Drifting Through the City, Literally: Soldiers in the Living Room (Guest Post by Mirabai Auer)

He said: 'this space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. […] The question is how do you interpret the alley? […] We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. […] I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win […] This is why that we opted for the methodology of moving through walls. . . . Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. […] I said to my troops, "Friends! […] If until now you were used to move along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!"
–Commander Kokhavi of the Paratrooper Brigade, Israeli Defense Forces

A number of architectural and urbanist theories, dealing with geo-psychology and the conceptualization of city space, are being taught in an unlikely place -- military academies. Their strangely adapted applications serve as a reminder that ideas do not flow narrowly from the "conceiver" to "intended-user", but are rather commodities in the world marketplace, available for mass consumption and arguably, manipulation.

Eyal Wiezman details this phenomenon in his piece, "The Art of War", in which he outlines the emergence of a new guerilla strategy utilized by the Israeli Defense Forces, referred to as infestation.  In an attack on the city of Nebulus in 2002, Israeli soldiers moved through the city, via a series of holes and tunnels.  More simply, their game of war was not fought visibly on the street; the effort was conducted almost entirely indoors.  The soldiers avoided alleys, streets, courtyards, and the like.  Indeed, the soldiers were 'walking through walls,' fighting from within the urban fabric, climbing through homes, abandoned warehouses, and shops.

All of the aforementioned places have historically been considered, to varying degrees, private. After all, most homeowners don't envision their living rooms as fertile grounds for battle, nor do they anticipate soldiers 'worming their way inside (their homes)' emerging from freshly drilled holes in their drywall. Yet, increasingly, military education is proposing that the city is in fact a borderless place, in which the boundaries and intended uses of space (both public and private) are fluid and dynamic, i.e. the living room is both a strategic location and a place for television-watching and snacking.  One woman recounts her personal experience in the attack: "Imagine it – you're sitting in your living-room, which you know so well; this is the room where the family watches television together after the evening meal, and suddenly that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the other, screaming orders. You have no idea if they're after you, if they've come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else."

The shift in tactical thinking reflects the military's adoption of several key canons of architecture and philosophy, among them Situationism.  In the 1960's, Situationists advocated for the creative and critical re-examination of the urban landscape through such practices as dérive and détournement, which involves the adaptation of obsolete spaces for new, unintended uses.  These practices encourage the re-envisioning of how spaces are used and by whom.  

For example, a dérive, or drifting walk, is propelled by emotion and spontaneity; typologically, it is rather different from the often mechanical and repetitive walk to work (or store, school, etc.)  Situationists suggested that curiously and attentively traversing new pathways could be a catalytic exercise in the process imaging the built environment afresh, and set the stage for new social contexts.  These practices grew out of an increasing dissatisfaction with landscape of the capitalist city, which Situationists believed was designed in an overly prescriptive and dogmatic fashion, and was ultimately an expression of class relationships.  Arguably, if the capitalist city had strictly-defined rules of engagement, then the practices of dérive and détournement were intended to de-contextualize the overly-ordered city and enable citizens to think outside of the systematic box.

These concepts, through the traditional lenses of planning and urban studies, are oft presented as visionary, progressive, or artistic (after all, isn't the idea of détournement partially responsible for adaptive reuse of industrial space into lofts and studios?).  In fact, yesterday's Where post, Traversing Newark Avenue, is a rather classic example of dérive in which the author documents the physical and social nuances of a Jersey City street in photos, text, and sound.  
Ironically, the military's co-optation of the same ideas has been used to bolster already (arguably) bloated military power and to justify the rather undemocratic invasion of private space.  Yet, after all, aren't they simply envisioning a new use for the home?  And a new relationship between the dwellers and visitors (troops, in this case)?  The author Eyal notes: "In no uncertain terms, education in the humanities – often believed to be the most powerful weapon against imperialism – is being appropriated as a powerful vehicle for imperialism."

The manipulation of philosophy and theory does in fact occur religiously.  Yet, somehow in the academic world, ideas seem to grow in their own Petri dishes, undisturbed by realities.  These little glass plates of ideas are assumed to be tended by the few and carefully trained.  And yet, ideas like dérive exist in the muddied, multi-layered context of the city; "The Art of War" reinforces the common-sense notion that places are birthed from context and a multiplicity of vantage points and that urban theory is never purely applied -- it is always a working model.


Big thanks to Mirabai Auer, an urban planning Masters' candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago who works part-time as a GIS map maker.

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