Former American Embassy of Karachi by Richard Neutra & Robert Alexander
It happens rather often that architecture offices have to hold on their documents and drawings for a while as the client (often public in this case) does not want them to be spread around at this specific moment. It is rarer that architectural drawings should acquire a status of classified documents by a given government or army. That is what happens nevertheless when the concerned building’s layout and organization has to remain secret to prevent antagonist agents to be familiar with the building.
In May 2007, the Kansas-based architectural firm Berger Devine Yaeger Inc. leaked some documents introducing the design of their new project: the American Embassy compound in Baghdad, veritable fortified city in the center of the Iraqi capital. After having been contacted by the U.S. State Department, the firm managed later to withdraw these documents from the internet. The architectural drawings had become hyper-protected and secretive documents like military coordinates or intelligence agencies’ spied information. These drawings are only representative documents, but the information that they contain allow a holistic understanding of a building: its layout, its functioning scheme both a the human, goods and mechanical level, but also its structure, and thus is weaknesses. Knowing the material and the dimension of a given structure could indeed serve the purpose of an attack against this building in order to make it collapse. Such technique of intelligence gathering architectural information in order to profoundly understand a building is being used in the “design” of attacks by the U.S. and Israeli armies when they want to target one or several specific bodies in a building. These attacks, by its design, in the same way we speak of the design of a building, have for goal to minimize the amount of collateral deaths, since the strategists of these army are being allowed a limited of these civilian deaths as Eyal Weizman reveals in his lecture “Forensic Architecture” (see past article), and his essay “Thanato-tactics” (see past article). At war like at peace, “knowledge is power;” architectural drawings embody this knowledge and therefore this power.
Architectural drawings are also judiciary documents. They are assumed to represent perfectly the buildings that they present and, because of this, they embody pieces of evidence that need to comply with the various codes and rules that have been implemented for a given city or territory. An architect can however deliberately hide things from the plans — it is probably the case at the militarized level evoked above — in order to go around these rules. The following passage is how Andrew Rice’s March 18, 2011 article for the New York Times Magazine started:
Let’s begin with the mystery of the hidden bathroom. It’s the summer of 2008. A young couple decides to buy an 800-square-foot apartment in a new condo building on the gentrifying outer edge of a fashionable Brooklyn neighborhood. The buyers go to close on the place, and as they’re signing away half a million dollars, the building’s developer, keeping a wary eye on the hovering lawyers, leans over and whispers something. There’s a second bathroom in the apartment, he says, one that does not appear on the floor plan — its doorway is concealed behind an inconspicuous layer of drywall. At first, the buyers think the developer is kidding. This is before the crash, near the peak of the market, and no one’s giving away a square inch. But the developer says no, he’s dead serious, just look. So a few days after they buy the place, the couple takes a sledgehammer to their wall. (Andrew Rice, “The Supersizer of Brooklyn,” The New York Times, March 18, 2011)
This quite incredible story is only one example of the way Brooklyn-based architect Robert Scarano has been concealing architectural elements (bathrooms, mezzanines etc.) from the judicial document that his drawings constituted. There is nothing innocent in the way an architectural drawing is drawn, for that there is nothing innocent about the way it would be looked at.