The Architecture of Assassination

Texas Schoolbook Depository Dallas

The former Texas School Book Depository, now the Dallas County Administration Building (original image: Jim Bowen via Wikimedia commons)

On November 22, 1963, a pall was cast over the country that some people say we’ve never emerged from. It is thought to represent a loss of innocence, or at the very least, a loss of naiveté that forever changed the country in a profound way. But on a more local level, it also also changed Dallas’s Dealey Plaza – not physically, but symbolically and emotionally. It changed the meaning of the urban park.

Dealey Plaza

Study for a proposed civic Center in Dallas, Texas. Dealey Plaza at top right. (image: Dallas Public Library)

Dealey Plaza wasn’t always a symbol of loss or a sight of conspiracy. It was built in the late 1930s as a symbol of optimism, an Art Deco, automotive gateway into Dallas that was part of a larger, only partially realized Civic Center Plan designed by city engineers. Though parts of Dealey Plaza (named after an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News) are still quite beautiful, especially after a recent renovation by architects Good Fulton & Farrell, the area is forever marred by Kennedy’s assassination and visited by thousands of curious tourists each year hoping to get some insight into this particularly dark point in American history. Perhaps no other place in America has been as thoroughly documented, as exhaustively measured, mapped, modeled, photographed, and even acoustically tested.

Grassy Knoll

The ‘X’ painted in the center of Elm Street where Kennedy was sitting when he was killed. (original image: Bradipus via wikimedia commons)

A long time ago, on my own first trip to Dallas I was shocked to see a small ‘X’ painted in the road, marking the precise spot where Kennedy was sitting at the moment he was shot. At the time I thought it was an official monument but I’ve since learned that it is maintained by one of the conspiracy theorists who holds court near the assassination site. From the grassy knoll, you can see the X, the permanently open window on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that killed the President. Along the perimeter of the plaza were vendors selling books, magazines and DVDs describing myriad conspiracy theories, some of which were elaborated on in posters and flyers. It seemed to me that Dealey Plaza had become a built manifestation of one of those obsessively assembled conspiracy maps that TV detectives inevitably find in the apartments of psychopaths. The only thing missing was string connecting everything together.

texas book depository

The book depository circa 1963. The giant Hertz sign that sat on the top of the building in 1963 was removed in 1978 because it was found to cause structural damage. The sign was dismantled, put into storage, and is being maintained by The Sixth Floor Museum, who recently restored the original Book Depository sign. (image: Mary Ferrell Foundation)

Every visitor to the plaza is drawn to the former Book Depository, a building that came close to becoming another casualty of Dealey Plaza. Originally erected in 1901 as a warehouse for the Chicago-based Rock island Plow Company, the seven-story brick building was built on the foundations of a previous structure that burned earlier that year. Its architect is unknown, but the masonry-constructed Romanesque building appropriately bears some resemblance to very early Chicago skyscrapers, exemplified by H.H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store and the work of Adler and Sullivan (which, though visually similar, was pioneering in its use of steel-frame construction). Rock Island owned the building until 1937, after which time it was sold and changed hands, housing a variety of tenants. By 1963 a tenant was in place in that would forever be associated with the building: the Texas School Book Depository.

texas book depository dallas

Interior of the Book Depository circa 1963 (image: Mary Ferrell Foundaiton

The Texas School Book Depository operated in the building for 7 years after the assassination, and after they moved out the building gradually fell into disrepair. For years after the assassination, there were those people who believed that the building should be razed, but the city wouldn’t grant demolition permits even as local politicians were doing everything they could to discourage further associations between the city and the assassination. Their efforts were, of course, in vain. The site was heavily visited throughout the 70s and there was intense curiosity about the building and the assassin’s perch.

In 1977 the building at 411 Elm Street was bought by Dallas County, renovated, and reopened in 1981 as the Dallas County Administration Building. But the sixth floor remained unoccupied. According to the National Register of Historic Places (pdf), which recognized the Dealey Plaza district in 1978, “it’s strong negative historical associates made it unsuitable for use as County offices.” Plus, there was already talk of opening some sort of museum to answer the questions of the many visitors while also preventing “the proliferation of private ventures” looking to capitalize on the area’s historic significance.

kenn=edy assassination book depository

The preserved sniper’s perch in The Sixth Floor Museum (image: courtesy The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)

That wouldn’t happen until 1989 when The Sixth Floor Museum finally opened, restored and adapted under the general supervision of architects Eugene George and James Hendricks. A collaboration between Dallas County and the non-profit Dallas County Historical Foundation, the Sixth Floor Museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”

It is a way to partially transform the building from a place imbued with malice, regret and morbid curiosity, to a place of education, understanding… and morbid curiosity. The museum has been designed to maintain the integrity of the building and the feeling of the warehouse space, as well as the views out onto Dealey Plaza. Though no original evidence is on display, two areas–the sniper’s perch in the far southeast corner and the spot where the rifle was found–have been authentically restored to almost exactly the way they looked on November 22, 1963 using original photos and duplicate book boxes. These two areas are protected by glass walls, preserved as a piece of American history.

The assassination of President Kennedy charged the area with new meaning. Once nothing more than an ambitious piece of urban planning, Dealey Plaza and the former Book Depository building now make up the most famous crime scene in America. 50 years later it remains a symbol of a national tragedy and the failure of one of the world s greatest powers to to protect its leader. To close, this excerpt from the National Register of Historic Places seemed quite apt.

“Dictators and emperors have leveled cities and sown their ground with salt for acts of regicide. But a democracy may [face] a harder test. It may encourage the preservation of sites of pain and horror, as well as triumph and grandeur. Dealey Plaza’s sad fate is to have the former far outweigh the latter.”


This article originally appeared on 

Design Decoded: The Daring Escape From the Eastern State Penitentiary

“How 12 convicts escaped by tunnel from Eastern Penitentiary,” Diagram of the Tunnel published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1945 (image: Philadelphia Inquirer via Easter State Penitentiary)

Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gates in 1829. It was devised by The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, an organization of powerful Philadelphia residents that counted Benjamin Franklin among its members and whose ambition was to “build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” With its hub-and-spoke design of long blocks containing individual prison cells, ESP could be considered the first modern prison. There are many, many stories told about the prisoners that have been incarcerated here over its nearly 150 years of operation–some inspiring, some horrible, some about Al Capone–but none of them have captivated the public more than the 1945 “Willie Sutton” tunnel escape.

Photo of Willie Sutton’s in 1934; a photo taken mere minutes after his escape in 1945; Sutton’s post-escape mug shot; the wanted poster issued after Sutton’s escape from Holmesburg. At the time he was one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

The most famous escape in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary was the work of 12 men – they were like the Dirty Dozen, but less well adjusted. The most infamous among them was Willie Sutton aka “Slick Willie” aka Willie “The Actor” aka “The Gentleman Bandit” aka “The Babe Ruth of bank robbers,” who was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1934 for the brazen machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank in Philadelphia. Those nicknames alone tell you everything you need to know about Willie Sutton. He was, by all accounts (especially his own), exactly what you want a old-timey bank robber to be: charming, devious, a master of disguise, and of course, an accomplished escape artist, who in 11 years at ESP, made at least five escape attempts. Sutton’s outspoken nature and braggadocio landed him a few stories in Life magazine and even a book deal. In his 1953 autobiography Where the Money Was, Sutton takes full credit as the mastermind behind the tunnel operation.

Clarence Klinedinst in the center (image: Temple University Archives via Eastern State Penitentiary)

Though the personable Sutton may have been critical in managing the mercurial tempers of his fellow escapees, the truth is that the escape was planned and largely executed by Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst, a plasterer, stone mason, burglar, and forger who looked a little like a young Frank Sinatra and had a reputation as a first-rate prison scavenger. “If you gave Kliney two weeks, he could get you Ava Gardner,” said Sutton. And If you give Kliney a year, he could get you out of prison.

The entry to the escape tunnel, excavated by a team of archaeologists and researches in 2005.

Working in two-man teams of 30 minute shifts, the tunnel crew, using spoons and flattened cans as shovels and picks, slowly dug a 31-inch opening through the wall of cell 68, then dug twelve feet straight down into the ground, and another 100 feet out beyond the walls of the prison. They removed dirt by concealing it in their pockets and scattering it in the yard a la The Great Escape. Also like The Great Escape, the ESP tunnel was shored up with scaffolding, illuminated, and even ventilated. At about the halfway point, it linked up with the prison’s brick sewer system and the crew created an operable connection between the two pipelines to deposit their waste while ensuring that noxious fumes were kept out of the tunnel. It was an impressive work of subversive, subterranean engineering, the likes of which can only emerge from desperation. As a testament to either clever design or the ineptitude of the guards, the tunnel escaped inspection several times thanks to a false panel Kliney treated to match the plaster walls of the cell and concealed by a metal waste basket.

After months of painfully slow labor, the tunnel was ready. On the morning (yes, the morning) of April 3, 1945, the dirtier dozen made their escape, sneaking off to cell 68 on their way to breakfast.

Two of the escapees, including Sutton (at left), are returned to Eastern after mere minutes of freedom. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

Like most designers, Kliney and co. found that the work far outweighed the reward. After all that designing, carving, digging, and building, Kliney made it a whole three hours before getting caught. But that was better than Sutton, who was free for only about three minutes. By the end of the day, half the escapees were returned to prison while the rest were caught within a couple months. Sutton recalls the escape attempt in Where the Money Was:

“One by one the men lowered themselves to the tunnel, and on hands and knees crept the hundred and twenty feet to its end. The remaining two feet of earth were scraped away and men rumbled from the hole to scurry in all directions. I leaped from the hole, began to run, and came face to face with two policemen. They stood for a moment, paralyzed with amazement. I was soaking wet and my face was covered with mud.

“Put up your hands or I’ll shoot.” One of them recovered more quickly than the other.

“Go ahead, shoot,” I snarled at them, and at that moment I honestly hoped he would. Then I wheeled and began to run. He emptied his gun at me, but I wasn’t hit….None of the bullets hit me, but they did make me swerve, and in swerving I tripped, fell, and they had me.”

The first few escapees to be captured, Sutton among them, were put in the Klondikes – illegal, completely dark, solitary confinement cells secretly built by guards in the mechanical space below one of the cell blocks. These spaces are miserable, tiny holes that aren’t big enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down. Sutton was eventually transferred to the “escape proof” Holmesburg Prison, from which he promptly escaped and managed to avoid the law for six years. Police eventually caught up with him in Brooklyn after a witness saw him on the subway and recognized his mug from the wanted poster.

The map of the 1945 tunnel made by guard Cecil Ingling. In his larger-than-life account of the escape, Sutton claimed the tunnel went 30-feet down. “I knew that the prison wall itself extended 25 feet beneath the surface of the ground and that it was fourteen feet thick at the base.” Clearly, that wasn’t the case. (image: Eastern State Penitentiary)

As for the tunnel, after it was analyzed and mapped, guards filled it with ash and covered it with cement. Though it may have been erased from the prison, its legend likely inspired inmates until Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1971. And despite the failure of the escapees, the tunnel has continued to intrigue the public.

Archaeologists use ground-penetrating radar and an auger to detect the remains of the 1945 tunnel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary. (images: Digging in the City of Brotherly Love)

The location of the tunnel was lost until 2005, when the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a non-profit dedicated to preserving the landmarked prison, completed an archaeological survey to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the escape. To find the tunnel, the prison escape preservationists created a search grid over the prison grounds near the entrance, the location of which was known from old photos. Using ground penetrating radar, the team was able to create vertical sections though the site in increments corresponding to the suspected width of the tunnel. After a couple failed attempts, the archaeologists detected a section of the tunnel that hadn’t collapsed and hadn’t been filled-in by the guards. The following year, a robotic rover was sent through the tunnels, documenting its scaffolding and lighting systems. While no major discoveries were made, curiosity was sated and the public’s imagination was newly ignited  by  stories of the prison and its inmates.

There’s something undeniably romantic about prison escapes – perhaps due to the prevalence of films where the escapee is the hero and/or the pure ingenuity involved in a prison escape. The best escape films –A Man Escaped, La Grande Illusion, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, to name just a few–show us every step of the elaborate plan as the rag tag team of diggers, scavengers, and ersatz engineers steal, forge, design, and dig their way to freedom. Without fail, the David vs. Goliath narrative has us rooting for the underdog every step of the way, even when the David is a bank robber.

The article originally appeared on Design Decoded.

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Space, Crime, and Architecture

Space Crime and Architecture

The most recent issue of Plat, an independent architectural journal published by students at Rice School of Architecture, features an essay I wrote with two of my fellow M.E.D. classmates. “Space, Crime, and Architecture” elaborates on some of the issues we discussed in our 2011 Yale School of Architecture research colloquium of the same name. It’s also a deeper, more academic exploration of my own personal interests in the relationship between architecture and crime – particularly the notion of crime as a critical tool or transgressive criticism. Plat 2.0: If You See Something Say Something investigates the gap “between architectural representation and the buildings it produces.” Here’s a brief excerpt from “Space, Crime, and Architecture,” slightly edited and sans footnotes:

– – –

Space, Crime & Architecture is an ongoing investigation of the failure of architecture when confronted with a criminal act. This failure is not that of an unrealized utopic ambition, but rather that of an apparatus unable to account for potential failure with the same precision it represents presumed success. The intent of this project is to theorize the conceptual dissonance between the criminal violation of a space and the intended use of a space as programmed by the architect.

The primary representation of crime typically comes from newspapers and other news media outlets. Such representations are necessarily rudimentary, and oftentimes manipulative. While the newspaper is, by its nature, obliged to convey information, it is also beholden to its readership: as a popular media outlet, it is equally obliged to be “popular.” As a shared source of information, the news media plays a central role in the construction of a culture’s perception of reality. As crime reports became nearly ubiquitous in the newspapers of the modern metropolis, fictional narratives depicting crime not only became a popular phenomenon, they contributed to the formation of both a taxonomy and a geography of criminal space. Following from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the flâneur, the crowd, and the metropolis, one can attribute the popularity of the detective story in the nineteenth century to the era’s social concerns and the anxiety of the bourgeoisie who, through newspaper stories and detective fiction, could experience the dangers of the city from the ostensible safety and comfort of their elaborately decorated interiors. In fact, it was the traces left by the criminal violation of the bourgeois interior that first made it necessary to invoke the detective in such novels. While crime fiction and true-crime narratives continued as a popular form of entertainment through the twentieth century, they have once again come to dominate the cultural zeitgeist. Television series like CSI, with its myriad spinoffs and imitators, present elaborate crime scenes and extravagant, high-tech investigations. Perhaps the current popularity of the genre can be explained by a new anxiety underlying life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In recounting criminal acts, the media not only constructs a cognitive map of places associated with crime, it exploits the collective consciousness to sensationalize the transgression of convention. The fictionalization of crime trains the public to identify crime as a moment of disruption, a discontinuity in the social order. Crime is both confronted by and pursued from its physical traces. And yet, despite these remains – which can be measured, documented, and reconstructed – the relationship between crime and norm is not strictly empirical. If crime and norm are two distinct notions, it follows that any value judgment of material evidence will rely on our understanding of the relationship between crime and norm. This prompts a surprisingly simple question: how can crime change the way we think of architecture? In this regard, there are two distinct, if not opposing, hypotheses from which our investigation begins.

1. The criminal act introduces a completely foreign element into an otherwise stable program; it employs logics or tools that differ substantially from the norm.

2. Crime is an organic function within the norm; it is a latent quality manifested by a catalyst (the criminal) that deploys logics or tools compatible with the norm.

The distinction is important because the relationship between crime and norm influences not only its social meaning, it also raises the architectural issue of programmatic/technical/spatial determinism. Writing about the culmination of this determinism as an assumption of architecture in modernity, Theo Van Doesburg anticipated the current trend of algorithmic design in 1924 when he described the potential for architecture to become merely the sum of a precise mathematics:

In architecture’s next phase of development the ground-plan must disappear completely. The two-dimensional spatial composition “fixed” in a ground-plan will be replaced by an exact “constructional calculation” – a calculation by means of which the supporting capacity is restricted to the simplest but strongest supporting points. For this purpose Euclidean mathematics will be of no further use – but with the aid of calculation that is non-Euclidean and takes into account the four dimensions everything will be very easy.

This investigation questions the social relations assumed by the production of architecture, and consequently whether architects are victims of the criminal act or accomplices to the crime. Is crime a complete deviation from the ideal “constructional calculation,” understood as both a programmatic strategy and as an architectural form, or an inherent variable in this calculation?

In the first of the above hypotheses, crime is understood as external to the established norm. As an unanticipated transgression of boundaries – legal, spatial, social – crime reveals the weakness of the implicit formal and programmatic optimism in any “plan” by subverting the conventional readings of the designed environment. When such conditions are made manifest, architecture becomes a crime scene.

– – –

To read the rest, check out Plat 2.0.

Breaking Out and Breaking In Panel Discussion at Studio-X

On Monday April 30, Columbia University’s Studio-X NYC is hosting the final panel to wrap up the Breaking Out and Breaking In distributed film fest.

The discussion will bring together film, architecture, crime, history, and the FBI. Panelists include special Agent Brenda Cotton, Bank Robbery Coordinator for the FBI’s Bank Robbery/Kidnapping/Extortion Squad; Thomas McShane, Retired FBI Special Agent from the Bureau’s Art Crime Team; Scott Macauley, editor-in-chief of Filmmaker Magazine, co-sponsors of the Breaking Out and Breaking In film festival; Matt Jones, designer and principal at BERG; and myself. I’ll be speaking about some of the topics discussed during last year’s Fugitive Geographies symposium and the research colloquium Space, Crime, and Architecture. I’ll also probably talk a little about Walter Benjamin as detective, Clive Owen as reverse-fugitive, and the criminal act as a particularly transgressive mode of architectural criticism.

Breaking Out / Breaking In panel discussion
Studio-X NYC
180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
April 30, 7pm
free and open to the public, so please come on by!

update: The event was a huge success! Thanks to everyone who came out. You can view a recording of Breaking Out and Breaking In on vimeo.

The Pink Bathroom: Virtual and Physical Reconstructions of a Crime Scene

Scanning a Dollhouse crime scene

Augmented reality technology may soon be the newest gadget available to crime scene investigators. A researcher at the Delft University of Technology is developing a system to allow police investigators to construct three-dimensional virtual models of crime scenes and support field agents with augmented reality information. Augmented reality (AR) is a relatively recent technology that integrates information and graphics into mediated representations of the built environment or natural world, blurring the line between the physical and the digital. Currently, it almost exclusively exists as a Smartphone novelty –see yelp’s “monocle” feature on their mobile app or the augmented reality browser Layar— but the technology may soon become more integrated into our daily lives through the use of AR-enhanced glasses. Most notably, Google seems to be making a move toward the creepy convenience of wearable computing. The New York Times recently reported that Google is developing glasses that “will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor the world in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings and friends who might be nearby….” Essentially, in the near future, we’ll all have Terminator vision. The Delft project aims to use the technology as more than a novelty, giving CSIs the capability to tag objects such as bullet holes or blood splatters in a virtual representation of the crime scene built from the data collected by investigators. It also allows the investigators to consult experts back at the precinct –or on the other side of the world– who, via a live video feed from a camera mounted on the glasses, see what the investigators in the field see. The system stores all the gathered evidence and information as part of the 3D model, which is itself admissible in court as evidence.

* * *

Detective Land stepped into the bathroom at the back of the apartment. Pink porcelain covered the walls, pink towels scattered along the pink tile floor, and in the empty pink bathtub a white body lay awkwardly. “What are we looking at, Quin?”
Land raised an eyebrow at the medical examiner. “Very insightful. How about the body in the tub?”
“Rose Fishman. 41 years old. Strangled from behind with what looks like the belt of her bathrobe. I’m calling the time of death between 8pm and 10pm last night.”
“Murder? Robbery gone wrong?”
“No signs of forced entry.”
“What about that window? Was it open?”
“It was. Cleaning lady climbed up the fire escape to see what was blocking the bathroom door. She called it in. But she can’t remember if it was open or closed.”
“Cleaning lady. Well that explains why house is spotless. Most thieves and murderers don’t clean up after themselves.” Land turned to one of the uniforms on scene: “I’m going to need a full statement from her. And keep her at the station until I get back.”
Squatting down over the body, Quin continued offered his insight. “Bathroom looks like a war zone. And judging from the wounds, I’d say there was a bit of a struggle. Maybe our killer was looking for something?”
“We don’t even know if there was a killer yet. Something’s not right. Why the bathroom? Why today?” Land rubbed his eyes. “Alright,” he said, “let’s see what they can find back at the station. SPECS, everyone.” Land, Quinn, and the other investigators on scene all lowered the standard-issue field goggles onto their faces. Land sighed and, with a little reluctance, touched the small button near his temple. Three short beeps. Suddenly the clear lenses came alive. A new world revealed itself to the detectives with numbers, lines, estimated distances, floor plans, numbers, images, data. It was all data. Everything was being recorded, measured, searched, cross-referenced. All in a split second. It didn’t matter how often Land used the glasses, the impact of so much information at once always made him nauseous, though the younger detectives never seemed to have a problem with it. While the 3D model was constructing itself and uploading to the precinct database, Land starting planting his markers.

* * *

Crime is confronted by and pursued from its physical traces. But these traces, these vestiges of a transgressive moment, have a limited lifespan and can be accidentally corrupted by investigators in the field. With augmented reality crime scenes, however, that’s not the case. The technology allows pristine spaces to be digitally preserved indefinitely. But more than that, it makes it theoretically possible for the entire investigative process to be outsourced. Space is becoming as malleable and fluid as photographic images. We can know everything now. Everything from everywhere at anytime. The notion of the mysterious or the unknown is fast becoming a nostalgia. While the romantic may lament the loss of the unknown, the detective celebrates it, for it is his job to discover the unknown and reveal the latent messages encoded in space.

While certainly invaluable as field tools that optimize a police department’s resources, the information collected from augmented reality crime scenes will also make an incredible training tool for new investigators. Though AR is on the bleeding edge of forensic investigation technology, it shares a premise with a more archaic method developed in the early days of forensic science when reconstructed crime scenes, built at the the scale of a dollhouse, proved to be valuable training tools for the earliest investigators. These tiny models were created by millionaire heiress Frances Glessner Lee. She called them The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

* * *

Witness report, March 31, 2022: “I entered her apartment and found it in order but the odor was very strong. The bathroom door was closed. I tried to open the door could only get it opened a little bit. The odor was much stronger around there. I immediately went downstairs and climbed the fire escape, entered the bathroom through the window and once inside, I found Mrs. Fishman dead. I can’t remember if the window was opened or closed.”

* * *

Glessner Lee, who grew up in the fortress-like Glessner House in Chicago, had an unusual hobby for an early twentieth century society dame. Using police reports and witness statements, she constructed composite models of crime scenes at the scale of one inch to one foot. Matronly Glessner Lee –who some speculate was the inspiration behind Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder She Wrote— was passionate about police work and believed in the need to improve training for those investigating violent deaths. She also believed through careful observation and evaluation of a space, indirect evidence will reveal what transpired within that space. Her models present uncorrupted crime scenes generated from evidence, extrapolation, and Glessner Lee’s own penchant for interior design. Architect and educator Laura J. Miller writes about The Nutshell Studies in her essay “Denatured Domesticity: An account of femininity and physiognomy in the interiors of Frances Glessner Lee.” She describes how Glessner Lee subverted the notions of domesticity typically enforced upon a woman of her standing by using the skills she learned as a young woman to educate and entertain police detectives instead of debutants or tycoons. But the Nutshells are more than useful tools for the study of forensic investigation. Miller writes that Glessner Lee’s dioramas “peel back the domestic scene’s veneer of privacy, propriety, and routine, opening the home to reinterpretation through its exposure as the scene of a crime.” Though the essay focuses on the domestic interior, such observations ring true for any architectural space. Her descriptions of domestic space as a conflict between cultural scripting and natural behavior reveal an implicit, though rarely discussed facet of architecture: it’s naive optimism. Or perhaps egotistical expectation. That is to say, the notion that a space will be used as intended by its architect. Programmed space constructs behaviors. The criminal act violates those constructions, revealing them to be fictions. From this initial transgression, the investigator constructs his own fictions – speculative narratives to explain the crime and locate the criminal.

In approaching the space from an objective perspective, the detective sees architectural space more purely than the resident, and perhaps he even comes to understand its use and affordances in ways unanticipated by the architect. “The forensic investigator,” Miller writes, “takes on the tedious task of sorting through the detritus of domestic life gone awry….the investigator claims a specific identity and an agenda: to interrogate a space and its objects through meticulous visual analysis.” There are specific methods –geometric search patterns or zones, for example– by which the forensic investigator completes his analysis of a space. There’s an elegant logic to these methods, as they were have been refined over more than a century to ensure complete coverage and to maximize resources. But if the augmented reality future ever comes to pass, these methods will have to be completely rethought. The aesthetics of search will be redesigned around virtual representations of space. It’s not difficult to imagine a future where a preserved crime scenes is something like a reconstructed photosynth, built from the assembled images and data gathered by multiple officers and investigators, each with their own unique objectives and predispositions. Whereas the painstakingly crafted Nutshell models reveal Glessner Lee’s own biases and beliefs, such AR composite models are near-instantaneous, collective representations that make the detective’s “meticulous visual analysis” a desk job.

Both Glessner Lee’s models and the AR crime scenes present a subversive view of architectural space. With these models, be they physical or virtual, representation functions not just as illustration, but as revelation. In “Denatured Domesticity,” Miller writes that “The diorama’s removal of one wall of a room emphasizes the absence of a critical mediating boundary and destabilizes conventional understandings of interior and exterior, and therefore, the coding of private and public space.” The space of a crime scene is defamiliarized by the view afforded by the removal of this wall. A virtual model essentially removes all walls, exploding the crime scene to be reassembled at the investigator’s will. By now it’s largely accepted that new media technologies denigrate, if not completely eradicate, the boundaries between the interior and the exterior of our everyday lives; a process that continues with each new device and piece of software. As the walls surrounding our own environment collapse and our lives are opened to new investigations, I’m reminded of the words of German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. In his essay “A Little History of Photography” Benjamin writes, “But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit?”

As for the Pink Bathroom…

* * *

By the time Field got back to the station, the SPEC technicians had ruled the death a suicide. Mrs. Fishman used the stool to hang herself from the bathroom door. Small threads were found hanging from the door that matched the fibers found in the wound around her neck. So that was it. Sure, it took some of the romance out of the job. And yeah, it sometimes made him feel obsolete. But it was worth it if it meant more lives were saved.

* * *

[Note: Though the date has been altered, the Witness report and the original image of Glessner Lee’s model of The Pink Bathroom were excerpted from The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death]