Editor’s note: A portion of the following text was excerpted from Fronts: Military Urbanisms and the Developing World, a study of the development of mock training towns for military exercises, written by Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller, co-founders of the El Paso, Texas-based AGENCY. Fronts is out now courtesy of ORO EDITIONS.
In the latter half of the 20th century, as suburbanization and low-density development diversified urban morphologies around the world, architects and planners worked to establish disciplinary tools and perspectives capable of keeping up with the new urban forms. The many developments in urban planning and architectural discourse of this period were echoed by equally rapid and far-reaching advances in urban military intelligence.
While architects and urban designers crafted new narratives and imaginaries to address the changing face of the city, their research was mirrored by a related, but twisted, counter-narrative dispassionately and exhaustively detailed in training manuals and military treatises on urban warfare doctrine. Through these texts we can read an alternate architectural and urban education, in which lethal operatives are trained to treat contemporary urban and architectural forms as suspect. They would prepare a new generation of urban warfighters to see past sprawling streetfronts and disingenuous facades to deep structures of underlying patterns and forms, decoding the secrets of the postmodern city to enlist its structures as cover for violence.
Two analysts, training expert Lieutenant Colonel John W. Burbery and military geographer Richard Ellefsen, would prove instrumental in shaping the military doctrine on “urban terrain,” which promised to make the increasingly complex, shifting urban landscape tractable for military personnel. The concerted efforts of Burbery and Ellefsen produced a tool kit for identifying patterns of growth, land use, and building form that underlie all cities. Burbery took the broad view, documenting the shape and spread of urban morphologies, while Ellefsen had a narrower focus, measuring repetitive qualities of districts, neighborhoods, and buildings within the new city forms.
In 1978, Burbery outlined his operational framework in his article “Urbanized Terrain: Perspective and Patterns.” Details of individual cities, he argued, were less important to military command than the overall distribution of built-up areas and the infrastructural connections that crisscross between them. Under his rubric, the seemingly endless variety of urban forms could be reduced to a limited number of essential patterns of growth, neatly labeled as hubs, satellites, networks, and pie slices. Each pattern, in tandem with its surrounding natural terrain, would shape unique combat potentials and liabilities. In a series of drawings projecting imagined lines of attack through each urban pattern, Burberry describes the funnels, fans, and canals of troop movement each form mandates.
The following year, in June 1979, Ellefsen published Characteristics of Urban Terrain, in which he applies a similarly pattern-based analytical approach to the finer scale of urban space. The document aimed to reduce the complexity of the city into actionable variables and rules of thumb, described by Ellefsen as “replicative generalizations,” essential and inevitable spatial tropes evident and operative in even the most complex urban areas. The world’s cities, Ellefsen argued, share common metrics, and within roughly equivalent districts across a wide variety of cities, these metrics are constant and predictable. The width of city streets in a low-density suburb or the proportions of public space in an urban core, for example, are patterns that repeat worldwide. By cataloguing these recurring metrics, and deciphering the patterns, Ellefsen’s study effectively enables a probabilistic reading of urban form.
Both Burbery’s and Ellefsen’s work were quickly incorporated in urban warfare military training manuals, beginning with Field Manual 90-10: Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain, released in August of 1979. Burbery’s shorthand diagrams of hubs, satellites, networks, and pie slices featured in the manual, while some of Ellefsen’s concepts found parallels in an expanded section on urban terrain analysis. The broad definition of urban terrain the doctrine laid out would allow for a fluid operational equivalence in radically diverse scenarios, a smoothing of previously distinct environments. While the homogenizing forms of late-20th-century development took root, the new manual would seek to address their inescapable spread. Villages, suburbs, and exurbs would be addressed with the same rigor—and skepticism—as the historical urban core. Urban sprawl, and other “urban peripheral phenomena” dissected by Ellefsen and his predecessors, would be canonized in the military lexicon, foregrounded in the crosshairs of projected future combat. The document highlights both suburban and exurban forms populating the sprawling city regions. Among the growing taxonomy of suspect urban forms were “strip areas,” “dispersed residential areas,” “prefabricated” structures, and dedicated “industrial/transportation areas.” The “gently curving” street pattern of the ubiquitous suburb is highlighted as a unique feature capable of impacting operations.
Readings From the Front
As the training doctrine sought to expose the hidden interior conditions of the urban fabric, the city’s exterior condition proved a formidable barrier. To the urban combat operative, contiguous urban walls and the individual building facades that composed them deserved the same scrutiny as active combatants. The strategic deployment of walls on an urban grid could shape the prospects of battle formations as significantly as known enemy positions. Ornamental embellishments and playful architectural details were like a form of counterintelligence, capable of projecting misinformation about the spatial layouts and structural systems they worked to conceal. Throughout the late 20th century, the military urban warfare training apparatus developed tactics of intelligence gathering on conditions of urban and architectural enclosure, hoping to gain the upper hand on these enigmatic vertical interfaces.
At the urban scale, military planners would place increasing significance on the frontage of vertical surfaces within given neighborhoods and blocks. While the concept of “frontage” is familiar to urban planners, it finds new purchase in this period within the lexicon of urban combat, conflating a seemingly benign spatial metric with the combat logics it helps to shape. Urban planners conceive of frontage as a multidimensional design constraint, shaping the public realm of the city by articulating both the desired width of a building along a given street and the desired distance of the building facade setback from the street. Military command, on the other hand, speaks of frontage as the width of a battlefield for which a combat operative or unit may be responsible during the fight. From Roman military history, a frontage of an individual soldier may be tied to the dimensional width of the soldier’s shield, and in modern military history, frontages have expanded exponentially with the advent of long-range weaponry and communications technologies allowing the command of larger territories. While frontages of troops and tanks may be more fluid and relational on open terrain, where spatial landmarks are provided by the distribution of force itself, within an urban context, the term is inextricably tied to the urban fabric, where prescribed widths of command and control are grafted onto the metric grid of the city.
In 1987, Ellefsen developed his Urban Terrain Zone Characteristics for the U.S. Army Human Engineering Laboratory, which forged an explicit correlation between the militaristic and urbanistic readings of frontage. In it, he presented a robust detailing of the frontage conditions in various typical urban districts, with common patterns of land value driving a predictable set of dispositions to the street. Buildings in the urban core, for example, are marketed by the “front foot”—the number of linear feet exposed to a major thoroughfare, driving demand for long storefronts. Residential districts, on the other hand, require each unit to be accessed from the street, resulting in long, narrow forms with minimal frontage.
While other urban analysts might describe differing neighborhood districts in terms of their varying patterns of density, floor area ratios, or lot coverage, Ellefsen’s “urban terrain zones” collect similar building types in districts distinguished most clearly by common degrees of frontage, percentages of street lengths framed by urban facades. With this new conception of the city as a matrix for the distribution of vertical barriers projecting dominance over prescribed slivers of the urban arena, the assessment and control of those barriers was more important than ever.
Architectures of Subterfuge
In the late 20th century, military strategists, like architectural critics, recognized that structural legibility and truthful expressions of building materials were increasingly things of the past. As Ellefsen’s building identification keys evidence, traditional building exteriors had mostly telegraphed their internal structure and function. Modernist buildings, too, were easy to decipher from their outward appearance, their unadorned, unornamented building skins and legible structural expression considered refreshingly “simple” from the combat analyst’s perspective. But the contemporary city was stylistically and programmatically more complex, and “one-to-one” relationships between interior and exterior were harder to come by. Amid a sea of postmodern development and architectural deceit, urban facades could not be taken at face value.
According to Ellefsen’s pamphlet, building use has a direct impact on the amount and proportions of structure to glazing, and therefore the degree of concealment and cover available, especially on the front facade. While modernists may have argued that “form follows function,” Ellefsen recognized the many possible contradictions of the built environment, as summarized by his description of “function versus form.” The document suggests that a dangerous inauthenticity abounds in the streetfront facades of world cities, where the expectations of type are commonly subverted. Storefronts, Ellefsen writes, are particularly deceptive, likely to be ornamented to the extent they obscure load-bearing construction beyond. He encourages trainees to look above and beyond these flashy ground-floor facades with expensive veneers in order to assess the true character of the building. Mixed morphologies—for instance, “box-wall” construction atop column-supported podiums—may send mixed signals about the spatial and structural logics within, Ellefsen warns. Modern frames topped with traditional roof pitches or vernacular details are similarly deemed suspect. Mixed-use buildings are another particular conundrum, changing their layout from ground-floor retail to upper-level offices or residences, with separate entrances to upper levels sometimes not immediately apparent.
The city, it seems, is always at risk of infiltration by these architectural double agents, and the astute observer must flush them out. Military trainees are encouraged to not judge buildings by their covers—to look beyond the compound ornamental logics of the facade, averting their eyes from this curated public interface. In the more humble aspects of the building, combat operatives might find more direct insights into the structure’s organizational truth. “The true character of the building,” Ellefsen argues, “can be seen always from the rear.”
Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller are cofounders of AGENCY, an architectural practice leveraging spatial design and information to counteract nascent forms of global and urban insecurity. Kripa and Mueller are faculty members at Texas Tech University, where they co-direct POST (Project for Operative Spatial Technologies).