A Prison Camp is for Escaping: Grand Illusion (1937)

[Image: Posters for Grand Illusion, currently out of print from the Criterion Collection].

For the first film in Breaking Out and Breaking In a distributed film fest—where you watch the films at home and return here to discuss them online—co-sponsored by BLDGBLOG, Filmmaker Magazine, and Studio-X NYC, we watched Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), recently described as one of the 100 best films of world cinema (Seven Samurai, if you're curious, was #1).

I will limit myself to discussing Grand Illusion solely from the perspective of this film fest of prison breaks and bank heists (which will be true for all the films discussed in this series). In other words, I'll focus specifically on the topology of escape—on holes, tunnels, walls, and borders. And I should note: there are spoilers ahead.

[Images: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

The first attempted escape of the film is through the earth: tunneling from beneath the barracks of a German prison camp with the intention of popping up beyond the outer buildings, in a garden.

Removing the floorboards and hacking through exceptionally soft soil, the prisoners rig an alarm system and fashion a tentacular speaking-tube to make sure they all know if the person on digging duty has passed out in the carbon dioxide-rich microclimate being created by their tunneling activity. In fact, the speaking-tube—like an old-fashioned game of telephone—initially appears to be a breathing apparatus of some sort, as if they are, in fact, snorkeling through the earth.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the digger—an irritatingly effusive French cabaret singer—loses consciousness, his candle goes out, and he must be hauled backward out of the mud by rope.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

There are at least two particularly interesting things about this tunnel.

1) The diggers engage in an illicit earth-moving operation by filling their clothes with the resulting dirt, and then dumping the dirt into the garden. They're thus generating their own little artificial topography out in the prison yard as they scoop out the earth beneath their barracks house. The negative space of the tunnel becomes this new terrain of dirt piles and rows, which are thus symptoms of this literally underground activity.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

2) More interestingly, the tunnel is soon abandoned: all of the prisoners are moved to new camps, the barracks are emptied, the tunnel still covered by floorboards, and a last-ditch attempt to let the incoming prisoners know that there is a half-completed escape tunnel beneath their bedroom fails. A train pulls away, splitting up the prisoners and bringing them to new camps; all the while, a remnant escape route, unfinished and unknown, lies waiting to be rediscovered.

Immediately before their departure, however, there is a brief exchange between two of the film's protagonists. Looking out at the clockwork machinations of the German guards, who march in synchrony across the prison courtyard, the imprisoned Captain de Boeldieu quips: "For me it's simple. A golf course is for golf. A tennis court for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping."

[Images: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

While this is by no means a remarkable piece of dialogue in and of itself, it suggests that, internal to and implied by the diagram of the camp, there is a goal or proper use, but one that runs against the grain of the space's stated intentions. The camp is a landscape that necessitates its own peculiar misuse; escape is just the sport that actualizes this. Put another way, the design of the camp rigorously implies its own escape routes.

Further to this point, however, and as evidenced by the casual manner with which our sporting gentlemen pack up their rackets and coats and abandon their incomplete tunnel, their behavior is motivated more by following unspoken rules (of war, of the camp, of sporting etiquette) than, in a sense, by trying to win.

In any case, from this point in the film it's onward, out and further, through a series of other camps—shown solely in montage—before the displaced captives arrive at an imposing mountaintop fortress—filmed at the Châteaux du Haut-Koenigsbourg— run by the wounded Von Rauffenstein (who, to my mind, looks remarkably like Darth Vader without a helmet, as seen in Return of the Jedi).

Von Rauffenstein takes his new forced guests on a fortifications tour, walking around the castle's walls. "Nice castle," one of them remarks, as another methodically recites the centuries of original construction. "12th century," he mutters. "13th century."

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

But all along they are looking for blindspots, low points, and ways over the wall.

[Image: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

The eventual—and final—method of escape is by way of diversion, using small flutes and makeshift drums to distract the castle guards as two prisoners make an improbable break for it down a handmade rope out of a tower. And, after a brief stop by a house in the Alps where a spot of romance pops up, they find their ultimate freedom in a moment that is absurd for all it reveals about the notion of political jurisdiction.

Running in plain view of German soldiers, who have finally caught up to them, our remaining two heroes have nothing to worry about: they have crossed an invisible line in the snow, making a mockery of all their tunnels and secret ropes, as they walk up a hill in neutral Switzerland.

[Images: From Grand Illusion, courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

Clearly, outside the specific context of Breaking Out and Breaking In, there is much more to discuss, including the film's actual central theme, which is not escape but class divisions.

Hopefully, though, this will serve as a quick intro to the film's many specifically spatial propositions. If you had a chance to watch Grand Illusion last week, by all means let us all know what you think—and stay tuned in the next day or two for a post about Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped.

(Note: Friday, February 3, brings The Great Escape).

Architectural Nonessentials

306090, under the guest editorship of David Hays, is seeking "possible futures for architecture through speculations about new disciplinary knowledge." Hays asks, "What specific methods, materials, or understandings—tools, ratios, formulas, properties, principles, guidelines, definitions, rules, practices, techniques, reference points, histories, and more—not presently considered essential to architecture could, or should, define its future?"

These are architectural nonessentials: unexpected sources of spatial counter-expertise that are "currently undervalued, generally misunderstood, or not yet recognized" (like, for instance, the peculiar architectural insights found in bank heists, the tactics of urban escape and evasion, or the tools of forced entry banned by California Penal Code 466-469).

Submissions are due March 30, 2012, and more info is available on the 306090 site.

(Via Alex Trevi).

Breaking Out and Breaking In

Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists kicks off Friday, January 27, sponsored by BLDGBLOG, Filmmaker Magazine, and Studio-X NYC.
[Image: Breaking Out and Breaking In poster by Atley Kasky and Keith Scharwath; view larger!].

Breaking Out and Breaking In is an exploration of the use and misuse of space in prison escapes and bank heists, where architecture is the obstacle between you and what you're looking for.

Watch the films at home—or anywhere you may be—and then come back to discuss the films here on BLDGBLOG. It's a "distributed" film fest; there is no central venue, just a curated list of films and a list of days on which to watch them. There's no set time, no geographic exclusion, and no limit to the food breaks or repeated scenes you might require. And it all leads up to a public discussion at Studio-X NYC on Monday, April 30.

The overall idea is to discuss breaking out and breaking in as spatial scenarios that work as mirror images of one another, each process with its own tools, techniques, and unique forms of unexpected architectural expertise.

How do prisoners and burglars reinterpret the built environments around them? Where does this more aggressive understanding of space differ from the constructive insights of an architect—and how can a building be strategically unbuilt so as to get at what lies on the other side? What particular kinds of spatial and temporal knowledge—where to tunnel, when to go—do these other users of buildings need to develop?

If burglary and prison breaks each require a kind of counter-manual of the city, then what might such a guide include—from precise time schedules and blindspots to the limits of surveillance—what points of weakness and unexpected parallels should it map, and what typologies of incisions or perforations would it posit to allow new routes through closed spaces?

The escape and the break-in here are both about illicit reinterpretations of space, sometimes violent, sometimes simply used against the grain, operating a building, we might say, in every way the architect—and the guards who police his or her creation—regrettably overlooked.

Conversely, how is space regulated and maintained from the standpoint of the police and the prison guard, or from the point of view of the homeowner who seeks to hide his or her private riches? What obstacles, blockades, misdirections, decoys, safe rooms, and security systems must be implemented to ensure that a given space is properly accessed?
[Image: Breaking Out and Breaking In poster by Atley Kasky and Keith Scharwath].

These are all recurring themes here on BLDGBLOG, where, over the years, we've discussed how to plan the perfect heist and how to perforate a skyscraper, as well as how to worm your way through the interlinked foundations of London; and perhaps we might say that 19th-century architect George Leonidas Leslie, who used his spatial skills to become "the head of the most successful gang of bankrobbers known," is, in a sense, our festival's mascot or patron saint.

Over the next four months, we will be discussing these questions and many more—from how certain sequences in these films were shot to the stage sets constructed to produce them—culminating in a public event at Studio-X NYC in April.

Of course, not all of these films are escapes from prisons as such or heists specifically aimed at banks; instead, we'll explore what it means to break out from an overly managed suburban life in The Truman Show and how an elaborate home invasion goes wrong in Panic Room; we'll watch the perfectly timed dream-physics kicks and corporate secrets of Inception as well as a team of German terrorists robbing the vaults of the Nakatomi Building of its negotiated bearer bonds. And our list is by no means exhaustive, with some films chosen less for their cinematic quality or the depth of their characterization than for their discussability or the originality of their spatial propositions.

So, in order of viewing, this distributed film fest of prison breaks and bank heists includes:

Breaking Out—
Friday, January 27, 2012
Grand Illusion (dir. Jean Renoir, 1937)

Monday, January 30, 2012
A Man Escaped (dir. Robert Bresson, 1956)

Friday, February 3, 2012
The Great Escape (dir. John Sturges, 1963)

Monday, February 6, 2012
Cool Hand Luke (dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

Monday, February 13, 2012
Papillon (dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973)

Friday, February 17, 2012
Escape from Alcatraz (dir. Don Siegel, 1979)

Monday, February 20, 2012
Escape from New York (dir. John Carpenter, 1981)

Friday, February 24, 2012
Cube (dir. Vincenzo Natali, 1997)

Monday, February 27, 2012
The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998)

Friday, March 2, 2012
The Escapist (dir. Rupert Wyatt, 2008)

—Breaking In—
Monday, March 19, 2012
Rififi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1955)

Friday, March 23, 2012
The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (dir. John Guillermin, 1960)

Monday, March 26, 2012
The Italian Job (dir. Peter Collinson, 1969) vs. The Italian Job (dir. F. Gary Gray, 2003)

Friday, March 30, 2012
Dog Day Afternoon (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1975) vs. The Third Memory (dir. Pierre Huyghe, 1999)

Monday, April 2, 2012
Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988)

Friday, April 6, 2012
Following (dir. Christopher Nolan, 1998)

Monday, April 9, 2012
Panic Room (dir. David Fincher, 2002)

Friday, April 13, 2012
Inside Man (dir. Spike Lee, 2006)

Monday, April 16, 2012
The Bank Job (dir. Roger Donaldson, 2008)

Friday, April 20, 2012
Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Again, you can watch the films wherever you might be, from the Lower East Side to Rotterdam, from Toronto and Mumbai to Beijing, and then join the relevant comment threads here on BLDGBLOG (posted, I hope, within a day or two of the screening date). Further, look out for some original analyses on Filmmaker Magazine as the festival unfolds.

Finally, stop by Studio-X NYC on the evening of Monday, April 30, for a free public discussion featuring a stellar group of panelists soon to be announced.

I hope many of you will participate in this experiment in film curation!

(New Yorkers, note that Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped happens to be screening this week at Film Forum, so it might be a good idea to catch it before it leaves the theater).

Landscapes of Dredge

[Image: The expansion of Manhattan island, via Urban Omnibus].

For those of you in New York, consider stopping by Studio-X NYC for a short visual history of geotubes, silt fences, sensate geotextiles, engineered earthforms, and other monuments of the dredge cycle as Rob Holmes and Stephen Becker of Mammoth join Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon to present the work of the Dredge Research Collective (with Brett Milligan of Free Association Design, who, sadly, is unable to attend).

In the words of the event organizers:
The Dredge Cycle is landscape architecture at a monumental scale, carving the coastlines and waterways of continents according to a mixture of industrial need and unintended consequences. Thus far, dredge has remained the domain of logistics, industry, and engineering, a soft successor to the elevated freeway interchanges and massive dams that captured the infrastructural imagination of the previous century.

For the past year, the Dredge Research Collective have been exploring the choreography of these interconnected sedimentary landscapes, visiting dredged material confinement areas, from Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay to Hayden Island in the Columbia River, talking with dredge experts, such as the transnational materials conglomerate TenCate, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management, and publishing and lecturing widely on dredge.
The evening’s conversation, which is free and open to the public and will be followed by a lively Q&A, will also serve as a prelude to a limited-ticket Festival of Dredge tour in the summer of 2012, for which interview attendees will be given reservation priority.

Things kick off at 6:30pm on Tuesday, January 24, at 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610; here's a map. Hope to see you there!

Space Jack

[Image: "White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai, via Archinect].

Archinect is currently featuring a project called "White Elephant (Privately Soft)" by Jimenez Lai.

Lai describes it as "a building inside a building," falling "somewhere between super-furniture and a small house." It's a flippable object, able to be tilted and set on any side. It tumbles, in the architect's words, its cowhide-padded interior offering a place to sit in any orientation.

[Images: "White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai].

I'm basically just posting this here as eye-candy, but there is something awesomely compelling about the notion of super-furniture: hypertrophied spatial objects that are more like portable rooms, perfectly inhabiting the otherwise inexact and under-explored midspace between architecture and a bed or couch, between a house and the ergonomic equipment that fills out.

In fact, the sight of this thing looming all alone in an empty room makes it seem more powerful than it really is, I'd suggest, as it appears, in many ways, to invalidate the walls around it. In other words, why use the walls at all—why even furnish your own apartment—when you can just drop two or three of these white elephants inside it, perhaps lit from within, completing the space with their bulk? Your "bedroom" becomes spatially and materially coextensive with the bed itself.

[Images: "White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai].

It's a thus a kind of instant room you throw into your house, like spatial jacks, an inhabitable in-between, or burrow space, that both divides the place it sits within and defines an interior of its own.

[Images: "White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai].

There are more photographs on Archinect showing the spatial object being flipped, as the following, truncated sequence demonstrates—

[Images: "White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai].

—and Lai's diagrams reveal the variety of facets the project requires.

[Images: "White Elephant" diagrammed, by Jimenez Lai].

But it would also be interesting, given more time, to see many more spatial variations on the same basic idea, but also to explore the effect of different materials, finishes, and colors. Imagine building out a family of these objects the way you might build a BMW or specify a Mini Cooper. You select the geometry, the interior, the upholstery—maybe even small, medium, or large—and soon enough your very own piece of super-furniture arrives, ready for assembly.

[Images: "White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai].

See more at Archinect.

Submarine City

[Image: New York Harbor, mapped in 1966, courtesy of NOAA].

Going through old links this morning, I found a story originally published in New York Magazine back in 2009 about the waters of New York City—a maritime metropolis that, many forget, is also an archipelago.

"What, exactly, is down there?" the magazine asked, looking out at the urban waters. "For starters, a 350-foot steamship, 1,600 bars of silver, a freight train, and four-foot-long cement-eating worms." There are also the now submerged ruins of "Coney Island’s great early theme parks," discarded in the waters after the fun ran out.

[Image: New York Harbor, mapped in 1957, courtesy of NOAA].

It's an incredibly interesting article, as it happens, but those silver bars might even inspire a few of you to change your life direction:
In 1903, a barge in the Arthur Kill—the oily, mucky arm of the harbor between Staten Island and New Jersey—capsized, spilling its cargo of silver ingots. It carried 7,678 bars; about 6,000 were recovered soon after. The rest are still down there. At today’s prices, they’re worth about $26 million. Every now and then, someone tries to find them. So far, no luck.
Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, actually wrote a follow-up piece later in 2009 about a treasure-hunting scientist named Ken Hayes. ("I'm a scientist, not a treasure hunter," says Hayes. "Treasure hunting is just an interesting application of the technology we utilize in the other things.") As of 2009, Hayes was "working on his favorite—and potentially most profitable—project: finding the lost Guggenheim silver, valued at around $26 million."

The whole story is pure Hollywood:
On the boat’s starboard side, shaded by the wheelhouse, Hayes produces a laminated photocopy of a New York Times article from October 17, 1903, which details the barge accident and recovery. It’s effectively a treasure map in article form, Hayes contends, replete with apparent red herrings that he believes could yield important clues. Since first hearing about the silver in the mid-’80s, Hayes has studied the piece like the Rosetta Stone, identifying words whose meanings have altered and dissecting logic gaps and inconsistencies in police reports. He’s plied local people for old rumors about the incident and tried to separate myth from historical fact. Tales abound of a local Native American man who resided in a nursing home with just one possession: an ingot of Guggenheim silver. Hayes never found him.
Here, below, is that 1903 article, if you're curious.

[Image: From the New York Times, October 17, 1903].

In any case, New York Magazine also mentions a somewhat disconcerting detail in which we learn that the roof of the Lincoln Tunnel is actually being slowly eroded of its soil coverage by new river currents that were generated by the pilings of nearby Battery Park City. It's a case of urban hydrodynamics at work:
The Hudson’s main current has, for all of recorded history, clung to lower Manhattan’s edge, skimming along the West Side. Battery Park City, built in the seventies, juts out into that flow, and since then, the current has been cutting a new channel, out toward the center of the river. That current is scraping mud off the top of the Lincoln Tunnel where it never did before; the underwater traffic tubes have lost 25 percent of their soil coverage in some spots. If the tubes ever became exposed, they would be at risk for shifting, cracking, and terrorist threats.
Check out these and other sites in New York's aquatic geography in the original piece.

(Originally via Gideon Shapiro and, I believe, kottke.org).

Drone Landscapes, Intelligent Geotextiles, Geographic Countermeasures

[Image: The "buried cable intrusion detection sensor," courtesy of G-Max Security].

1) The Israeli-based company G-Max Security makes a "buried cable intrusion detection sensor" that is "totally concealed and operates effectively under any type of surface," from open fields and highways to mountains, snow, and ice. It acts as a "perimeter detection ring" that uses "Passive Magnetic Detection" technology—that is, a buried cable-sensor network—assuring "effective Early Warning of any perimeter intrusion attempt."

This security geotextile is, in effect, an electromagnetic nervous system in the ground.

[Image: The sensor after burial, courtesy of G-Max Security].

However, the system perhaps also foreshadows the implementation of much more complex, spatially ubiquitous, and locally intelligent geotextiles that could monitor, from below, in real-time, and with remarkable accuracy, everything that passes through the landscapes above them.

The most secure landscape in the world could thus someday be an open field—or friendly suburb—peppered with trees and flowers in which all of the surveillance technology is passive, omniscient, experientially invisible, and indistinguishable from the earth.

As a useful replacement for land mines and electrified fences, however, the very idea of a security geotextile brings an alarming potential for weaponization. For instance, what would stop such a system from being given the ability to electrify, stun, immobilize, or even kill a detected intruder? Perhaps this would be the malign or malevolent geotextile I ask about in my essay for Philip Beesley's recent book, Hylozoic Ground.

Either way, it will be interesting—and unfortunately necessary—to track the potentially emergent field of weaponized geotextiles.

2a) The Dutch engineering firm TenCate offers a product called the GeoDetect system. It is "the first sensor enabled geotextile on the market to provide soil reinforcement, structural health monitoring and an early warning system into one package."

It is a computational fabric that structurally strengthens and physically monitors the landscapes it is buried within.

"Our 'intelligent geotextile,'" the company points out, "is the first system designed specifically for geotechnical applications and offers a technical solution for monitoring geo-structures for changes in strain, temperature or the combination of the two." As such, it "incorporates a geocomposite fabric, fiber optics, instrumentation equipment and software to provide a innovative solution for the multi-functional requirements of a geotechnical application" (for example, stabilizing landfills and levees).

You can watch a short video about it here.

2b) To speculate a bit here, if TenCate's GeoDetect is basically a 2D computer or sensor network, then, given further processing power and mechanically augmented with servomotors, a future version of this system could perhaps not only engage in locally autonomous decision-making—a kind of 2D supercomputer disguised as a landscape—but could also physically rearrange itself to protect against impending disasters (such as levee failure or an avalanche).

We might thus find that sentient artificial landforms built from networks of computational geotextiles and mobilized from within by servomotors could literally redesign landscapes in place, on their own, at will. This would, presumably, be for practical purposes (flood mitigation or landslide control), but could also be purely for aesthetics. Imagine a new park of crawling landforms—slow ripples moving through the grass, forming constantly refreshed hills and valleys, the soil pulsing in waves.

[Image: A photo by Toshio Shibata].

These speculative geotextiles, otherwise invisible beneath the ground, could use their own algorithms to monitor visitor activity and thus compute the appropriate spatial response to those visitors' location in the park.

Given such a scenario, the entire Dutch coast could someday be, we might say, a robot: a self-intelligent system of interacting mechanical fabrics that rearrange on their own volition, on the scale of hundreds of miles, to keep Atlantic floodwaters at bay. The art of landscape photography is revolutionized. Bewildering art films are set amongst this crawling landscape. Slow hills move and dance in front of the sun.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of concrete block installation atop a geotextile base, courtesy of the Directorate of Public Works, Ft. Jackson, South Carolina].

3) These technologies could, of course, be networked yet further, off-site, to other unmanned and interactive technologies. We might describe this as a semi-autonomous landscape-to-robot constellation.

In other words, a sensor-embedded stretch of earth—using a radio-transmitting variant of G-Max's buried cables—could communicate directly with unmanned aerial vehicles, steering them in for precise landings. It is a kind of invisible runway. Or long strips of buried sensors on the perimeter of secure sites could guide UAVs flying high above; pilotless machines bank and turn in a constant loop, following the geotextiles below. They are locked in place—they are steered and guided—by transmissions from inside the ground. (The same could be true of unmanned ground vehicles, following otherwise invisible electromagnetic "roads" embedded in the soil.)

[Images: "An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft takes off July 17 from Joint Base Balad, Iraq. The Reaper can loiter over battlefields or targets for hours at a time without refueling and carries up to 3,750 pounds of laser-guided munitions, giving ground commanders unprecedented situational awareness and the ability to bring the right amount of force to bear on a target. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Richard Lisum)"].

In effect, this would terrestrialize the so-called robot-readable world: burying the signs and sensors that such machines require and disguising them in apparently natural circumstances. What appears to be a meadow is actually an electromagnetically active runway read and used by UAVs. What you think is a forest is a complex signaling landscape. What appears to be a garden is a computational geotextile interacting with driverless ground vehicles miles away.

4) In any case, all of the above ideas could, perhaps much more interestingly, be used to activate a kind of anti-drone defensive landscape. As the horrific possibility of drone proliferation looms, what spatial and geographic countermeasures could be implemented to mislead, confuse, detour (or détourn), and otherwise deflect pilotless vehicles?

The "perimeter detection ring" examined above, for instance, would instead be used to repel or otherwise blind "intruding" UAVs and UGVs; this could be used for everything from keeping a foreign power's drones out of your sovereign airspace to preventing the IRS from flying drones over your suburb for property tax purposes.

In mythological terms, this would be the geotextile as talisman, or terrestrial ring of protection.

[Images: Geotextiles, courtesy of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration].

So what possibilities exist for landscape architects to, as it were, resist drones, using signal-jamming geotextiles, electromagnetic dazzle effects, or even bizarre new forms of robot-readable camouflage, in order to make drone warfare all but spatially impossible?

Could anti-drone landscapes be added to existing cities—urban spaces or architectural forms lethally confusing to robots—and what might such additions actually look like (if they would be visible to humans at all)?

(Thanks to Rob Holmes and Brett Milligan for first alerting me to the GeoDetect system).

Remnant Infrastructure

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of electric cables being installed in the Golden Gate Bridge, October 1935; courtesy of the NPS].

In an interestingly archaeological story from the world of digital infrastructure, engineers who discovered "an unused fibre optic cable in Mongolia" were able, after putting it back into service, to "shave milliseconds" from a British firm's internet traffic between London and Hong Kong. After all, there is "unused cabling infrastructure around the world," like forgotten limbs awaiting future reactivation.

"We're finding unused cables all time, everywhere [from] China and Russia to parts of Brazil," a manager named Scott Ritchie explains to Information Age. He continues:
Quite often, when electricity lines are put down, there's underlying optical fibre as well, because if you're digging a hole you may as well whack as many services in there as possible. Some of these assets have been decommissioned or just forgotten about after companies go bankrupt. And sometimes when military objectives change, all of a sudden a bunch of infrastructure becomes available.
And there are backstage geopolitics involved: "We found a cable that went from the Russian border directly down through Mongolia, which cuts out the Northern part of China," Ritchie explains. But, he asks, "Why would there be a secret substation on the Russian border? You would need to ask the Chinese government.'"

It's as if closed-door diplomacy and international espionage together work to leave spatial and infrastructural fossils: embedded fragments of obsolete, redundant, or otherwise forgotten—perhaps only recently declassified—systems that no longer serve their original purpose.

So they're resurrected for business and finance, requiring astute forensic detective work to uncover: "Discovering cables like these is a matter of technical analysis and local market intelligence. 'We have a dedicated team of network engineers whose sole job is to improve the performance of our network,' explains Ritchie. 'A major element of that is discovering new network systems'"—where "new," in this specific example, refers instead to the remote archaeological remains of cross-border espionage projects, old spies' wires brought back online for private telecommunicative purpose.

Imagine a modern descendent of Piranesi with a summer job for AT&T, sent off alone with a truck, a tent, and some wire-testing equipment to explore abandoned villages in the mountains, on the hunt for internets he must single-handedly reawaken.

(Thanks to Tim Stevens for the link!)

Loop Geography as Defensive Tactic

In a fascinating detail from a long series of articles published two years ago in the Washington Post, recently expanded as a stand-alone book called Top Secret America, we learn about one way to hide classified government infrastructure in plain sight.

[Image: Photo by Michael S. Williamson, courtesy of The Washington Post].

"[J]ust outside Washington," authors Dana Priest and William Arkin explain, in the exurbs of depopulated office parks and "huge buildings with row after row of opaque, blast-resistant windows," there can be found what the authors describe as "the capital of an alternative geography of the United States, one defined by the concentration of top-secret government organizations and the companies that do work for them."

One such complex, called Fort Meade, "is the largest of a dozen such clusters across the United States."

And it is cleverly camouflaged:
The existence of these clusters is so little known that most people don't realize when they're nearing the epicenter of Fort Meade's, even when the GPS on their car dashboard suddenly begins giving incorrect directions, trapping the driver in a series of U-turns, because the government is jamming all nearby signals.
It's an experiential trap street—an infinite loop—a deliberate cartographic error introduced into the mapping of the world so as to sow detour and digression. A kind of digital baffling, or recursive geography as state defensive tactic.

I'm also curious when we might see this privatized and domesticated—gated communities, for instance, blocking the GPS navigation of their streets in the misguided belief that this will help protect them from future burglary, effectively delisting themselves from public cartographic records. Perhaps the future of neighborhood security lies in the privatized repurposing of advanced signal-jamming technology, the misleading lamination of other, false maps onto the streets as they really exist.

(Detail spotted via @doingitwrong and [thisisaaronland]).

The Baffler

[Image: From "Baffles and Bastions: The Universal Features of Fortifications" by Lawrence H. Keeley, Marisa Fontana, and Russell Quick, courtesy of the Journal of Archaeological Research (5 March 2007)].

In a paper called "Baffles and Bastions," published in the Journal of Archaeological Research, anthropologists Lawrence H. Keeley, Marisa Fontana, and Russell Quick offer a detailed history of militarized building design features such as "V-sectioned ditches, defended gates, and bastions."

All of the features they subsequently analyze occur at peripheries, borders, and thresholds. In their own words, "the militarily functional ditch and gate features and bastions discussed below, in fact and by definition, are all distinguished by being part of enceintes (that is, surrounding barriers or enclosures). Enceintes are barriers that prevent access to and, almost always, obscure vision of a particular location."

Their diagrams of "baffled" entryways, seen above, are particularly interesting—a kind of archaeological variation on floor plan porn—revealing the various techniques used to at fortified points of entry to gain an advantage over invaders. Through a navigational encounter with architecture, attackers are forced to show their vulnerabilities. "Baffled gates force attackers who enter them to expose their flanks and rear to defenders’ fire," the authors write. "Ideally, they require attackers to turn left exposing their unshielded right side. Left-turning baffles also were useful against (typically) right-handed bowmen."