The Geometry of Defence, refers to “fortification literature” or “the literature of the fortification,” including the publishing practices peculiar to this—for its time—top secret field of study. For example, privately circulated manuscripts, incomplete essayistic reflections, and even word-of-mouth gradually solidified into full-length narratives; only at that point were they intended to communicate finely tuned, often firsthand, military knowledge of a city under siege to anyone who might want to discover it, whether that was a king, a layperson, or an enemy general (indeed, much of the literature of fortification went on to the form the core of an emergent field known as urban planning).

In another fifty, one hundred, or even five hundred years, will there be a defensive literature of the feral city, its systematic description, techniques for its defense (or obliteration), and its urban logic (or lack thereof)? Even if only on the level of urban form, this would be a fascinating journey, going from Castriotto’s and Maggi’s indirect streets to whole cities gone wild in the name of resisting outside intervention.

Metropolitan Accomplice

[Image: Photo by Jonas Roosens/AFP/Getty Images, courtesy of the Guardian].

You might have seen the news that a crew of burglars used sewer tunnels beneath the diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium, to break into a nearby bank vault.

“Detectives in Antwerp are searching for clues in a sewage pipe under the Belgian city’s diamond quarter after burglars apparently crawled through it to break into a bank holding safe deposit boxes full of jewels,” the Guardian reported.

The heist allegedly began across the street, in a separate building, where they dug into the sewer network; one of the city’s many subterranean pipes led close enough to the bank that the crew could then tunnel just a few more meters to make entrance.

A couple of details stand out. For example, the police apparently had to hang back long enough to take gas measurements above the newly opened sewer tunnel, fearing either that the air quality would be so bad that they could risk asphyxiation or that the sewer emanations themselves might be explosive.

Either way, this suggests a possible strategic move by future burglars, who night now know that police—or, at the very least, police not equipped with gas masks—will be delayed due to chemical concerns. Infrastructural off-gassing could become a kind of criminal camouflage.

The other detail is simply that, when the police began investigating the crime, “The first the residents of the central Antwerp district knew of the incident was when police raised all the manhole covers running down the centre of Nerviërsstraat,” the Guardian reported. This otherwise inexplicable sight—law enforcement officers suddenly raising the lid on the city’s underworld—was actually part of a forensic investigation.

I’ve already written at length about tunnel jobs used in bank heists—including a still-unsolved crime from Los Angeles, back in the 1980s—in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, so I will defer to that book in terms of addressing specific aspects of underground crime. In fact, I would perhaps even more specifically recommend the book Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell, about another, massive heist in Antwerp’s diamond district pulled off in 2003.

[Images: Sewer maps and diagrams are now freely available online; the ones seen here are from Los Angeles and detail the same neighborhood in which a 1986 bank heist occurred, where the bandits tunneled into a vault using the city’s stormwater network. Read more in A Burglar’s Guide to the City or in retired FBI agent Bill Rehder’s absurdly enjoyable memoir, Where The Money Is].

Instead, what seems worth commenting on here is simply the very nature of urban infrastructure and the ease with which it can be repurposed for designing, planning, and committing crimes. The city itself can be an accomplice in acts entirely unrelated to the infrastructure in question. A freeway route enables a bank-heist getaway, a sewer tunnel offers jewel thieves a subterranean method of entry, a specific intersection’s geometric complexity means that carjackings are more likely to occur there: the city is filled with silent accomplices to future criminal activity, activities and events unforeseen by most city planners.

Will this intersection lead to more carjackings? is unlikely to be high on the list of questions posed by community feedback, yet it’s exactly that sort of tactical thinking that might allow designers to stay one step ahead of the criminals who seek to abuse those same designers’ finished projects.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Architecture of the In-Between

“The city owns some of the narrowest, most unusual lots in New York,” we read, but these odd lots might soon host affordable housing. A new competition called Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC is looking for architectural proposals for how these awkwardly sized spaces might be used.

Although these overlooked lots exist all over New York—“The city became the owner of thousands of properties beginning in the 1960s and ’70s,” The New York Times explains, “many in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where properties were seized from delinquent landlords and urban blight was rampant”—the competition is focused on one particular location:

Entrants will be asked to focus on a property on West 136th Street in Harlem, a 17-foot-wide, 1,665-square-foot mid-block lot that is overgrown with weeds and home to a number of feral cats. It was chosen because many of its challenges, including narrow frontage and limited sunlight, are present at other lots on the list, according to a spokesman for the project.

Read more at the project website or at The New York Times.

(Very, very vaguely related: Buy a Los Angeles Sidewalk Corner).

The City’s Secret Ink

A short article up at The New Yorker follows the adventures of so-called “ink enthusiasts” as they seek new sources of pigment in New York City.

[Image: Via Flickr].

The author, Amy Goldwasser, tags along as the group wanders on “a five-hour foraging trip that would take them up to Hudson Heights, to collect foliage and trash, which they would cook, to make ink.”

By the time the foragers left Central Park, the pockets of [tour leader] Logan’s jacket were already bleeding pink. After finishing uptown, a few hours later, they went to [a participant’s] apartment, to make ink. One batch was pure pokeberry juice (vivid magenta). Another included five varieties of acorn boiled with rust from various sources—nuts and bolts, wire, brackets—and a drop of gum arabic. It came out a complicated silver-gray. Logan spread a range of ink pots on [the participant’s] kitchen table. He dipped the bottom of a glass jar into the rust-and-acorn ink and pressed it onto a piece of paper, making a silvery circle. “Look at our day,” he said. “Now, that, to me, is the blood of New York.”

The city’s capacity to leave marks—to stain, print, and tattoo the things and people that pass through it—can be found in the most mundane items, secret ink hidden inside “acorns, wild grapevines, beer caps, feathers, subway soot.”

Read more at The New Yorker.

(Vaguely related: Dumpster Honey).

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.)

Thermal Crime Wave

[Image: From FBI surveillance video in Baltimore].

One interesting side-effect of ever-intensifying heatwaves in an era of global climate change might be that infrared imaging technology used by the police is no longer quite as effective. Human bodies will be cooler than the surrounding landscape, meaning that they could simply disappear from view.

It’s like that scene in The Thomas Crown Affair where a portable heater, hidden inside a briefcase, incapacitates an infrared surveillance camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—only, here, it’s been scaled up to an entire metropolis. Heat the city; disappear.

This is, of course, a solved problem—forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras can be adjusted to accommodate different temperature ranges. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to imagine a fictional future crime wave timed specifically and deliberately for a night of excruciatingly hot temperatures in a city somewhere, the bodies of criminals mischievously blending in with the buildings around them as they only rob buildings close to their own thermal range. Criminals armed with precision thermometers, casing the city.

That, or they can simply wear graphene.

(Thanks to @raihan_ for the heads up; also, I wrote fairly extensively about police FLIR use in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.)

La vie minérale

[Image: Photo by Virginie Laganière and Jean-Maxime Dufresne].

A new exhibition featuring photos, videos, and sound installations by Virginie Laganière and Jean-Maxime Dufresne looks at life underground in Helsinki, Finland.

“Imagine a city with more than 400 underground facilities, tunnels that span over hundreds of kilometres and 10 million cubic meters of space carved into old Precambrian bedrock,” they write. These spaces serve as “athletic training sites, energy distribution networks, globalized data centers, archival chambers, a buried church or undisclosed military facilities,” to name only a few of their everyday uses.

The exhibition is up until June 17th, in Québec City. Read more at l’Œil de Poisson.

Cities of the Sun

[Image: Ningbo, China, via Google Maps].

Although I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you agree with the author’s critique of planning regulations, there is a fascinating post over at NYU’s Marron Institute. It was originally published back in 2014, but I just saw it the other day thanks to a tweet from Nicola Twilley.

There, Alain Bertaud describes a planning rule from 1950s China: “In the 1950s,” Bertaud writes, “China established a regulation requiring that at least one room in each apartment receive a minimum of one hour of sunshine on the day of the winter solstice, December 21.”

As an architectural constraint, this is actually quite amazing: it needn’t inspire identical towers with identical windows all pointing in the same direction, but could very easily lead to a riot of creativity and innovation, pushing architects to imagine increasingly clever structural and material means for opening even the deepest megastructural interior to winter sunlight.

In a sense, I might say, it is not the regulation’s fault if architects come to the table with a yawning and lackluster response. While this is admittedly an anachronistic comment, given what little I know about city planning in China’s state-driven economy of the 1950s, my larger point is simply that even extreme design constraints can be implemented with subtleness and creativity.

[Image: Guangzhou, China, via Google Maps].

Bertaud continues: “even though the rule no longer applies, its impact on the spatial structure of Chinese cities remains.” This kicks off a kind of forensic examination of Chinese urban form, with the goal of finding the sun of the winter solstice shining somewhere at each city’s regulatory core.

First of all, right away stuff like this is incredible: it is urban-planning analysis as astronomical inquiry, or, more abstractly speaking, it is the suggestion that, hidden somewhere in the fabric of the world we’ve built for ourselves, there are traces of older rules or beliefs that still make their presence known.

This is why things like apotropaic marks are so interesting, for example, not because you have to believe in the occult, but because these marks reveal that even superstition and folklore have spatial effects, and that these beliefs have influenced the design and construction of thresholds and hearths for centuries. Even apparently secular architecture has irrational patterns of belief built into it.

[Image: Beijing, China, via Google Maps].

In any case, the solstice-planning rule “boiled down to a simple mathematical formula: distance d between buildings is determined by the height of building h multiplied by the tangent of the angle α of the sun on the winter solstice at 11:30 in the morning using solar time.” It is “a mathematical formula linked to the movement of the sun,” which, for Bertaud, falsely lent it the air of science, creating the illusion that this approach was rational—in short, that it was a good idea.

One interesting emergent side-effect of the rule, however, is that, by necessity, it had different spatial effects at different latitudes due to the curvature of the Earth. Chinese urban form became a kind of diagram of the Earth’s relationship to the solar system: the distances between buildings, the layouts of rooms inside those buildings, the locations of windows inside those rooms, all taking their cue from a celestial source.

Like a careful study of Stonehenge, you could reverse-engineer the precise location of the sun on a specific day of the year from the layouts of Chinese cities.

But is such poetry really worth it, economically and spatially? Bertaud certainly thinks not. Check out the original post for more.

(The images in this post were arbitrarily taken from Google Maps purely based on locations referred to by Bertaud’s post; they should not be seen as visual evidence of the 1950s planning law discussed here.)

How The City Uses Algorithms

New York City has announced the “Automated Decision Systems Task Force which will explore how New York City uses algorithms.” This makes New York “the first city in the country bringing our best technology and policy minds together to understand how algorithms affect the daily lives of our constituents. Whether the city has made a decision about school placements, criminal justice, or the provision of social services, this unprecedented legislation gets us one step closer to making algorithms accountable, transparent, and free of potential bias.”

(Spotted via Kate Crawford.)

Logan

[Image: Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood, via Google Maps].

On a work trip to Philadelphia last week, I learned about the city’s semi-evacuated Logan neighborhood. As you can see in the satellite view, above, a huge swath of the neighborhood was emptied of its residents, their buildings torn down—because the ground there is not really ground at all, but “an unstable foundation of cinder and ash on a creek bed.”

As the New York Times reported back in 1989, “row houses listed at angry angles, sidewalks were crumbled and the ground seemed no more steady than the nerves of the residents… The houses are sinking, officials say, because the soil is shifting.”

“Some parts of vacant houses, like front porches or walls, have collapsed on their own,” we read, as if the neighborhood had become a slow, gridded sea of unspectacular but relentless subterranean motion. Some houses took on the form of scuttled ships: “Some sag. Some list. Some lean into each other, Corinthian columns askew. One front porch juts upward, like the prow of a galleon. In some homes, the tilt is so bad it looks as if dishes would slide off the dinner table.”

[Image: The empty streets of Logan, via Google Street View].

Unsurprisingly, the results were often nightmarish. Houses were “constantly flooded by raw sewage” from leaking pipes. Gas lines exploded. Or this, also from the New York Times:

Elizabeth Stone, a secretary who has lived in Logan for 15 years with her husband and three children, said she moved her washing machine from the basement to her kitchen because the basement floor was caving in. Her dryer is still down there, but she will not go in the basement because she is afraid the floor will collapse. Besides, she said, there are rats down there and there seem to be more of them in the neighborhood because of shifting foundations.

Perhaps the most evocative description, however, comes from a 2010 entry on the blog Philadelphia Neighborhoods.

A lone medical facility, run by Dr. Donald Turner, was never moved, receiving no help or financial aid from the city, which claimed it was somehow more stable than literally every other building around it. This, despite the fact that the ground has visibly buckled and the evacuated neighborhood around it became a magnet for crime.

In the late 1980s, when the removal of the houses commenced, [Dr. Turner’s] building was spared. “My building should have been one of the first to go,” he says. Houses sat directly next to and across the street from his office. “This whole street was houses!” he exclaims, pointing to a cement path that now sinks into an empty field.

As residents were moved out, the houses were left vacant and became hot spots for criminal mischief. When they were eventually torn down, things got even worse. Turner’s office fell victim to numerous crimes. “People have drilled through the ceiling and climbed in through the back window,” he explains, “they want pills, once one of them had a gun.”

Dr. Turner thus put up a rather apocalyptic sign proclaiming, “Mayor Goode Thought My White Friends Would Help Me.”

The real kicker, however, is this: “‘One time a cancer patient fell in a sinkhole,’ says Turner, ‘I thought they’d shut me down for sure.’”

They did not. The building, incredibly, is apparently still there.

Boundary Stones and Capital Magic

[Image: “Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Washington D.C. is surrounded by a diamond of “boundary stones,” Tim St. Onge writes for the Library of Congress blog, Worlds Revealed.

“The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots,” he explains. “Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.”

[Image: “District of Columbia boundary stone,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Nearly all of them—36 out of 40—can still be found today, although they are not necessarily easy to identify. “Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the ‘Jurisdiction of the United States,’ while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones.” They have been hit by cars and obscured by poison ivy.

The question of who owns the stones—and thus has responsibility for preserving them—is complex, as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2014. “Those that sit on the D.C./Maryland line were deemed the property of the D.C. Department of Transportation. ‘But on the Virginia side, if you own the land, you own the stone,’ [Stephen Powers of boundarystones.org] says.”

[Image: Mapping the stones, via boundarystones.org].

Novelist Jeremy Bushnell joked on Twitter that, “if anyone knows the incantations that correctly activate these, now would be a good time to utter them,” and, indeed, there is something vaguely magical—in a Nicolas Cage sort of way—in this vision of the nation’s capital encaged by a protective geometry of aging obelisks. Whether “activating” them would have beneficial or nefarious ends, I suppose, is something that remains to be seen.

Of course, Boston also has its boundary stones, and the “original city limits” of Los Angeles apparently have a somewhat anticlimactic little marker that you can find driven into the concrete, as well.

Read much, much more over at Worlds Revealed and boundarystones.org.

(Related: Working the Line. Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)