• Mock refugee camp at Fort Bliss CACTF Zambraniyah training village. - photo by AGENCY

Fronts: Military Urbanisms and the Developing World
Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller
Applied Research and Design, 2020

There is something enchanting about the cold, analytical realism of military research. The intelligence gathered and produced in the service of training the armed forces on how to engage requires a certain kind of brutal honesty about the world and its physical and social makeup. To understand the enemy and the physical terrain in which they must be encountered and controlled is to understand the built environment in a particularly calculated way.

This is the impetus behind the decade-long research that El Paso-based architects and researchers AGENCY have compiled in their new book, “Fronts: Military Urbanisms and the Developing World.” In it, the duo has expanded our definition of architecture and urbanism in ways that uncover some disturbing truths about how the networks of power that define our world see the contemporary city.

The book details the mechanisms with which the global security complex seeks to map urban zones of conflict, positing that the future informal city (refugee camps, squats, illegal developments, etc.) will be a site of conflict between the managerial systems of military control that see informality as a threat, and those who see opportunity in these messy urbanisms.

The book takes shape as a series of essays by Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller of AGENCY, as well as an exhaustive cataloguing of military training sites used by the U.S. Department of Defense. This “hard-earned” firsthand research includes the Simulated Cities Database, a staggering compilation of information on known (and not-so-known) active training grounds. These simulation sites are embedded with architectural knowledge that reinforces disciplinary understandings of buildings, but also upends them.

For example, Moneo’s theories of “type” can help us understand the evolution of military doctrine on what constitutes the city. The DoD has worked to address many of the same questions posed to architects about what constitutes a generic, generalized modernist city, and how they can simulate it using standardized elements, while still providing enough local variation to maximize effectiveness on the ground. The manuals and guidebooks that the military uses to understand how to build these standardized places include generic building types like churches, stores, apartment blocks, markets, schools, and so on. Understanding “types” imbues soldiers with architectural knowledge that can help them navigate hostile urban environments.

Military training in cities, or “urban operations,” use spatial intelligence metrics to define and understand the conditions on the ground. Turning “types” into actionable intel by adding spatial data not only serves the strategic goals of armed forces, but is also a window on how the securocratic regime views the city as a threat, and on the anti-urban biases that guide their mission to control the city. By measuring the city, uncertainty is minimized. “Measure what is important. Don’t make important what you can measure.” By surveying the city as a broad phenomenon, urban morphologies are catalogued and codified into measurable “morphometrics.” This analysis includes compiling possible variations on type to survey the terrain directly or using data from cell phones to track the movements of populations.

Understanding the city as battlespace requires mapping and forecasting in many ways, most importantly as a layered, three-dimensional, volumetric space with zones: surface, above surface, and subterranean.

Because of the complexity and unpredictability of this type of density, the authors posit that the securocratic regime has an anti-urban bias, seeing cities — especially informal settlements — as a threat. Therefore, the spatial intelligence produced from military analysis is no longer neutral as it shifts from being a survey for internal use to a system of knowledge weaponized to manage the contemporary city. They outline three “fronts,” or urban conditions, that embody the architecture of global security forces. 

The first of these conceptions is the “proto-city.” These are spaces of humanitarian management, typified by the refugee camp. While camps are often the projects of NGOs, transnational and municipal borders are regulated through supervision and surveillance by securocratic entities such as national militaries. Because camps are increasingly permanent, they are tabula rasa cities, provoking new forms of urbanism, and must be managed as such. These camps and contested border zones are extremely contested areas where competing interests and control mechanisms overlap.

The “logistic city” exists inside cities, where logics of resource allocation and management dictate spaces. Because logistics planning has its roots in military research, it follows many of the same securocratic patterns as other controlled urban infrastructures. Sewers, dumps, graveyards, and scrap piles are sites of training because they represent dangerous spaces of informal settlement. A study of Cairo’s Moqattam settlement shows how the government has responded to the Zabbaleen population’s settlement of the area with a policy of harassment.

As global migration increases, there is an upsurge in the mechanisms of the “carceral city,” such as detention centers, checkpoints, jails, police compounds, and other means of managing the “otherness” of those who immigrate into new nations or municipalities. This also includes squats, which are treated similarly as places of otherness. In the case of the Roma in Rome, the city made a temporary settlement permanent as a way of segregating the Roma from the city.

All of these examples and case studies are intensely documented and presented in a relatively dry manner. The rigor of the book and its research are mind-bending, and can become a burden at times. The sheer amount of details makes the narratives within occasionally hard to parse out. For example, there are allusions to the idea that the intelligence produced by the metrics and analysis of training studies has infiltrated the way we make cities today, but this thread is not sufficiently elucidated.

Another essay might have made these connections more explicit, or maybe it is a question of representation: Just as the military conceives of the urban simulation as “volumetric,” the book could have benefitted from more photography or, for example, some 3-D drawing and diagrams to enliven the extensive maps and aerial imagery, and might have drawn some conclusions about the relationships of training sites to managerial systems enacted in the real world, or, as they describe it, “mission creep.” The idea that military training knowledge is an incubator for new ideas about the informal city is an intriguing one, and it would be great to get a more concrete idea of what that looks like.

Nonetheless, this fascinating tale of a completely unexamined area of discourse around the built environment will prove to be a valuable resource for those interested in how the most powerful and resource-rich actors are making the global city in the 21st century. (Full disclosure: I am mentioned in the acknowledgements of the book.)

Matt Shaw is a New York-based writer and curator.

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