Friday, May 04, 2007

military urbanism

Tianamen Square might be undergoing some changes soon. According to Ma Yansong, an urban planner charged with updating the square, the problem is

"Tiananmen is ... the physical centre but not the real centre. No Beijing people go there... The question we posed ourselves was, how to make the area more enjoyable if we no longer need it for tanks?"

The obvious angle on all of this is the rapid transitions taking place in China. The country as a whole seems to have just discovered the concept of Public Relations, and perhaps this is an extension of that. I'm not nearly an expert so I'll reserve my comments in that arena.

Another tack would be these traumas themselves, and discussing the healing process that has to take place in any public space undergoing transition. The strategy here to me seems to be remarkably similar to that used in other historically charged spaces... the (perhaps unfounded) belief that enough trees and grass can obviate any kind of cultural trauma. Call it the "green band-aid effect."

But what I really want to explore is the question posed, verbatim, from the hired architect above. Paraphrased, how have changes in military strategy changed urban design? Many of the world's most famous squares and plazas were created, in part, as parade routes, assembly grounds, or simply to commemorate a famous victory (or less common, a famous loss). These are rigidly controlled, immense grounds for the massing and geometric arraying of huge numbers of individuals. With the advent of modern military technology, this began to include motorcycles, cars, cannons, and tanks, as well as infantry. Anyone who lays out their pens in a line on their desk can appreciate the joys of assembly.

The future of the military, however, seems to exist on two divergent paths. One is the development of hugely expensive technology operated by an increasingly smaller number of specialists. The culmination of this kind of thinking is currently the fighter jet, so the public face of this sort of military thinking is probably the Blue Angels. With all of the action taking place overhead, the fixed vantage becomes less important, and the idea of "massing" becomes obsolete (sports stadiums and rock concerts being a notable exception.) The event is played out as vectors and trajectories, not as geometry and arithmetic.

The other future we're seeing right now, one that is much more immediate, is urban warfare. Small teams of highly trained people that work in a loose network across a constantly varying and incredibly complex three dimensional terrain. Once again, the concept of assembly and ordered arrangement is almost entirely foreign. This kind of military might is more often shown in a likewise atomization, in cable news and advertisements and blog entries. It is "embedded" into our consciousness, not displayed outright.

So what is the future of military urbanism? The former implies a distant vantage, about noise and movement, someone unrelated to the ground below. The other effects a pervasive background chatter that colors everything but never concentrates to a physical reality. I feel that these forces are somewhat expressed in, on one hand, the increasing inhuman scale and speed of streetscapes, and on the other the increasing reliance on surveillance and control in the public realm. Freeways, after all, have a quasi-military origin, as does closed-circuit television.

Perhaps the greening of Tianamen doesn't represent the elimination of military urbanism, but rather it's utilization, atomization, and slow diffusion. Perhaps the future landscape of our cities will be as much about control and defense as it is about citizenship. We are building an entirely new form of walled city, one where the moats and battlements are part of the fabric, not surrounding it.

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