Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A sci-fi riff on Middle Eastern building traditions.
"Architecture against drones is not just a science-fiction scenario but a contemporary imperative," writes Asher J. Kohn.
Kohn, an American law student and editor of The Tuqay, a website covering "Central Asia and its hinterlands," has recently put forth a theoretical proposal for a city built to passively shield its residents against this ultramodern tool of warfare -- a drone-deflecting city. He created it for a class he was auditing in extreme architecture, and it has since been picked up for discussion by several websites.
Kohn’s envisioned drone-proof community, which he calls “Shura City,” is a thought experiment, a provocation (shura, Arabic for consultation, is a word associated with group decision-making in the Islamic world). It’s a self-contained environment with elaborate architectural devices designed to thwart robotic predators overhead. Minarets, along with the wind-catching cooling towers called badgirs, would obstruct the flight path of the drones. A latticed roof, extending over the entire community, would create shade patterns to make visual target identification difficult. A fully climate-controlled environment would confuse heat-seeking detection systems. He has not included any anti-aircraft weapons in this scenario.
Shura City’s design looks like a sci-fi riff on Middle Eastern building traditions. Yet the circumstances Kohn is responding to are no futuristic construct. The drone war is a very real fact of today, coming under increasing international scrutiny. Just this week, NBC News released a U.S. Justice Department white paper it had obtained detailing the government’s legal justification for the use of lethal force against U.S. citizens abroad who are suspected of being top Al Qaeda agents – attacks that in practice are almost always carried out by drones.
And of course, U.S. drones don’t just target U.S. citizens. Hundreds of drone attacks have been executed in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since the practice began under the Bush Administration in 2002. These forays have proliferated under President Obama’s tenure. The United Nations is just now launching an investigation into the practice of targeted killing by drone strike and other means, but critics say it won’t go far enough.
Reports on the number of people killed vary widely, because the drone war has been shrouded in secrecy. But the independent Bureau for Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom estimates numbers as high as 3,461 in Pakistan, 1,112 in Yemen, and 170 in Somalia — including hundreds of civilians, many of them children.
As Conor Friedersdorf wrote for The Atlantic last fall, these strikes have become a terrifying fact of life for significant numbers of people. Those people would probably be happy to live in an environment that offered some protection against these aerial bombardments, the same way that people around the world have hurried to retreat from crime to the perceived sanctuary represented by more traditional gated communities.
Kohn, an American, told me that some people have attacked his idea as anti-American. A few of his critics insisted on calling the drone-proof city a "compound," a term he objects to. "This isn’t a compound, it’s a family home," he writes in an email. "Nobody would call … the gated community I grew up in a 'compound.' Was it a compound only when family was visiting for Thanksgiving? Or when I had friends over for the Super Bowl? It's not a compound, it's a community. A passive gated community. What’s so scary about that?"
Kohn writes in his proposal that he envisions Shura City as a brick-and-mortar response to a 21st-century conundrum, a world in which war is ill-defined and combatants on both sides live in an extrajudicial limbo:
As a law student, I am fascinated by drones’ existence in a post-legal world. Architecture can adapt, and this project clearly aims to show just those adaptations, but American jurisprudence is simply not capable of making clear, comforting, adjudications on drones and the sorts of crimes they have been created to deter. Architecture as a discipline has a long history of being capable of developing within the cracks left by law.
Kohn elaborated on his thoughts in an email to me. "In the case of drones, the current legal regime is just wholly unprepared for warfare by algorithm," he writes. "Architecture can work where law cannot by giving dignity and safety to people physically when they are not afforded those privileges legally."
Kohn does imagine the construction of a few unlikely high-tech physical defenses, such as window grilles (mashrabiyas) that would somehow contain embedded QR-type codes that would cause drones to self-destruct. But most of his design plays on types of structures that already exist, all in service of the ancient instinct of a community to protect itself against intruders:
If there are people who want to strike with constant fear, the best defense is a life of comfort free from that fear. Shura City is constructed to be livable. It is built according to local logic, using local materials, and amenable to local needs. It is meant to be alien – but not hostile – from the outside while homey and familiar from the inside. It is meant to confuse the machines and their distant operators while creating a safe zone for people whose lives are being rended by war. … Shura City is about using architecture to create a space for humanity in an increasingly inhuman sphere.
Kohn says that he thinks it is a duty for his generation to challenge the newly mechanized means of warfare that have become routine over the last 10 years. "If people are going to create new and exciting ways to kill people, I think there's no harm in pushing the envelope of peace technology,” he says. Imagining Shura City is part of Kohn’s personal response to that challenge, a way to hack the machines of modern war.
"There is a deliberate impudence to the City," he wrote to me. "Drones rely on data mining of individuals and tracking of individuals, kind of like Facebook. The City hides the individual in the embrace of the community, using human traits drones cannot understand as protection. The City subverts the aggressor."