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).


[Image: The Georgian cave monastery of Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Vardzia is a ruined honeycomb of arched passageways and artificially enlarged caves on a steep mountainside in Georgia. It is on a “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage status.

[Image: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Quoting from Wikipedia:

The monastery was constructed as protection from the Mongols, and consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen-story complex. The city included a church, a throne room, and a complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari river.

Nearby are the ruins of another cave monastery, called Vanis Kvabebi.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In the formal application sent to UNESCO for consideration of the site, we read that the architecture of this region can be seen as spatially punctuating the landscape, supplying moments of almost grammatical emphasis:

Fortresses and churches erected on high mountains and hills are perceived as distinguished vertical accents in such a horizontally developed setting. They terminate and emphasise natural verticals, being in perfect harmony with the latter. They introduce great emotional impulse imparting specific grandeur to the whole environment. The same artistic affect is created by rock-cut monasteries and villages arranged in several tiers on high rocky mountain slopes.

Originally constructed in the 12th century—in a region inhabited by humans since at least neolithic times—and very much resembling one of the cave-cities of Cappadocia, Vardzia is a spatially fantastic site (and, I’d assume, a videogame level waiting to happen).

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

It is also located in one of the most geologically interesting places on earth—at least from a subterranean standpoint—as the nation of Georgia also contains the world’s deepest known cave.

As National Geographic explained in an article several years ago, Krubera Cave—also known as Voronya—is still incompletely explored, despite its record-breaking, abyssal depths; expeditions have spent more than three weeks underground there, mapping windows and chambers, sleeping in tents, and using colored dyes to trace rivers and streams locked in the rock walls around them.

Check out this sequence of images, for instance, documenting an organized descent into the planet—or this article about caving in Abkhazia, or even this summary of the “Call of the Abyss” exploration project that sought to find the true depths of Voronya Cave.

[Images: Vardzia, as seen in some stunning photos by cosh_to_jest].

In any case, there’s absolutely no geological connection between Vardzia and Krubera Cave—there is no secret tunnel system linking the two across the vast Georgian landscape (after all, they are extremely far apart)—but how exciting would it be to discover that Vardzia had, in fact, been constructed as a kind of architectural filter above the stovepipe-like opening of a titanic cave system, and that, 800 years ago, monks alone in the mountains reading books about the end of the world might have sat there, surrounded by fading frescoes of saints and dragons, looking into the mouth of the abyss, perhaps even in their own local twist on millennial Christianity standing guard over something they believed to be hiding far below.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In fact, I don’t mean to belabor the point here, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the CIA has satellite photos that have been used as scouting documents for the rumored location of Noah’s Ark—it is “satellite archaeology,” one researcher claims. That is, there being quite a few religious members of the U.S. government, things like Noah’s Ark are considered more objective and archaeological than they are superstitious or theological.

But how absolutely mind-boggling would it be to find out someday that there is, operating within the U.S. intelligence services, a small group of especially religious analysts who have been scouring the Caucausus region, funded by tax dollars, and armed with geoscanning equipment and several miles of rope, looking for the entrance to Hell?

You can see further images of Vardzia here.