The Four-Floor War


[Image: Russian troops in Grozny, February 2000; image courtesy of AP].

“U.S. land forces will eventually find themselves locked in fights within huge, dense urban environments where skyscrapers tower over enormous shanty towns, and these troops need more realistic training to operate within these future megacities,” Brigadier General Julian Alford of the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory explained earlier this month, as reported by Defense News.

It’s war in the age of megacities: “We talk about the three-block war, but we are moving quickly to the four-floor war,” Alford adds.

We are going to be on the top floor of a skyscraper… evacuating civilians and helping people. The middle floor, we might be detaining really bad people that we’ve caught. On the first floor we will be down there killing them. …At the same time they will be getting away through the subway or subterrain. How do we train to fight that? Because it is coming, that fight right there is coming I do believe with all my heart.

The verticalization of Alford’s metaphor—“the four-floor war”—is an interesting revision of the existing “three-block war” paradigm. In that earlier version, U.S. General Charles C. Krulak suggested that three separate and very different military goals—humanitarian assistance, peace-keeping, and “traditional warfighting”—could all occur within only three blocks of one another in the urban combat of the future. In his words, soldiers would be confronted by “the entire spectrum of tactical challenges in the span of a few hours and within the space of three contiguous city blocks.”

This would not only be a problem of so-called “feral cities,” but of feral buildings within a functional metropolis.

The idea that this is now a “four-floor” problem—that “the entire spectrum of tactical challenges” could now be experienced within the space of four floors of a single high-rise—is a dark indicator not only that our own everyday surroundings are now being modeled and war-gamed as sites of speculative combat, but also how terrifying full-scale architectural warfare would be. Battling upward through the interior of skyscrapers, perhaps even zip-lining from one tower to another, it would be Nakatomi space taken to its logical, militarized extreme.

Recall Mike Davis’s observation from more than a decade ago that so-called Third World cities were being viewed as the “key battlespace of the future,” and that U.S. forces were thus preparing “for protracted combat in the near impassable, maze-like streets of the poverty-stricken cities of the Third World.” Davis elaborates on these points in an old interview with BLDGBLOG called Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis, Parts One and Two.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Cities Under Siege. Story spotted via @peterwsinger).

Urban Target Complex National Monument

[Image: Yodaville, via Google Maps].

Yodaville is a fake city in the Arizona desert used for bombing runs by the U.S. Air Force. Writing for Air & Space Magazine back in 2009, Ed Darack wrote that, while tagging along on a training mission, he noticed “a small town in the distance—which, as we got closer, proved to have some pretty big buildings, some of them four stories high.”

As towns go, this one is relatively new, having sprung up in 1999. But nobody lives there. And the buildings are all made of stacked shipping containers. Formally known as Urban Target Complex (R-2301-West), the Marines know it as “Yodaville” (named after the call sign of Major Floyd Usry, who first envisioned the complex).

As one instructor tells Darack, “The urban layout is actually very similar to the terrain in many villages in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Urban Target Complex, or UTC, was soon “lit up with red tracer rounds and bright yellow and white rocket streaks,” till it “looked like it was barely able to keep standing”:

The artillery and mortars started firing, troops advanced toward the target complex, and aircraft of all types—carefully controlled by students on the mountain top—mounted one attack run after another. At one point so much smoke and dust filled the air above the “enemy” that nothing could be seen of the target—just one of the real-world problems the students had to learn to cope with that day.

In a recent article for the Tate, writer Matthew Flintham explores “the idea of landscape as an extension of the military imagination.” Referring specifically to the UK, he adds that what he perceives as a contemporary “lack of artistic engagement with the activities of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is perhaps principally due to the relative segregation of defence personnel, land and airspace from the civil domain.”

Flintham points out—again, referring to the UK—that “today’s MoD has its own vast training estate with numerous barracks and an enormous stock of housing, all of which are detached from public scrutiny. The public are prevented from accessing many areas of the defence estate for two reasons: the extreme danger of live weapons and hazardous activities (and related issues of potential litigation), and the restrictions on privileged, strategic or commercial information in the interests of national security.” This has the effect that these sorts of military landscapes not only fall outside critical scrutiny—and also remain, with very few exceptions, all but invisible to architectural critique—but that their only real role in the public imagination is entirely speculative, often based solely on rumor and verging on conspiracy.

While Flintham thus calls for a more active artistic engagement with military landscapes, exploring what he calls the “military-pastoral complex,” I would echo that with a related suggestion that spaces such as Yodaville belong on the architectural itinerary of today’s design writers, critics, and students.

Given the mitigation of the very obvious problems Flintham himself points out—such as site contamination, unexploded ordnance, and national security leaks—it would be thrilling to see a new kind of “fortifications tour,” one that might bring these sorts of facilities into the public experience.

[Image: Photo by Richard Misrach, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, from Bravo 20].

An interesting possibility for this sort of national refocusing on military landscapes comes from artists Richard and Myriam Misrach. The Misrachs have proposed a “Bravo 20 National Park“—that is, “turning the blasted range into a National Park of bombing,” as the Center for Land Use Interpretation phrases it. “When the Navy’s use of Bravo 20 was up for Congressional review in 1999,” CLUI continues, “Misrach made one more heroic, quixotic, and failed attempt to get his proposal seriously considered. Instead, the Navy has increased its use of Bravo 20, and the four other ranges around Fallon, and has been authorized to expand their terrestrial holdings in the area by over 100,000 acres.”

So what, for instance, might something like a Yodaville National Park, or Urban Target Complex National Monument, look like? How would it be managed, touristed, explored, mapped, and understood? What sorts of trails and interpretive centers might it host? Alternatively, in much the same way that the Unabomber’s cabin is currently on display at the Newseum in Washington D.C., could Yodaville somehow, someday, become part of a distributed collection of sites owned and operated by the Smithsonian, the National Building Museum, or, for that matter, UNESCO, in the latter case with Arizona’s simulated battlegrounds joining Greek temples as world heritage sites?

In any case, bringing spaces of military simulation into the architectural discussion, and reading about Yodaville in, say, Architectural Record instead of—or in addition to—Air & Space Magazine, would help to demystify the many, otherwise off-limits, landscapes produced (and, of course, destroyed) by military activity. Better, this would reveal even the cloudiest of federal lands as spatial projects, nationally important places that—again, given declassification and appropriate environmental remediation—might hold unexpected insights for design practitioners, let alone for critics, the public, and national historians.

(Thanks to Mark Simpkins for the Tate link).

The Archigram Archive

[Image: From an “ongoing speculative proposal exploring the implications of cones of vision and their interaction with an existing neoclassical ‘temple’ on the River Thames in Henley, Berkshire,” by Archigram/Michael Webb].

As of roughly 16 hours ago, the Archigram Archival Project is finally online and ready to for browsing, courtesy of the University of Westminster: the archive “makes the work of the seminal architectural group Archigram available free online for public viewing and academic study.”

The newly launched site includes more than 200 projects; “this comprises projects done by members before they met, the Archigram magazines (grouped together at no. 100), the projects done by Archigram as a group between 1961 and 1974, and some later projects.” There are also brief biographies of each participating member of the collaborative group: Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb.

[Image: “Proposal for a series of inflatable dwellings as part of an exhibition for the Commonwealth Festival, located in the lodge of Cardiff Castle,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

Even at their most surreal, it feels as if Archigram did, in fact, accurately foresee what the architectural world was coming to. After all, if Chalk & Co. had built the things around us, there would be electricity supplies in the middle of nowhere and drive-in housing amidst the sprawl; for good or for bad, we’d all be playing with gadgets like the Electronic Tomato, that perhaps would not have given the iPhone a run for its money but was a “mobile sensory stimulation device,” nonetheless. We might even live together on the outer fringes of “extreme suburbs,” constructed like concentric halos around minor airports, such as Peter Cook’s “Crater City,” an “earth sheltered hotel-type city around central park,” or “Hedgerow Village,” tiny clusters of houses like North Face tents “hidden in hedgerow strips.”

There would be temporary, inflatable additions to whole towns and cities; pyramidal diagrid megastructures squatting over dead neighborhoods like malls; dream cities like Rorschach blots stretched across the sky, toothed and angular Montreal Towers looming in the distance; plug-in universities and capsule homes in a computer-controlled city of automatic switches and micro-pneumatic infrastructure.

At its more bizarre, there would have been things like the Fabergram castle, as if the Teutonic Knights became an over-chimneyed race of factory-builders in an era of cheap LSD, reading Gormenghast in Disneyworld, or this proposal “for technology enabling underwater farming by scuba divers, including chambers, floats and tubes for walking and farm control.” After all, Archigram asked, why live in a house at all when you can live in a submarine? Why use airplanes when you can ride a magic carpet constructed from shining looms in a “‘reverse hovercraft’ facility where a body can be held at an adjustable point in space through the use of jets of air”?

[Image: “Speculative proposal showing use of the ‘Popular Pak’, a kit of architectural parts for ‘tuning-up’ existing buildings, applied to an invented suburb,” by Archigram/Ron Herron].

It might not be architects who have realized much of this fever dream of the world to come, but that doesn’t mean that these ideas have not, in many cases, been constructed. Archigram spoke of instant cities and easily deployed, reconfigurable megastructures—but the people more likely to own and operate such spaces today are Big Box retailers, with their clip-on ornaments, infinitely exchangeable modular shelving, and fleeting themes-of-the-week. Archigram’s flexible, just-in-time, climate-controlled interiors are not a sign of impending utopia, in other words, but of the reach of your neighborhood shopping mall—and the people airdropping instant cities into the middle of nowhere today are less likely to be algorithmically trained Rhino enthusiasts from architecture school, but the logistics support teams behind Bechtel and the U.S. military.

Another way of saying this is that Archigram’s ideas seem unbuilt—even unbuildable—but those ideas actually lend themselves surprisingly well to the environment in which we now live, full of “extreme suburbs,” drive-in everything, KFC-supplied army bases in the middle of foreign deserts, robot bank tellers, and huge, HVAC-dependent wonderlands on the exurban fringe.

The irony, for me, is that Archigram’s ideas have, in many ways, actually been constructed—but in most cases it was for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways, and by the wrong people.

[Image: Proposal “fusing alternative and changing Archigram structures, amenities and facilities with traditional and nostalgic structures,” by Archigram/Peter Cook].

In any case, what was it about Archigram that promised on-demand self-transformation in an urban strobe of flashing lights but then got so easily realized as a kind of down-market Times Square? How did Archigram simply become the plug-in units of discount retail—or the Fun Palaces of forty years ago downgraded to Barnes & Noble outlets in the suburbs? How did the Walking City become Bremer Walls and Forward Operating Bases, where the Instant City meets Camp Bondsteel?

Archigram predicted a modular future propelled by cheap fuel, petrodollars, and a billion easy tons of unrecycled plastic—but, beneath that seamless gleam of artificial surfacing and extraterrestrial color combinations was a fizzy-lifting drink of human ideas—as many ideas as you could think of, sometimes imperfectly illustrated but illustrated nonetheless, and, thus, now canonical—all of it wrapped up in a dossier of new forms of planetary civilization. Archigram wasn’t just out on the prowl for better escalators or to make our buildings look like giant orchids and Venus Flytraps, where today’s avant-bust software formalism has unfortunately so far been mired; it wasn’t just bigger bank towers and the Burj Dubai.

Instead, Archigram suggested, we could all act differently if we had the right spaces in which to meet, love, and live, and what matters to me less here is whether or not they were right, or even if they were the only people saying such things (they weren’t)—what matters to me is the idea that architecture can reframe and inspire whole new anthropologies, new ways of being human on earth, new chances to do something more fun tomorrow (and later today). Architecture can reshape how we inhabit continents, the planet, and the solar system at large. Whether or not you even want inflatable attics, flying carpets, and underwater eel farms, the overwhelming impulse here is that if you don’t like the world you’ve been dropped into, then you should build the one you want.

In any case, the entire Archigram Archival Project is worth a look; even treated simply as an historical resource, its presence corrects what had been a sorely missing feature of online architecture culture: we can now finally link to, and see, Archigram’s work.

(Note: Part of the latter half of this post includes some re-edited bits from a comment I posted several months ago).

Books Received

[Image: The “renovation of an old barn into a library and studio” by MOS architects].

BLDGBLOG’s home office here is awash in books. Accordingly, I’ve started a new and more or less regular series of posts called “Books Received.” These will be short descriptions of, and links to, interesting – but not necessarily new – books that have crossed my desk.
Note that these lists will include books I have not read in full – but they will never include books that don’t deserve the attention.
Note, as well, that if you have a book you’d like to see on BLDGBLOG, get in touch – send us a copy, and, if it fits the site, we’ll mention your title in a future Books Received.
Note, finally, that even this list is barely the tip of the iceberg; if you’ve sent me a book recently, please wait till the next list before wondering if I’ll be covering your work. Thanks!

1) The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole by Stuart D. Klipper et al. (Chronicle Books) — Horizontally oriented – that is, you read it like a centerfold – The Antarctic is a genuinely beautiful collection of panoramic photographs taken of, on, and approaching the ice-locked continent. From clouds to empty stretches of black sea water to glacial abstractions – to penguins – Stuart Klipper’s work is a superb document of this frozen landscape. It’s 0º in widescreen. Includes a notable essay by William L. Fox.

2) Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (Penguin) — The UK paperback edition has a wonderfully textured feel, as if the cover was printed on watercolor paper; that the paper itself, sourced from Forest Stewardship trees, has a distinct materiality to it, fits this book perfectly. The late Roger Deakin travels through the forests of Eurasia and Australia, from the willows of Cambridgeshire, past ruined churches in the Bieszczady Woods, to the towering walnut groves of Kazakhstan. The book had me hooked from page one, where Deakin writes that “the rise and fall of the sap that proclaims the seasons is nothing less than a tide, and no less influenced by the moon.” Deakin was an amazing writer. At one point he describes “the iceberg depths of the wood’s root-world,” just one mind-bending moment in a book so full of interesting sub-stories that I could post about it all month. Don’t miss the Deer Removal Act of 1851, the surreal Jaguar Lount Wood (a landscape sponsored by the automotive firm), the chainsaw-resistant oaks of the Bialowieza Forest – their trunks sparkling with shrapnel from WWII – and the unforgettable closing chapters about harvesting apples and walnuts in the giant forests of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

3) The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin) — Robert Macfarlane was close friends with Roger Deakin, and Deakin’s presence is often cited throughout The Wild Places. Macfarlane’s frustratingly good book focuses on the natural landscapes of Britain, describing the author’s quest for sites of true wildness in today’s UK. Macfarlane is also a fantastic writer; this is another book that could easily be unspun into a whole month’s worth of blog posts. As but one example, Macfarlane finds himself exploring holloways, those deeply incised, sunken roads produced over decades by the passage of people, carts, and horses. Each holloway is “a route that centuries of use has eroded down into the bedrock,” Macfarlane explains, “so that it is recessed beneath the level of the surrounding landscape.” He continues, writing that “the holloways have come to constitute a sunken labyrinth of wildness in the heart of arable England. Most have thrown up their own defences, becoming so overgrown by nettles and briars that they are unwalkable, and have gone unexplored for decades.”

4) Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey (Knopf) — Richard Fortey is one of my favorite authors; his Earth: An Intimate History should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the planetary sciences. Here, Fortey takes us behind the scenes at the institution from which he has only recently retired: London’s Natural History Museum. His descriptions of the museum itself are worth quoting at length. “There seemed to be no end to it,” he writes, referring to the building’s sprawling rooms and corridors:

Even now, after more than thirty years of exploration, there are corners I have never visited. It was a place like Mervyn Peake’s rambling palace of Gormenghast, labyrinthine and almost endless, where some forgotten specialist might be secreted in a room so hard to find that his very existence might be called into question. I felt that somebody might go quietly mad in a distant compartment and never be called to account. I was to discover that this was no less than the truth.

Further:

Even to find one’s ways to the towers is an exercise in map reading. The visitor has to go through one door after another apparently leading nowhere. Then there are thin flights of steep stairs that go upwards from floor to floor; I am reminded of a medieval keep, where one floor was for feasting and the next one for brewing up boiling oil. I discovered part of one tower that could only be accessed by a ladder stretched over a roof. Nowadays, the towers do not have permanent staff housed there – something to do with them lacking fire escapes and not complying with some detail of the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. Instead there are empty rooms, or ones holding stacks of neglected stuff. A hermit could hide here, undiscovered.

As a way to slip behind the Staff Only doors at a major world museum, the book is unsurpassed.

5) Victory Gardens 2007+ by Amy Franceschini (Gallery 16 Editions) — For the most part, a photo-documentation of the “victory gardens” of Amy Franceschini, scattered amongst the various microclimates of San Francisco, this hardcover guide to urban gardening will make almost anyone want to go out and plant rows of buttercrunch lettuce. Locavores, guerilla gardeners, and revolutionary horticulturalists take note.

6) Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet (Harper) — Of course, all these trees and gardens require sunlight – and the chemically transformative inner workings of photosynthesis are the subject of Oliver Morton’s newest book, Eating the Sun. Morton, a Features Editor at Nature, is also the author of the excellent Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World.

7) Atacama Lab by Chris Taylor et al. (Incubo) and Land Arts of the American West by Chris Taylor and Bill Gilbert (University of Texas Press) — Two awesome books of landscape design, history, art, and theory, both involving the formidable talents of Chris Taylor. According to Taylor’s own introduction, Atacama Lab – which is bilingually printed in both Spanish and English, contrary to Amazon’s indications – documents “the interpretive frame and working methods of Land Arts of the American West in Chile to broaden our understanding of earthworks and open a dialog between arid lands along the north-south axis of the Americas. The book includes a wide variety of student landscape projects, as well as an essay by the ubiquitous William L. Fox. If you’re wondering what exactly Land Arts of the American West is, you’re in luck: this massive, textbook-like, quasi-monographic guide to the eponymous research institute is an explosive catalog of the terrestrial work of Bill Gilbert, the group’s founder, here in collaboration with Taylor. They write:

Land Arts of the American West is a field program designed to explore the large array of human responses to a specific landscape over an extended period of time… Moving between the land and studio, our inquiry extends from the geologic forces that shape the ground itself to the cultural actions that define place. Within this context, land art includes everything from pictographs and petroglyphs to the construction of roads, dwellings, and monuments as well as traces of those actions.

It’s immersive landscape theory, armed with duffel bags and tents. Sign me up.

8) Terraforming: The Creating of Habitable Worlds by Martin Beech (Springer) — Hampered only an appalling choice of paper and by its factory-preset graphic design, Martin Beech’s Terraforming is otherwise a refreshingly quantitative approach to how whole planets can be made habitable for human beings. “The ultimate aim of terraforming,” Beech writes, “is to alter a hostile planetary environment into one that is Earth-like, and eventually walk upon the surface of the new and vibrant world that you or I could walk freely about and explore.” Usually the realm of science fiction and/or moral speculation – indeed, even this book opens with a fictional scenario set in the year 2100 – the controversial idea of terraforming here takes on a numeric, chemical, and even topographic specificity.

9) Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia, and the End of the Golden Age (Harvard University Press) — Having been oddly obsessed with Xenophon’s Persian Expedition ever since learning that it was one of the inspirations for Sol Yurick’s novel The Warriors – check out BLDGBLOG’s interview with Yurick for more – I was excited to find Robin Waterfield’s micro-history of “Xenophon’s retreat.” The basic question: what do you do when you’re a highly trained mercenary fighting on the losing side in an unparalleled example of fratricidal desert warfare, and you now have to fight your way back home, on foot, temporarily living in caves, engaging in numerous minor skirmishes, followed by spies, passing from what would now be the suburbs of Baghdad to the western shores of Turkey? That’s exactly what Xenophon did – and he went on to a distinguished career as a writer and historian. In other words, it’s an absolutely incredible story. Waterfield’s descriptions of the physical reality of phalanx-based warfare are also awesomely intense.

10) After the City, This (Is How We Live) by Tom Marble (LA Forum) — At some point, architect Tom Marble had the ingenious idea of writing a book about the mysterious subcultures of real estate development and zoning in greater Los Angeles – but to write it as a screenplay. The results are both charming and readable. At times perhaps a bit too didactic to be put on screen by Steven Spielberg, as an experiment in mixing genres this is altogether brilliant, full of voice-over narratives and cuts from scene to scene and even color photographs. But to write this as a screenplay… I’m jealous.

EXT. REUNION — NIGHT
Nat walks up to the front door of a large Colonial house in Pasadena. He is about to knock when the door swings open, revealing a crowd of about twenty people.

Or:

EXT. SOFT ROCK CAFE — DAY
Nat and Jack sit at a restaurant table overlooking a koi pond. Consumer Jazz rises out of rock-shaped speakers. Nat can’t help notice beautiful twenty-something mothers swarm the bridges and banks of the pond, chatting with one another or chasing their kids.

As Nat bites into his sandwich, Jack smiles.

This is what I imagine might happen if Brand Avenue were to move to Hollywood and get a film deal. Again, genius.

11) Subterranean Twin Cities by Greg Brick (University of Minnesota Press) — I associate the underworlds of Minneapolis–St. Paul almost entirely with “Rinker’s Revenge,” an ailment peculiar to urban explorers mentioned by Michael Cook in his interview with BLDGBLOG. Rinker’s Revenge also makes an appearance in Greg Brick’s book-length journey through the city’s substructures, passing waterfalls, tunnels, wine cellars, and drains. “Let’s take an imaginary journey downward through the geological layers of Minnesota by way of a sewer,” Brick begins – before donning waterproof boots and making the descent himself.

12) McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Misha Glenny (Vintage) — A different kind of underworld comes to us in this book that I found absolutely impossible to put down. Wildly undersold by reviews on Amazon, I can’t recommend this book enough. A look at the global counter-economies of sex trafficking, drugs, illegitimate construction, counterfeit goods, and light weaponry, the otherwise somewhat embarrassingly titled McMafia shows us a planet riddled with labyrinthine networks of unregistered transactions, untraceable people, and even illegal building sites. Author Misha Glenny also has a wonderfully sober take on the U.S. War on Drugs, suggesting that is the War on Drugs itself that has allowed the hyper-explosive growth of narcotic black markets – which, in turn, fund wars, rape, violence, and kidnapping across dozens of other economic sectors, worldwide. Toward the end of the book, Glenny even implies that, if the U.S. were to change its approach to drugs, the knock-on effects would be instantly catastrophic for organized crime everywhere. Ignore the title; this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read all year.

13) The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking by William Langewiesche (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — Continuing this Final Four of crime, war, and violence, William Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar could be described as a very long Atlantic article about the growing threat of nuclear trafficking. In the U.S. paperback copy, pages 6-10 are a seering, microsecond-by-microsecond description of what actually happens when a nuclear bomb explodes in a city; if nothing else, go to your local bookstore and read those pages. The rest of the book, however, present a fascinating look at the nightmarish world of post-Soviet nuclear arms storage facilities (and what Langewiesche suggests are the strategically self-defeating U.S. efforts to fund their protection), and an over-long (but fascinating) introduction to the life of A.Q. Khan, the Dutch-trained metallurgist who went on to give Pakistan its first nuclear bomb (and subsequently to market those nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and beyond).

14) Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System by Roberto Saviano (Picador) — The perfect accompaniment to Misha Glenn’s McMafia, Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano – the writing of which resulted in the author having to disappear into police protection – is an often horrific look at the counter-state of organized private crime in and around Naples, Italy. Stomach-turning descriptions of torture – including a spiked baseball bat and decapitation by metal grinder – punctuate what is otherwise a remarkably thoughtful guide to the administrative reality of urban gangsterism. This is what happens to cities when a) there is no state and b) there are lots of machine guns. I hope to post about this book – now also a film – in more detail later, so I will leave my description at that. Suffice it to say, though, it’s worth the read.

15) Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism by Stephen Graham (Verso) — Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege has not even been released yet, so I don’t know if it’s good – but I can’t wait to read it. “Drawing on a wealth of original research,” the publishers write, “Stephen Graham shows how Western and Israeli militaries and security forces now perceive all urban terrain as a real or imagined conflict zone inhabited by lurking, shadow enemies, and urban inhabitants as targets that need to be continually tracked, scanned, controlled and targeted.” Release date in July 2009.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 2)

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mike Davis, author, sociologist, and urban theorist, recorded upon the publication of his book, Planet of Slums. If you missed part one, here it is.


In this installment, Davis discusses the rise of Pentecostalism in global mega-slums; the threat of avian flu; the disease vectors of urban poverty; criminal and terrorist mini-states; the future of sovereignty; environmental footprints; William Gibson; the allure of Hollywood; and Viggo Mortensen‘s publishing imprint, Perceval Press.


BLDGBLOG: In an earlier, essay-length version of Planet of Slums, you write at some length about the rise of Pentecostalism as a social and organizational force in the slums – but that research is missing from the actual book, Planet of Slums. Are you distancing yourself from that research, or perhaps less interested now in its implications?

Davis: Actually, several hundred pages on Pentecostalism are now being decanted in the second volume, written with Forrest Hylton, where they properly belong. But the historical significance of Pentecostalism – evangelical Christianity – is that it’s the first modern religious movement, I believe – or religious sect – which emerged out of the urban poor. Although there are many gentrified Pentecostal churches in the United States today, and even in places like Brazil, the real crucible of Pentecostalism – the spiritual experience which propels it – the whole logic of Pentecostalism – remains within the urban poor.

Of course, Pentecostalism, in most places, is also, overwhelmingly, a religion of women – and in Latin America, at least, it has an actual material benefit. Women who join the church, and who can get their husbands to join with them, often see significant increases in their standard of living: the men are less likely to drink, or whore, or gamble all their money away.

For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.

BLDGBLOG: Outside of simply filling a void left behind by the retreat of the State, what’s the actual appeal of Pentecostalism for this new generation of urban poor?

Davis: Frankly, one of the great sources of Pentecostalism’s appeal is that it’s a kind of para-medicine. One of the chief factors in the life of the poor today is a constant, chronic crisis of health and medicine. This is partially a result of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1980s, which devastated public health and access to medicine in so many countries. But Pentecostalism offers faith healing, which is a major attraction – and it’s not entirely bogus. When it comes to things like addictive behavior, Pentecostalism probably has as good a track record curing alcoholism, neuroses, and obsessions as anything else. That’s a huge part of its appeal. Pentecostalism is a kind of spiritual health delivery system.


BLDGBLOG: It would seem that human overpopulation is, in and of itself, turning cities into slums. In other words, no matter what governmental steps or state-based programs are devised to address urban poverty, slums are just a by-product of overpopulation.

Davis: Well, I don’t actually believe in the notion of overpopulation – particularly as it’s now become clear that the most extreme projections of human population growth just aren’t coming to pass. Probably for the last ten or fifteen years, demographers have been steadily reducing their projections.

The paramount question is not whether the population has grown too large, but: how do you square the circle between, on the one hand, social justice with some kind of equitable right to a decent standard of living, and, on the other, environmental sustainability? There aren’t too many people in the world – but there is, obviously, over-consumption of non-renewable resources on a planetary scale. Of course, the way to square that circle – the solution to the problem – is the city itself. Cities that are truly urban are the most environmentally efficient systems that we have ever created for living together and working with nature. The particular genius of the city is its ability to provide high standards of living through public luxury and public space, and to satisfy needs that can never be meet by the suburban private consumption model.

Having said that, the problem of urbanization in the world today is that it’s not urbanism in the classic sense. The real challenge is to make cities better as cities. I think Planet of Slums addresses the reality that every complaint made by sociologists in the 1950s and 60s about American suburbia is now true on an exponentially increased scale with poor cities: all the problems with sprawl, all the problems with an increasing amount of time and resources tied up in commutes to work, all the problems with environmental pollution, all the problems with the lack of traditional urban apparatuses of leisure, recreation, social services and so on.

BLDGBLOG: Yet a city like Khartoum – or even Cairo – simply doesn’t have the environmental resources to support such a large human population. No matter what the government decides to do, there are simply too many people. Eventually you hit a wall. So there can’t be a European-style social model, based on taxation and the supply of municipal services, if there aren’t the necessary environmental resources.

Davis: Well, I’d say it the other way around, actually. If you look at a city like Los Angeles, and its extreme dependence on regional infrastructure, the question of whether certain cities become monstrously over-sized has less to do with the number of people living there, than with how they consume, whether they reuse and recycle resources, whether they share public space. So I wouldn’t say that a city like Khartoum is an impossible city; that has much more to do with the nature of private consumption.

People talk about environmental footprints, but the environmental footprints of different groups who make up a population tend to differ dramatically. In California, for instance, within the right-wing of the Sierra Club, and amongst anti-immigrant groups, there’s this belief that a huge tide of immigration from Mexico is destroying the environment, and that all these immigrants are actually responsible for the congestion and the pollution – but that’s absurd. Nobody has a smaller environmental footprint, or tends to use public space more intensely, than Latin American immigrants. The real problem is white guys in golf carts out on the hundred and ten golf courses in the Coachella Valley. In other words, one retired white guy my age may be using up a resource base ten, twenty, thirty times the size of a young chicana trying to raise her family in a small apartment in the city.

So Malthusianism, in a crude sense, keeps reappearing in these debates, but the real question is not about panicking in the face of future population growth or immigration, but how to invest in the genius of urbanism. How to make suburbs, like those of Los Angeles, function as cities in a more classical sense. There’s an absolute, essential need to preserve green areas and environmental reserves. A city can’t operate without those. Of course, the pattern everywhere in the world is for poverty – for housing and development – to spill over into crucial watersheds, to build up around reservoirs and open spaces that are essential to the metabolism of the city. Even this astonishing example in Mumbai, where people have pushed so far into the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park that slum dwellers are now being eaten by leopards – or Sao Paulo, which uses astronomical amounts of water purification chemicals because it’s fighting a losing battle against the pollution of its watershed.

If you allow that kind of growth, if you lose the green areas and the open spaces, if you pump out the aquifers, if you terminally pollute the rivers, then, of course, you can do fatal damage to the ecology of the city.


BLDGBLOG: One of the things I found most interesting in your recent book, Monster At Our Door, is the concept of “biosecurity.” Could you explain how biosecurity is, or is not, being achieved on the level of urban space and architectural design?

Davis: I see the whole question of epidemic control and biosecurity being modeled after immigration control. That’s the reigning paradigm right now. Of course, it’s a totally false analogy – particularly when you deal with something like influenza, which can’t be quarantined. You can’t build walls against it. Biosecurity, in a globalized world that contains as much poverty and squalor as our urban world does, is impossible. There is no biosecurity. The continuing quest will be to achieve the biological equivalent of a gated community, with the control of movement and with regulations that just enforce all the most Orwellian tendencies – the selective creation and provision of vaccines, anti-virals, and so on.

But, at the end of the day, biosecurity is an impossibility – until you address the essence of the problem: which is public health for the poor, and the ecological sustainability of the city.

In Monster At Our Door, I cite what I thought was an absolutely model study, published in Science, about how breakneck urbanization in western Africa is occurring at the same time that European factory ships are coming in and scooping up all the fish protein. This has turned urban populations massively to bush meat – which was already a booming business because of construction crews logging out the last tropical forests in west Africa – and, presto: you get HIV, you get ebola, you get unknown plagues. I thought the article was an absolutely masterful description of inadvertent causal linkages, and the complex ecology – the environmental impact – that urbanization has. Likewise, with urbanization in China and southeast Asia, the industrialization of poultry seems to be one of the chief factors behind the threat of avian flu.

As any epidemiologist will tell you, these are just the first, new plagues of globalization – and there will be more. The idea that you can defend against diseases by the equivalent of a gated community is ludicrous, but it’s exactly the direction in which public health policy is being directed. As we’ve seen, unless you’re prepared to shoot down all the migratory birds in the world –

BLDGBLOG: Which I’m sure someone has suggested.

Davis: I mean, I did a lot of calculator work on the UN data, from The Challenge of Slums, calculating urban densities and so on, and this is the Victorian world writ large. Just as the Victorian middle classes could not escape the diseases of the slums, neither will the rich, bunkered down in their country clubs or inside gated communities. The whole obsession now is that avian flu will be brought into the country by –

BLDGBLOG: A Mexican!

Davis: Exactly: it’ll be smuggled over the border – which is absurd. This ongoing obsession with illegal immigration has become a one-stop phantasmagoria for… everything. Of course, it goes back to primal, ancient fears: the Irish brought typhoid, the Chinese brought plague. It’s old hat.

The other thing that’s happening, of course, is that bird flu is being used as a competitive strategy by large-scale, industrialized producers of livestock to force independent producers to the wall. These industrial-scale farms are claiming that only indoor, bio-secured, industrially farmed poultry is safe. This is part of a very complex process of global competition. In Monster At Our Door I cite the case of CP, in Thailand – the Tyson of SE Asia. Even as they’re being wiped-out in Thailand, unable to exploit their chickens, they’re opening new factories in Bulgaria – and profiting from the panic over chicken from Thailand. In other words, avian flu is being used to rationalize and further centralize the poultry industry – yet it appears, to a lot of people, that it’s precisely the industrialization of poultry that has not just allowed the emergence of avian flu but has actually sped up its evolution.


BLDGBLOG: What would a biosecure world actually look like, on the level of architecture and urban design? How do you construct biosecurity? Do you see any evidence that the medical profession is being architecturally empowered, so to speak, influencing the design of “disease-free” public spaces?

Davis: Well, sure. It’s exactly how Victorian social control over the slums was defined as a kind of hygienic project – or in the same way that urban segregation was justified in colonial cities as a problem of sanitation. Everywhere these discourses reinforce one another. What really has been lacking, however, is one big epidemic, originating in poverty, that hits the middle classes – because then you’ll see people really go berzerk. I think one of the most important facts about our world is that middle class people – above all, middle class Americans – have lived inside a historical bubble that really has no precedent in the rest of human history. For two, three, almost four, generations now, they have not personally experienced the cost of war, have not experienced epidemic disease – in other words, they have lived in an ever-increasing arc not only of personal affluence but of personal longevity and security from accidental death, war, disease, and so on. Now if that were abruptly to come to a halt – to be interrupted by a very bad event, like a pandemic, that begins killing some significant number of middle class Americans – then obviously all hell is going to break loose.

The one thing I’m firmly convinced of is that the larger, affluent middle classes in this country will never surrender their lifestyle and its privileges. If suddenly faced with a threat in which they may be made homeless by disaster, or killed by plagues, I think you can expect very, very irrational reactions – which of course will inscribe themselves in a spatial order, and probably in spectacular ways. I think one thing that would emerge after an avian flu pandemic, if it does occur, will be a lot of focus on biosecurity at the level of domestic space.

BLDGBLOG: Duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Davis: Sure.


BLDGBLOG: What has happened to the status or role of the nation-state – of sovereignty, territory, citizenship, etc.? For instance, are national governments being replaced by multinational corporations, and citizens by employees?

Davis: That’s a very interesting question. Clearly, though, what’s happened with globalization has not been the transcendence of the nation-state by the corporation, or by new, higher-level entities. What we’ve seen is much more of a loss of sovereignty on some levels – and the reinforcement of sovereignty on others.

Obviously, the whole process of Structural Adjustment in the 1980s meant the ceding of much local sovereignty and powers of local government to the international bodies that administer debt. The World Bank, for example, working with NGOs, creates networks that often dilute local sovereignty. A brilliant example of this problem is actually what’s happening right now in New Orleans: all the expert commissions, and the oversight boards, and the off-site authorities that are being proposed will basically destroy popular government in New Orleans, reducing the city council to a figurehead and transferring power back to the traditional elite. And that’s all in the name of fighting corruption and so on.

But whether you’ll see new kinds of supra-national entities emerge depends, I think, on the country. Obviously some countries are strengthening their national positions – the state remains all important – while other countries have effectively lost all sovereignty. I mean, look at an extreme case, like Haiti.

BLDGBLOG: How are these shifts being accounted for in the geopolitical and military analyses you mentioned earlier?

Davis: The problem that military planners, and some geopoliticians, are talking about is actually something quite different: that’s the emergence, in hundreds of both little and major nodes across the world, of essentially autonomous slums governed by ethnic militias, gangs, transnational crime, and so on. This is something the Pentagon is obviously very interested in, and concerned about, with Mogadishu as a kind of prototype example. The ongoing crisis of the Third World city is producing almost feudalized patterns of large slum neighborhoods that are effectively terrorist or criminal mini-states – rogue micro-sovereignties. That’s the view of the Pentagon and of Pentagon planners. They also seem quite alarmed by the fact that the peri-urban slums – the slums on the edges of cities – lack clear hierarchies. Even more difficult, from a planning perspective, there’s very little available data. The slums are kind of off the radar screen. They therefore become the equivalent of rain forest, or jungle: difficult to penetrate, impossible to control.

I think there are fairly smart Pentagon thinkers who don’t see this so much as a question of regions, or categories of nation-states, so much as holes, or enclaves within the system. One of the best things I ever read about this was actually William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. Gibson proposes that, in a world where giant multinational capital is supreme, there are places that simply aren’t valuable to the world economy anymore – they don’t reproduce capital – and so those spaces are shunted aside. A completely globalized system, in Gibson’s view, would leak space – it would have internal redundancies – and one of those spaces, in Virtual Light, is the Bay Bridge.

But, sure, this is a serious geopolitical and military problem: if you conduct basically a triage of the world’s human population – where some people are exiled from the world economy, and some spaces no longer have roles – then you’re offering up ideal opportunities for other people to step in and organize those spaces to their own ends. This is a deeper and more profound situation than any putative conflicts of civilization. It is, in a way, a very unexpected end to the 20th century. Neither classical Marxism, nor any other variety of classical social theory or neoliberal economics, ever predicted that such a large fraction of humanity would live in cities and yet basically outside all the formal institutions of the world economy.

BLDGBLOG: Is there an economic solution, then?

Davis: You’ll never re-conquer these parts of the city simply through surveillance, or military invasion, or policing – you have to offer the people some way to re-connect with the world economy. Until you can provide resources, or jobs, the danger is that this will worsen. People are being thrown back onto tribal and ethnic clientelism of one kind or another as a means of survival – even as a means of excluding other poor people from these already limited resources. Increasingly, new arrivals in the city – the sons and daughters of the urban poor – are being pressed by tighter housing markets, and by the inability to find cheap – certainly not free – land. Where cheap land does exist, it only exists because the land is otherwise undevelopable. It’s too dangerous. You’re just wagering on natural disaster. In fact, the end of this frontier of squattable land is one conclusion of Planet of Slums.

Another conclusion is that almost all the research on informal urban economies has shown that informality is simply not generating job ladders. Sure, some micro-entrepreneurs go on to become mini-entrepreneurs – but the larger fact is you’re just subdividing poverty. You’re getting more and more people competing, trying to pursue the same survival strategies in the same place. Those are the facts that darken this book the most, I think. They’re also what darken the horizon of research on the city in general, even more than questions of sanitation and so on. What the World Bank, what the NGOs, what all the apostles of neoliberal self-help depend on is the availability of cheap, squattable land, and the existence of entrepreneurial opportunities in the informal sector.

If you exhaust those two, people will be driven to the wall – and then the safety valves won’t work. Then the urban poor will run out of the resources for miracles.


BLDGBLOG: I’ll wrap up with two quick questions. It’s interesting that you’re raising a family – even two young toddlers – in a world where, as you write, there are emerging super-plagues, earthquakes, race riots, tornadoes in Los Angeles, mega-slums, etc. Are you nervous about the future for your kids?

Davis: Well, of course. I mean, people who read into my work a kind of delight in disaster and apocalypse either are reading incorrectly or I’m a bad writer – because that isn’t the intention. To be honest with you, there’s more of a yearning for these kinds of apocalypse in the literature of Pentecostalism –

BLDGBLOG: Good point.

Davis: – and that’s apocalypse properly understood, its real, Biblical meaning. It’s precisely this idea of an unrevealed, secret history of the world that will become luminously clear in the last hour, and will rewrite history from the standpoint of the people who had previously been history’s victims. I would say that, as somebody who’s ultimately an old-fashioned socialist, or rationalist, with an almost excessive faith in science – you know, I tremble when I write this stuff. I take no joy in writing a book about car bombs, but it just struck me that here was this technology nobody had written about on its own terms, yet it had become horribly successful. It’s a lot easier for me to cope with hypochondria about avian flu – having written a book about it – than if I hadn’t written about it. Let’s put it that way. I feel the same way about the future of my children.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, have you ever considered working outside the genre of critical nonfiction, and – in an almost Ridley Scott-like way – directing a film, or writing a novel?

Davis: [laughs] Well, I have in an extremely minor way: I’ve published two young adult science adventure novels – which is the name I’ve given to the genre – through Viggo Mortenson’s little press, Perceval Press. Three young kids, including my son who lives in Dublin, are the heroes.

BLDGBLOG: How’d that come about?

Davis: It all arose out of the fact that, in 1998, I got this MacArthur Foundation money – and I just wasted it all [laughter]. My kids and I went to the four corners of the earth. I took my son to east Greenland, and one night – because the sun never sets, and the sled dogs howl into the wee hours – he asked me to tell him a story, and I spun it off into a novel. But that’s as far as I’ll get. I mean, living in LA as long as I have, the one thing you learn is: stay away from Hollywood. Never, ever contemplate writing a screenplay or getting involved in a movie; it’s just a graveyard of talented people. I’ve literally seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the allure of that kind of stuff. And I’ve never had the slightest desire to do it. If I wrote fiction it would be very forgettable.

BLDGBLOG: So if Ridley Scott called you in to write his next screenplay you’d have to refuse?

Davis: I’ve seen people I admire greatly – hugely talented, much greater writers than I am – just crash and burn and destroy their lives: partially because they never learned the difference between good writing and Hollywood. It’s the same way with the seduction of becoming a public intellectual, having lots of fans, and reading in bookstores all the time – which I’ve learned to run away from with horror. Right now I’m trying to simplify my life by cutting out as much of that stuff as possible, because I’m having a ball with my two two-year olds, hanging out in Balboa Park everyday.


(BLDGBLOG owes an enormous thanks to Mike Davis for his time, patience, and willingness to see this discussion through to completion. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman – who also deserves a big thanks. Don’t miss part one).