Military Chiaroscuro

The diagram below explains two simple lighting strategies for use during "military operations on urban terrain," or MOUT, taken from the U.S. Army's Infantryman's Guide to Combat in Built-Up Areas. While there is nothing particularly surprising about an army using light to its advantage, a number of interesting things arise when considering weapons from the perspective of their optical effects.

[Image: "Trip flares, flares, illumination from mortars and artillery, and spotlights (visible light or infrared) can be used to blind [the] enemy... or to artificially illuminate the battlefield," from An Infantryman's Guide to Combat in Built-Up Areas].

In another army field manual, for instance, called Tactical Employment of Mortars, the practice of running "illumination missions" using "luminous markers" and "specified amounts of illumination ammunition" is explained, such that mortars become less kinetic weapons used in the destruction of buildings than surprise lighting effects—decentralized chandeliers, so to speak, hurled down from above at high speed.

Indeed, "medium and heavy mortars can provide excellent illumination over wide areas," whereas with lighter rounds "the illumination lasts for about 25 seconds, and it provides moderate light over a square kilometer. The gunner must adjust the elevation to achieve height-of-burst changes for this round. The best results are achieved with practice."

One of many reasons I mention this here is because I wonder how these techniques could be de-weaponized and used for the purpose of civilian illumination. You visit a small town somewhere in Scandinavia where night's fall is disturbingly total, with no street lights of any kind turning on after the sun has long since set; yet people are still out there milling about, even sitting on public benches with books in hand, as if preparing to read in utter darkness. But then a lightburst flashes in the sky above, burning for half a minute or more; and then another; and another, at odd angles, turning the streets and squares below into stroboscopes of moving geometry; and this continues for hours—strange nets of light popping in the air above you—as the city goes about its unexpected nightlife, illuminated by repurposed mortars fired by a light brigade camped out on the urban fringe.

Finally, any discussion of how urban lighting effects can be militarized reminds me of a stunning scene from Anthony Beevor's retelling of the fall of Berlin during World War II. There, we read of a Russian general who ordered such extraordinary use of spotlights during the Battle of the Seelow Heights that his own soldiers became totally disoriented when the shelling began: massive clouds of smoke and dust rose up into the beams, forming an impenetrable glowing mist that quickly enveloped them, robbing the battlefield of detail. Light came from every direction and no direction at all, in a complete loss of the shadow-casting effects needed to hide their own troops' movement—a failure, we might say, of military chiaroscuro, or the controlled use of shadows during invasion as seen in the diagram, above.

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Blogger Fritz Bogott said...

Now that soldiers view the battlefield in augmented reality--using highlighting, icons and text to call out friends, potential enemies, routes, dangers--there is a whole additional layer of lighting, optics and graphics in play.

Middle-aged Swedes have already repurposed surplus and grey-market military optics in order to navigate Arctic pub-crawls in a shared augmented reality under a simulated equatorial sun. The pubs themselves have given up on interior decor entirely, spending their budgets instead on an arms race of Caribbean, Mediterranean and Micronesian software design.

Bengt, who since childhood has never held his liquor well, drank so much cachaça that he stripped to his board shorts and stood so long under a coconut palm that he frostbit three of his toes, silly bugger.

June 02, 2010 9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"One of many reasons I mention this here is because I wonder how these techniques could be de-weaponized and used for the purpose of civilian illumination" etc.

you always point out these interesting facets of the built environment, but then "ruin it" by projecting your discovery as a practical application into a real world scenario. Its almost like you don't know how to program/abstract these ideas beyond their original incarnation...instead you rely on a retelling outside of their context, and juxtaposed by your nostalgia of contempoary and/or futuristic cities. I realize this is not a design blog, but your efforts towards revealing these half baked ideas is sooo formulaic. (especially in your book)

This case being the scandanavian city where you imagine the illumination rounds lighting up the night sky. The purpose of the millitary strategy lies in a deliberate projection of darkness and lightness to achieve advantage on the battlefield. What would launching these de-weaponized into a scandanavian sky achieve? which areas would be dark vs. light?...why would someone want to read a book under a "de-weaponized" illuminating mortar round when they could read a book under a lamp post...etc.

June 02, 2010 2:21 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

why would someone want to read a book under a "de-weaponized" illuminating mortar round when they could read a book under a lamp post

Anonymous, why would someone want to read a book under a lamp post when they could read a book under a "de-weaponized" illuminating mortar round?

June 02, 2010 3:49 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

I suppose it's less boring to read a book under a constant light...did you already try to read with a stroboscop or in car during night using only the street light...
I agree a little bit with mister anonymous and his vision of BLDGBLOG

June 03, 2010 1:13 AM  
Blogger Fritz Bogott said...

(speaking only for myself here) Alex and Anon, could you please point me at some posts of your own where you depict or describe objects, rooms, buildings, neighborhoods and cities that really grab you? That might help clarify the distinctions between your vision and Geoff's.

June 03, 2010 9:23 AM  
Anonymous Clayton said...

I think Anonymous has a point. We have to be careful when dealing with ideas like this to make sure that we don't all just nod our heads and pretend like there's some sort of deep idea to be discussed when in reality there isn't. Geoff's idea of lighting a city with aerial flares is fun but silly, like keeping a badger as a pet instead of a dog. It's an interesting thought, but there's not much of a meaningful conversation to be had past "Oh, that would be funny".

I enjoy reading BLDGBLOG because it brings up interesting topics and has pretty pictures and etc, but I think we all need to be careful of obscuring ideas with our language to intellectualize them. For some reason, when architecture or architects get involved, words tend to expand and and sentence structures tend to tangle. That's understandable to a point but not to the degree that I've seen.

What do you guys think?

June 06, 2010 12:30 PM  
Blogger cemenTIMental said...

Too bad in the real world the opposite happens; ordinance offically permitted for illuminations/smokescreens actually used for setting fire to hospitals and melting the flesh off human beings.

I have to agree just a little with the criticisms here I'm afraid. The speculation is fun and often some great ideas/images but take care not to slip
into self-parody.

June 06, 2010 3:41 PM  
Blogger Fritz Bogott said...

Huh? I don't spot the self-parody. Where's the shame in proposing something silly-but-grand or grand-but-silly?

OTOH, my love for sprinkle cookies *is* the reason they kicked me out of the profession :(

June 06, 2010 4:24 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

(Excuse the edits to my own comment here...)

Fritz, I appreciate the ongoing interest! But, cemenTIMental, I have to infer that I've long been pushing your critical boundaries, as several earlier posts could much more easily have deserved your negative reaction.

As it happens, imagining non-military applications for airborne light munitions is something of a no-go zone for my readers, it seems. Which is bizarre. Cities during blackouts illuminated from above by repurposed military technologies? We're not allowed to go there, I guess. Lighting the city from above – that is, from 1000 meters above – is apparently self-parody.

But there are hundreds of architecture blogs out there today, and I have long made it clear that BLDGBLOG is more interested in fiction than it is in Zaha Hadid, to the extent of exploring what most people might think are irrelevant tangents. I admit that there is a time and a place to step aside and let the material stand for itself – in which the material itself is more interesting than any narrative ideas I might try to impose upon it – but imagining ridiculous future lighting strategies for Scandinavian cities seems quite inoffensive to me.

Anonymous/Alex/nnelg, a part of me feels like I'm watching Kenny G fans at a Mick Harris concert complain that the music should have been more closely curtailed to their own personal interests – but it ain't gonna happen. If you're looking for press releases, office-friendly chair designs, or softer, more home-oriented architectural speculation, you should probably look elsewhere.

June 07, 2010 5:45 AM  
Blogger Dr. Zeuss said...

Don't listen to the haters. I loved this post.

"every ten year old enemy soldier thinks falling bombs are shooting stars sometimes" --Metric

June 07, 2010 5:26 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"Every time a child says, 'I don't believe in fairies,' there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead."

And that's DOUBLY true for flare-fairies!

Rock on, Geoff!

June 07, 2010 6:17 PM  
Blogger cemenTIMental said...

But, cemenTIMental, I have to infer that I've long been pushing your critical boundaries, as several earlier posts could much more easily have deserved your negative reaction.
Well yes I've been reading for ages and I really enjoy the blog, don't get me wrong! Sorry if I might have expressed my mild criticism way too bluntly or not expressed it clearly.
With the 'self parody' thing that was again too strong a way of putting it maybe and I don't wanna dig myself a hole by trying to elaborate while I should be working. :)

The millitary issue is a different thing, it doesn't personally offend me and my comment was just a grim observation rather than a criticism, but I can see why people could misunderstand enthusiasm for millitary hardware out of context.

June 09, 2010 7:03 AM  
Anonymous Amanda said...

Pardon me, but I'm here for the unusual and fantastical applications of lesser known technologies and architectural quirks. I'm a video game level designer, and this sort of this is my bread and butter. It may not be of practical use to a real life architect, but to us working in the virtual trenches, it's as readily applicable as treaties on new concrete mixes, or dry analyses on door stops.

June 14, 2010 1:27 PM  
Blogger Fritz Bogott said...

@Amanda - Please write a book with the subtitle, "unusual and fantastical applications of lesser known technologies and architectural quirks." I will happily pre-pay for a copy!

June 14, 2010 5:02 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Please write a book with the subtitle, "unusual and fantastical applications of lesser known technologies and architectural quirks."

I'd buy that, too!

June 14, 2010 6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez Guys-
Lighten Up!

June 17, 2010 2:09 AM  
Anonymous Kaleberg said...

They'd have to figure out how to get warmer colors. If you think blue mercury street lights are ugly, magnesium flares are even uglier. In fact, this works to their military effectiveness as noted by Admiral Sandy Pentland who used such flares to unnerve the Argentinian troops occupying the Falklands. The ugly light is scary and unpleasant.

I'm not too sure of what they could use to get a warmer light. Perhaps they could try potassium or sodium, but if you've ever been illuminated by such flares, you'd know its a pretty eerie sensation, a horribly false light.

June 27, 2010 12:16 AM  

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