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Urban assault meets theme park May 10, 2007

Posted by mmonla in Architecture.
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BLDGBLOG has an excellent post on the not-so-new-anymore urban assault training complex at Camp San Luis Obispo in California, halfway between the cities of Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Urban warfare is something that has been gaining momentum in the minds of military strategists. Just think of the attacks conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in 2002. Forget alleys, doors and windows; the IDF decided to move through the city by blasting holes through people’s walls and floors. The same thing is happening in San Obispo, but just very far away from any real conflict. Soldiers are being prepared for urban conflict in third world countries by emulating the anticipated combat setting: three mock middle-eastern style houses were built solely for the purpose of training troops, complete with Moorish style walled-in courtyards and even fake media interviews. “Call it the new International Style, or perhaps Military Arabesque”. This is a new take on what already exists as mock American cities used uniquely for military and police training. You can see some photographs of these amazing cities at the following website.

Nablus 2002 San Obispo

Personally, I can’t help but think of Disneyland here. The makers encapsulate a certain temporal or spatial condition, often both, into what Diane Ghirardo calls “one manageable, idealized setting”. Take for example Frontierland, Disney’s cowboy and pioneer wild west. Disney presents it as “the tranquil movement of happy citizens into uninhabited lands rather than as also a government-approved campaign of conquest, land stealing and genocide”. Or say, Main Street USA. At 7/8th real scale, Main Street thrives solely on consumption and “lacks industry, poverty, and, most of all, political life”. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Disney is selective about which elements it glorifies to promote the idea of a utopian setting. So when it comes to recreating ‘typical’ cities for military training, how selective should you be?

Military architecture is nothing new. Cities as isolated from each other as Paris and Kandahar still use the memories of their defensive architecture as landmarks. These two cities’ expansion may have destroyed their walls, but the traces linger in the language: Porte de la Villette and Porte de Saint-Ouen in Paris, Herat Gate and Kabul Gate in Kandahar. In fact, walls are still used today as defensive statements: the Mexico-US border, the Israeli-Palestinian wall, the Baghdad wall, gated communities… But while these examples are designed to respond to a certain given context, San Obispo is completely removed from the setting it emulates.

As I see it, the risk is that selectivity, relatively benign in the case of Disneyland, could lead to dangerous under-information in a military context. The more removed from history and context the training grounds are, the more disingenuous the replica becomes. And this could mean two things. Firstly, since the training camp cannot take into consideration the endless variations that time and location impart on a place, it could just end up as misleading preparation. Secondly, the removal of context ‘virtualizes’ the camp, making it no different than one of the Department of Defense’s fancy video games. Except this is real and built.

So is the U.S. Department of Defense at the forefront of architectural innovation? Not really, Disney had it all figured out a long time ago.

More information on military urbanism? Sure, an entire blog right here.

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