It’s rush hour in Fulton Center and thousands of black-coated commuters stream into the glass building through entrances on Broadway and Fulton Street and funnel down to the hovering circular concourse before branching off to further descend to the many tunnels that transverse New York’s five boroughs. A steady hum of voices backgrounds the incessant chirp-crank, chirp-crank of the subway turnstiles and the occasional click of digital shutters Instagramming the conical metal dome that dominates New York City’s shiny new transit nexus, which is already being called downtown’s Grand Central Terminal. Building anything so complex — especially infrastructure, especially in lower Manhattan — is an impressive feat, but it takes more than efficient planning and techno-artistry to make a space grand…
“One of the essential characteristics of the bunker is that it is one of the rare modern monolithic architectures.” So writes philosopher-artist-dromologist Paul Virilio in his exegesis of World War II defensive fortifications, Bunker Archeology. These poured-in-place pillboxes aren’t just modern, they’re modern concentrate—efficiently constructed for a single purpose and devoid of any style or ornament because, as Virilio writes, “the omnipotence of arms volatilized what was left of aesthetic will.” If Le Corbusier’s houses are machines for living, the concrete bunker is a machine for surviving, designed to stand against bombs, bullets, gases, and flames. But in parts of the world where war is now a fading memory, bunkers linger on this earth without purpose, decaying, tied inextricably to the past, a haunting reminder of violence, a ghostmodern architecture.
Some of these underground bunkers were incredibly expansive, intended for long-term occupation, but many others were martial follies. Today, they’re half-buried along coastlines or looming silently and mysteriously in the middle of cities, too massive to be destroyed but often too difficult to be repurposed. Apparently, a side effect of being built to withstand mortar attacks is the ability to confound planners and developers—perhaps there’s a lesson there. Yet despite the difficulty of renovating a structure with a wall thickness measured in feet, some enterprising organizations and architects are doing just that, appropriating bunkers to imbue them with a new life and new meaning.
BIG’s Blåvand Bunkermuseum reconstructs the bunker’s original cannon out of glass “as a ghost or a reflection of the war machine it was meant to be.” For Virilio, the removal of a cannon “deconsecrates” a bunker. By that logic, BIG’s project re-consecrates the structure for a new denomination. The canon, once an instrument of ruination, is now an instrument of illumination, a skylight above an exhibition space. BIG describes its design as the “antithesis” to the existing structure: “vacuum rather than volume—transparency rather than gravity.” These are themes that recur in many of these projects.
Among architects, there seems to be renewed interest in Brutalism these days, and on purely aesthetic terms, it would be easy to think of these projects as examples of a New New Brutalism. After all, the Brutalist buildings of the 1950s and ‘60s were often derided as “bunkers,” although their raw concrete surfaces are more likely to harm their occupants than any invading military force. But like any good -ism, these projects represent both an aesthetic and an ethic. There’s actually a lightness to all these structures, an effort to mitigate the weight of the original bunker—and not just its literal weight. These bunkers carry a historic heaviness. They can be a psychological burden for people who don’t want to be reminded of the horror of war, but who are confronted by it every day, who literally live with it. While these renovations can’t erase the past, they can imbue its relics with new meaning.
Gotham City is the perpetually dark comic book metropolis of alleys, asylums, caves, mansions, and of course, Batman. The Dark Knight of DC Comics celebrates his 75th anniversary this year but Gotham didn’t become the hometown of the Caped Crusader until 1940, when Batman co-creator Bill Finger named the city for the first time inBatman No.4. In the early days of comics, cities weren’t much more than rooftop set pieces and vaguely defined skylines, and Batman was ostensibly fighting crime in a generic city with a vague resemblance to New York, but, as Finger has said, “We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it.” However, since its inception Gotham has gained an identity as complex and unique as any real American metropolis and is now more closely associated with a single character than any other city in comics. Capital-M Metropolis comes close perhaps, but Superman’s city is nowhere near as interesting as Gotham, in part because Gotham has something that makes it more fully realized and more consistent in its representation than any other fictional city in comics or film: a map.
Gotham City limits were defined in 1998 in preparation for the “No Man’s Land Story” story arc, during which the city was cut off from the United States after nearly being destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake. It was the comic book version of Escape from New York. However, before DC Comics could destroy Gotham City, there had to be a Gotham City to destroy. Enter artist and illustrator Eliot R. Brown, the cartographer of Gotham.
Brown has no formal training in cartography, but he did study architecture and had previously worked as a technical artist for Marvel Comics, where, as he told me, he was the closest thing they had to an “in-house architect and architectural renderer (and weapons designer and aerospace engineer).” He dreamt up and drew tech specs for Punisher’s weapons, Captain America’s experimental jet, and Iron Man’s armor, and the occasional superhero headquarters. But in 1998 when Brown was contacted by Denny O’Neil, a legendary comics writer and long-time Batman editor, he was faced with an even bigger request: design one of the most iconic cities in comics history. O’Neil wanted a map of Gotham as part of an in-house “bible” to help coordinate the various comics that would be affected by the earthquake. The first step for Brown was to meet with the writers and artists who shared their wish-lists for Gotham locales. As he recalls:
“The DC Comics editors made it clear that Gotham City was an idealized version of Manhattan. Like most comic book constructs, it had to do a lot of things. It needed sophistication and a seamy side. A business district and fine residences. Entertainment, meat packing, garment district, docks and their dockside business. In short all of Manhattan and Brooklyn stuffed into a … well, a nice page layout.”
With research materials in hand and a mandate that Gotham had to be an island, Brown began, like Bill Finger, with the idea of a fictionalized Manhattan. Having grown up New York, he knew it well and used his knowledge of the city to plan its fictional counterpart, sprinkling in familiar neighborhoods, parks, civic buildings, monuments, landmarks and transit infrastructure.
The city took shape in a week and, after some testy exchanges with editors and few back-and-forth faxes, Gotham’s rough coastline was finalized less than two months later. Brown’s final hand-annotated map of Gotham City included numerous bridges and tunnels ready to be dynamited by the U.S. government, as well as a few forgotten steam tunnels that might be useful to a crimefighter and his allies. Brown didn’t just design the city; he designed an implicit history that writers are still exploring.
A few issues of the “No Man’s Land” story arc opened with a map of Gotham, illustrating the shifting boundaries of a turf war that was slowly won by Batman and the Gotham City Police Department. When “No Man’s Land” ended in 1999 and Gotham returned to the status quo, rebuilt with money from Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor and buildings designed by Gotham planner and cartographer Eliot Brown, the map of Gotham City was officially made canon.
Since “No Man’s Land,” writers and artists have worked within the confines of Gotham’s borders and many versions of the map have been published. And some have even expanded them, including the current Batman team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. A simplified version is used in video games and, most visibly, Brown’s map of Gotham was used in the recent Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, as can be seen above in Bane’s strike map. Brown had no idea his map had been used in the new film trilogy but told me he was “delighted that they helped further the ‘reality’ of the books.”
While a map may seem like a small thing, especially for a fictional city, it really does make Gotham feel like more of a real place. So why don’t more comics map out their cities? Why isn’t there a definitive Metropolis or a definitive Star City? Besides the amount of work it takes, Brown thinks the imposition of an official map might just be too limiting for some writers and artists. “If a writer wants Batman to face Croc on a glacier-bound treehouse for mutants—then that’s what he writes and gets drawn. If, the next month, Batman is now chasing Harley Quinn at a 24-Hour Endurance Sports Car Race Track—poof, there it is. All right in Gotham City. Put in a better way, it is about allowing the writers to have their freedom.”
Ideally, a city would offer unlimited possibilities. But then again, restrictions can sometimes create the best art. Current Batman writer Scott Snyder has made extensive use of Gotham’s architecture and urban design as a reflection of Batman’s (and Bruce Wayne’s) consciousness and, in so doing, has told fascinating, layered stories rich with metaphor, history, and symbolism, including a mini-series, The Gates of Gotham, about the engineers who designed and built the many bridges that Eliot Brown created for Gotham. Brown no longer works in comics but since he created his map, writers and artists have continued to tell their stories within the confines of Gotham’s borders, and in so doing, have added to the city’s history, creating and exploring the nooks, crannies, alleys, and fire escapes of unique neighborhoods that were once nothing more than a name on paper.
Oh, and if you zoomed out a little on that map, where in the United States would you find Gotham City? New Jersey.
The following essay on Die Hard, Kafka, Deleuze, The Towering Inferno, Inception, James Bond, Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning originally appeared in Volume 37: Is This Not a Pipe?
“So you’re telling me the new space is secure and the old street entry has been closed off?”
“Right. Everything looks good.” The security consultant nodded, satisfied at a job well done. It really was well done – the bank had as many theft deterrents as we could reasonably include. Like he repeatedly told me, you can’t design a bank that’s impossible to rob; you can only design a bank that’s harder to rob than the one across the street. With those wise words in mind, there was one thing that kept bugging me.
“What about that duct up there?” I asked.
“What about it?”
“Couldn’t someone get through there? I think it’s about 18-inches across.”
“You mean like Die Hard?” He looked skeptical.
“Exactly! Exactly like Die Hard.”
“Well…” the contractors sized up my slight frame then looked back up toward the exposed return duct. “I couldn’t make it through there but someone like, ah…”
“Yeah. You might be able to get through there. You planning to rob the place? ”
“If I was, it’d be a lot harder with that vent blocked.”
“Alright, I guess we can put some bars up there, McClane.”
During my former life as a designer, I actually had that conversation. Several times, in fact. And every time, Die Hard came up. Die Hard (1988) is a popcultural shorthand; it’s a simple, well-known reference that can be used to communicate complicated ideas – even between architects who love to overcomplicate things. When the security contractor asked me, “you mean like Die Hard?” what he was really saying was, “you mean someone with the proper motivation could crawl through the mechanical system of this building, which was not designed for the human body but rather for efficient air handling, and enter this bank surreptitiously?”
That is exactly what I mean.
The hero of Die Hard is New York City police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis in a defining role), a fish out of water who finds himself in the plumbing when a gang of international thieves commandeer an entire Los Angeles skyscraper, Nakatomi Plaza (played with a quiet dignity by Fox Plaza, designed by Johnson, Fain & Pereira Associates, 1987). Armed with little more than a zippo lighter and a chip on his shoulder the size of Madison Square Garden, McClane combats the invaders with architectural guerrilla tactics, evading detection by moving through ventilation ducts, elevator shafts, and seemingly every other conceivable space except those programmed by an architect. In the lesser, but still wildly entertaining sequels Die Harder, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Live Free or Die Hard, and A Good Day to Die Hard, John McClane finds himself, once again, climbing through infrastructural spaces, but the stakes get higher with each passing film as the devil-may-care “007 of Plainfield, New Jersey,” finds himself burrowing through our greatest and most complex spaces: an airport, New York City, the internet, Russia.
In a 2010 article, writer Geoff Manaugh branded the liminal territories that are tactically occupied in the Die Hard series as “Nakatomi Space, wherein buildings reveal near-infinite interiors, capable of being traversed through all manner of non-architectural means.”Nakatomi Space. What a terrific expression. It so succinctly describes such a complex idea – what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari would call “Rhizomatic Space,” which, at its most basic, is a theoretical, nonhierarchical space constructed of elaborate connections and multiple points of access. But theory is so much easier to understand when buildings are blowing up so let’s just stick with Nakatomi Space.
Somewhere on the cultural spectrum between John McClane and Gilles Deleuze is Franz Kafka, whose stories are full of Nakatomi Space and other architectural viruses, none more explicit than “The Burrow” (1931). In this allegorical tale, a nameless, paranoid creature compulsively digs through the earth, creating an elaborate tunnel system to ward off possibly imaginary enemies. Among their enumerations on the concept of rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari explicitly mention burrows, due to their “functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout.” Those spatial functions inherent to the burrow are the same encountered by the fugitive. So while Manaugh equates Nakatomi Space with a type of militaristic movement, I see it more as a fugitive geography.
Though John McClane is undoubtedly the hero of the film, he is indeed a fugitive; a man singled out, hunted, and forced to flee through the liminal spaces of a Los Angeles high-rise. For McClane, as for the criminal fugitive, the built environment functions as both an accomplice and an obstacle, offering concealment one moment and obstructing escape the next. The same ducts that let McClane move undetected through the building might just bend or break at the wrong moment to reveal his location. His actions defy any architectural program or conventional circulation. The fugitive exists outside of design. His actions aren’t anticipated by the architect, planner, or engineer, so he must adapt and improvise. It seems appropriate then that McClane moves through undesigned space. The mechanical ducts he crawls through and elevator shafts he climbs are afterthoughts, consequences of architecture. Architects can go to great lengths to keep these systems concealed and the result is often an invisible labyrinth of articulation, a maze within a building, navigable only by currents of hot and cold air. And of course, the occasional New York City police officer.
In the 25 years since the release of Die Hard, watching a hero maneuvering through the innards of buildings has become something a cinematic trope. But Die Hard wasn’t the first film to feature such operative circulation, nor would it be the last.
The Towering Inferno (1974) features a similarly heroic protagonist, architect Doug Roberts (played by Paul Newman with almost Randian heroic aplomb), maneuvering through the Nakatomi Space of the world’s tallest building. Instead of evading criminals, he’s evading flames and explosions caused by faulty mechanical and electrical systems of the world’s tallest building and, as a result, disaster strikes during the opening soiree. While the titular tower takes center stage, its main “architectural” spaces are given short shrift because like Die Hard, this is a movie about guts – the guts of the building and of its architect. As the fire spreads up the 138th floor of the tower, Roberts crawls through the mechanical passages and climbs up the elevators shafts of the tallest building in the world, moving from floor to floor to single-handedly rescue women and children – and of course, to try to save his building. For a world famous architect, he knows an admirable amount about his building and its specifications, and his journey through its internal infrastructure sheds further light on its construction on the corner-cutting that caused the conflagration. The building reveals itself at the same time that it’s being reshaped by fire. Roberts adapts, he improvises. The elevators become death traps, but the elevator shafts become a primary mode of vertical circulation. Roberts sees his building fail in almost every way imaginable as a result of its faulty mechanical systems. But the tower would be impossible without these systems. And not just the Towering Inferno, but every tower. Without elevator and HVAC, most of our buildings wouldn’t be higher than five stories.
In his “Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan” Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas focuses on the elevator, describing it as “the great emancipator of all horizontal suffices above the ground floor” that allows tower occupants a “closer…communication with what remains of nature.” But in our sealed glass towers, the commune with nature is not quite as pure as Koolhaas implies. At the great heights of the modern tower, windows are airtight while natural light and panoramic views are reserved for a few elite workers. The rest of the building’s occupants rely on the ducts, vents, pumps, and fans of the building’s mechanical system. If, as Koolhaas writes, “the elevator generates the first aesthetic based on the absence of articulation,” the mechanical space generated by building’s design could be considered an articulation based on the absence of aesthetic – the very essence of Nakatomi Space.
There are many other classic cinematic depictions of mechanical space. Almost the entire heist genre involves infiltration though at least one duct, shaft, or forgotten tunnel. The Mission Impossible (1996) films reinvented Nakatomi Space for a new generation, presenting new ways to move through a building’s services and security. The Oceans 11 (2001) remake similarly upped the ante by breaking into one of the most secure vaults in Vegas. In The Bank Job (2008) and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960), robbers exploit or forgotten infrastructure of the city. In all these films, the exploitation of Nakatomi space reveals one of the greatest weaknesses of architecture: the optimistic naiveté of the architect – that is to say, the belief that a building will be used as it was designed to be used, and that it can’t be used for more nefarious –or sometimes heroic– purposes. Perhaps we could even consider these transgressions of conventional boundaries an act of architectural criticism.
However, the movement through these mechanical spaces is not truly a transgression of boundaries, but a subversion of existing conditions that emerged as a consequence of the architect’s design. American psychologist James Gibson coined the term “affordance” to explain the limited potential uses of a specific environment as determined by the objective qualities of that environment. Most affordances are obvious but others are latent, and potentially subversive. The exploitation of mechanical space as illicit circulation is only one example of architectural latency – and a particularly cinematic one at that.
There are two architectural fictions –one recent and one classic— in which the mechanical space is designed, where it’s use isn’t a latent affordance, but an intentional one. What’s more, it serves a critical part in the plot.
One of the protagonists of Inception, a heist movie with existential trappings, is a young architect who designs dreams and, through the magic of sci-fi , literally builds memory palaces –manifestations of the ancient Roman mnemonic device—in other people’s minds. During the film’s climax, the aptly named Ariadne creates a nearly impregnable, Brutalist ice fortress whose labyrinths can only be navigated by her team of highly trained dream-thieves. But as the plan inevitably goes awry and the team is attacked by mental constructs created in the mind of their intended target, it’s revealed that a contingency was put in place to cut through the elaborate architectural maze with a secret network of large ventilation ducts that ostensibly serve no purpose other than surreptitious entry. Once again, mechanical space becomes the primary mode of circulation to undermine architecture. Like the burrow in Kafka’s story, this space was designed by a protagonist facing enemies that were imagined into existence. The thoughts of Kafka’s sad burrower could easily could have come from one of Inception’s architects or paradox designers: “I certainly have the advantage of being in my own house and knowing all the passages and how they run. A robber may very easily become my victim….[But] I am not as strong as many others, and my enemies are countless; it could well happen that in flying from one enemy I might run into the jaws of another.”
In Ian Fleming’s novel Dr. No, James Bond quite literally runs from one enemy into the jaws of another when he is taken prisoner on a small island and thrown into a smaller gray cell whose “walls were entirely naked except for a ventilation grille of thick wire in one corner just below the ceiling.” Bond, being the super spy he is, sees the vent as an opportunity for escape. Unfortunately, the diabolical Dr. No planned for this. In fact, he wanted Bond to escape through the ducts, as he had transformed his mechanical system into an elaborate obstacle course designed to torture and kill the spy. Armed with little more than a lighter and a chip on his shoulder the size of Wembley Stadium, 007 attempts his escape through the ducts:
“Bond heaved up and through the opening and lay on his stomach looking along the shaft. The shaft was about four inches wider than Bond’s shoulders. It was circular and of polished metal. Bond reached for his lighter, blessing the inspiration that had made him take it, and flicked it on. Yes, zinc sheeting that looked new. The shaft stretched straight ahead, featureless except for the ridges where the sections of pipe joined. Bond put the lighter back in his pocket and snaked forward. It was easy going. Cool air from the ventilating system blew strongly in Bond’s face. The air held no smell of the sea – it was the canned stuff that comes from an air-conditioning plant. Doctor No must have adapted one of the shafts to his purpose. What hazards had he built into it to test out his victims? They would be ingenious and painful – designed to reduce the resistance of the victim. At the winning post, so to speak, there would be the coup de grâce – if the victim ever got that far. It would be something conclusive, something from which there would be no escape, for there would be no prizes in this race except oblivion – an oblivion, thought Bond, he might be glad to win.”
In evil lairs, even the HVAC is evil. As Bond crawled, squeezed, and climbed through the elaborate system of tunnels and shafts, he was exposed to electrified grills, scalding vents, and two dozen tarantulas before being dumped out into the sea to do battle with a giant squid. What Dr. No realized is that every aspect of a building –or a lair– can be designed.
That is what I wanted in my bank. But instead I get, “I guess we could put some bars in there.”
I imagine Dr. No’s conversation with his security consultant went a bit differently than mine:
“So you’re telling me these cells are completely secure?”
“Right. Everything looks good.” The security consultant nodded, satisfied at a job well done. And it was well done. The cell was nearly air tight, and inescapable save for a single small air duct sized to the Doctor’s precise specifications.
“As you know, I am interested in testing the limits of courage and of the human body to endure. However, it must of course be impossible for him to survive. It is impossible for him to escape alive, yes?”
“Well, you can’t design a lair that’s impossible to escape, you can only design a lair tha-“
“Wait…no! I can fix this!” the consultant shouted as two oversized guards began dragging him away. “Rats! I’ll add rats!” His words fell on deaf ears. Dr. No was already barking orders to have the other consultant brought in. A few minutes later a dirty, rumbled young man wearing a dirty, rumbled suit was dragged out of a nearby cell. As he approached, the villainous doctor sized him up.
“And how do you feel about rats?”
“Too cliché. I’m thinking we should make the ducts scalding hot and fill them with tarantulas.” The doctor looked pleased.
“Is that it?”
“No, no!…and, ah…a giant squid?”
“Yes! Haha! A mechanical duct that empties into a lake containing a giant squid is exactly what we need! You’ll do just fine my boy, just fine indeed…”
Billboards Are Almost All Right
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