Architects of War
July 23, 2018 12:57 PM   Subscribe

It's the fall of 1990. You’re in architecture school. Your assignment is to collect blueprints from a foreign country on the verge of American invasion. Are you helping to preserve threatened buildings—or unwittingly supplying intelligence for more accurate U.S. missile strikes? Geoff Manaugh investigates. [SLDailyBeast]
posted by cichlid ceilidh (12 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
If you are interested in more of this history of preserving buildings during wartime, both China and the US have different takes on who is responsible for not putting Kyoto on the list of bombing targets during WWII, but both names are not seen in the textbooks or major historical articles regarding the target choices. Reading and doing this research made me start questioning and wanting to go deeper into the narratives that are given to all of us. Liang Sicheng is the Chinese architect who did the advising. Curiously, if you go to the Wikipedia page on the bombing targets, you will only see credit given to Stimson for making the decision.

Who Saved Kyoto? This talks about Langdon Warner, from the US side.
posted by yueliang at 1:39 PM on July 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks, that made horrifying reading. 'But we did not run a course on x in march 1990' - what a rabbit hole Manaugh went down for this story. The guardian article is well worth reading too.

"One strategy, he suggested, would be to put together a fake architectural conference ... If there are sham conferences, of course, then why not sham graduate seminars?"

So there may be whole networks of sham papers I suppose for a believable backstory. I would imagine this happens a lot in architecture and landscape - much landscape analysis is drawn directly from military surveillance and theory (I'm a landscape architect), so co-opting students is a (very cynical) natural step.
posted by unearthed at 1:45 PM on July 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Interesting article, I was trying to remember who could have led such a seminar and where, and to me it seems more likely it could've happened in Britain because the US schools were still so much into formalism at the time. But who knows?
It also reminds me of the work of Eyal Weizman, who has the opposite intentions, but clearly knows something about this type of engagement of architecture/planning/landscape with military research.
posted by mumimor at 1:51 PM on July 23, 2018

> mumimor:
"It also reminds me of the work of Eyal Weizman"

I had the same reaction. I thought about including this NYT article on his Forensic Architecture agency from a few months back.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 2:01 PM on July 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is great, one of those articles where the details are actually better than the headline. Great work Geoff!
posted by q*ben at 2:05 PM on July 23, 2018

I am sick thinking about this.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:39 PM on July 23, 2018

Very, very interesting post. Thanks for sharing. That article about forensic architecture is fascinating, too.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:46 PM on July 23, 2018

Seems like Betteridge’s Law remains accurate in this case (spoiler alert, I guess?) but this is none-the-less an interesting read.
posted by midmarch snowman at 9:33 PM on July 23, 2018

Predicted in 1985!
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:51 PM on July 23, 2018

Eyal is perhaps the single most effectively moral actor in the entire field of architecture, and tremendously good people besides.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:16 AM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

It is an interesting article, but it seems like the sort of thing that's fuel for a collective false memory. There's no evidence that the architecture course, or graduate seminar, actually happened. It's impossible to prove that it didn't happen, of course, but proving a negative is almost always impossible. The intelligence about the buildings could just as plausibly have been obtained directly from the archives of the contractors who built them, with suitable encouragement via diplomatic and political channels, during the run-up to Desert Storm.

But it's such a neat story, and plausible enough, that I don't doubt that at some point it will become part of the collective history of the war—regardless of whether or not it happened.

What is sort of interesting food for thought is that something like it was plausible in 1990-1991, it's unlikely to happen (at least, in regard to the same information) today. There would just not be the same need to go around and collect paper plans from around the world; the same information could probably be derived by looking at high-resolution satellite photos, or searching through publicly-available photography collections for street-level views, and if plans or mechanical drawings were actually needed, they'd likely be digital, and anything in a computer in today's world is basically there for the taking if you're a state-level actor.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:44 AM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

What is sort of interesting food for thought is that something like it was plausible in 1990-1991, it's unlikely to happen (at least, in regard to the same information) today.

I'm not sure about that. Yes, obviously a lot of the information will be accesable online, and I suppose that 3-D models are made of towns and cities before strikes now, just like they built physical models during WW2, based on available information.

But there are other forms of information and knowledge, and I think enrolling university professors is still a thing.

Some years ago, I met a professor at my then university whom I found hilarious. They really wanted to make a whole design program about the aesthetics of violence, (having already done a voluntary course). The idea was to design weapons and instruments of torture. I thought they were ironic and critical, and generally admired their sparkly intellect.
Later on, I have come to doubt about the critical part. I slowly learnt that this professor was a nationalist and religious conservative trapped in an environment where everyone was either libertarian (The Fountainhead!!) or liberal (Grand Projects!! Infrastructure!!) And I realized that they were systematically undermining all research and education towards welfare development and the common good. That intellect, which was indeed impressive, easily overwhelmed and overpowered most other colleagues and all students. Were they paid by some foreign power or think tank? I have no idea, they might as well have been working independently. But they were excellent at manipulating research and education towards their own intent and ideology. And they could easily deliver something similar, if not identical to what was described in the article. And deny everything without argument.

As I wrote above, I have a hard time seeing this happen in an American university at that time. It's a full decade before Koolhaas was at Harvard, and AFAIK, no one was working with that type of mapping in the US at the time. I may well be wrong, and it would absolutely have been possible in both Canada and the UK. Also, not only architects teach at architecture schools. It could have been an optional course led by an anthropologist, a historian or a political scientist. I took an anthropology/architecture course at Columbia in -96, where the prof was an antropologist who mined our architectural skills.
posted by mumimor at 12:52 PM on July 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

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