shura city // murmuration: a festival of drone culture

a brief overview

the drone may conceive of itself — if it was armed with the ordinance of self-awareness — as a tool beyond architecture. in the end of the 1990’s society was able to get used to cctv on street corners in stores and on the street. we were even able to accept the use of tomahawk missiles, at least in tom clancy books. the strangeness of the united states treating its enemies this way, as though they were the new england colonies in a strange reuse of king philip’s lexicography, was brushed off in the excitement over new uses of adaptable technology. however, security cameras and fly-by-wire missiles still were part of a world that defined itself with concrete walls, cliffs-as-barriers, and other principles of formal architecture. drones scoff at such conventionalities.

drones’ ability to move through extraordinarily varied environments for extraordinarily long periods of time is of course unparalleled. they can scoff at conventional architecture by waiting out the inhabitants (if the goal is to eliminate a single person or a small group) or to poke and prod at the space from infinite angles using any number of conventional or digital imaging systems. or, alternatively, the drone operator has the opportunity to decide to simply blow the whole place up. much of the publicized fear over the expansion of drone warfare and reconnaissance is not distress at the collateral damage in pakistan, yemen, somalia, and elsewhere but rather the very real fear that we in the united states and united stateslike environs have no native way to defend ourselves from them or their operators.

however, as those who depended on castle walls discovered against ottoman artillery and as the finest horsemen discovered during trench warfare, no invincible force of arms stays that way for long. architecture against drones is not just a science-fiction scenario but a contemporary imperative. such creations are not needed for the john connors but for the abdulrahman al-awlakis. the successful check against the machines is not a daydream but an inevitability, and the quicker more creative solutions are proposed, the more likely such answers can be disseminated widely and kept from the patent-wielding hands of some offshore-utopian type.

learning objectives

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 (as false chimneys, bricked-up window frames and trulli show). when sovereign governments do not exclude drones, the machines are privileged with an anarchy in which to roam.

laws cannot govern anarchy, but architecture can. it is my goal in this project to conceive of ways to use architecture to accomplish the goals that governance cannot. this is both an admission of defeat and a debriefing to explore what future alternatives exist.

professional objectives

one would imagine that in a free market world, there would be booming demand for drone-proof structures. there is certainly desire for defense from these anonymous interlopers, but what could politely be termed “inefficiencies in the market” have prevented such demands from being met by the worldwide architectural community.

drones are a way to use the city. architects will have to interact with them and create built environments that will either promote or inhibit their use. at this stage, political questions that define who we are as a society and who we include in a society are part-and-parcel of talk on drones. as the machines become more mundane, architects’ interactions with them become less politicized. i do not write this as a call to arms for architects to roll up their sleeves and create anti-drone colonies. i instead hope to demonstrate how architects, lawyers, and countless other professions and labors can interact with drones instead of simply being subject to them and their masters.

what is shura city?

the name “shura city” comes from the title of an april 5, 2012 piece in foreign policy by farah jan. jan studies quetta, pakistan — now a home to the “quetta shura” and all of their pursuers — through the individuals who live and work in the city. hearing the name at first, i knew it simply fit for this project. a “shura” is a consultative group of elders and respected individuals who take responsibility for the decision-making for a community. the name “shura city” for me implies a social contract to solve problems through the dispersal of responsibility.

this particular shura city (translated into shahr al-shura) also is a direct reference to john winthrop’s “city upon a hill” speech while in transit to the new world. this particular shura city will also be watched by the world, although for different reasons. i make no claims to creating a utopia for the people pursued by drones now and in the future, obviously enough. this project is merely intended as a setting-off point for discussions on proper defense and on what “proper defense” might mean.

the buildings

the backbone of the city must be highly structured yet retain elements of randomness. the internal logic must be given precedence over the external logic. imperial regimes from algeria to afghanistan have found the logic of the mahalle inscrutable, favoring a cordon sanitaire rather than give in to the allure. this city would have the external appearance of safdie’s famous habitat 67. it would be visually striking, yet have no clear wayfinding.

concrete is the material of choice; its ability to be sculpted from inside and out allows for maximum external confusion and internal livability.

particolored paint is optimal. i have included no internal plan; although i would prefer a modular configuration a la the japanese metabolists, it is important for the inhabitants of the city to find adaptability between private and public space, between family rooms and social halls, and between doting aunts and creepy uncles. adaptability within a communal shell is put ahead of the architect’s often iron will.

the goal is not defense-through-hardening, but defense through confusion. by turning the entire community into a closed circuit, drones targeting individuals will not be able to select and detect the individuals they desire once they enter the city. it is here when the community must rely on the humanity of their surveyors. this is a humanity some may say is foolish, some may say that drones exist to remove humanity from the equation. on the counter, creating an empty data set turns the smart drones into dumb bombs, and there’s nothing a technologically superior force dislikes more than being brought down to their opponents’ level. this built environment presents drones with an inscrutable puzzle.

the windows

the importance of windows cannot be overstated. they’re what separates a dungeon from a dining room, after all. for our purposes, though, the work of a standard glazier will not do. glass blocks, if a bit 1993, are a good start. even better are the examples of arc en ciel in bordeaux and l’institut du monde arabe in paris.

in bordeaux, outstanding multicolored blocks of glass are used to break up the façade and allow for views from the interior. this premise can be refashioned in the city without much change. the changing colors make it more difficult for electronic cameras to peer in and make out one person from the next without hints of skin tone or clothing color. they also allow the individuals inside to look out and see different, fascinating things from safe camouflage.

in paris, the little machines inside the windows are patterned after a mashrabiya, a feature of arabic architecture that protects from glare and prying eyes. in paris, the machines dilate and contract, forming new patterns and shutting down for closed exhibits. these are obviously good for keeping what’s inside from being known outside. the dilations could also turn into qr codes, speaking to the machines that are foaming at the mouth outside.

qr codes are a way for machines to talk to each other without the need for human interpretation. in the city, they can act as guard dogs, letting the machines outside know that they are not welcome and should fear coming closer. the possibilities for qr codes are best seen in jonathan rennie’s cinema city. today, the codes are often shoehorned unattractively into advertisements made for human eyes. this is ugly, stupid, and ineffective.

tomorrow, a drone trying to peer through a window could get guillotined by a mashrabiya contorting itself into a self-destruct code. now that’s more like it.

the roof

somewhere between the figurative embrace of the st. peter’s square and the chain-link fortification of pablo escobar’s compound, there has to be a happy medium. shura city needs a roof because without one it is just a gesture, a disney-ified attempt at safety. an open sky is an invitation for the patient masters of the air, and those drones feel no need to rsvp.

the city’s roof frame is copied from ney + partner’s project for the netherlands maritime museum. originally based off of ancient mariner’s rhomb lines it provides year-round climate control, lighting, and shelter. these are not things to be taken lightly.

climate control is pleasant enough for the denizens of the city, but it takes on a whole new importance as a defensive system, since drones that rely on heat signatures to identify individuals at night time are flummoxed by a thing as unearthly as air conditioning. the giant shield can keep things cool in the summer and warm in the winter, making the whole structure stick out like a sore thumb from the wild temperature swings outside of it, but making the details of the interior indistinguishable. the effect is no different from walking into a dark room on a sunny day.

while speaking of dark rooms on sunny days, it is worthwhile to note the tricks of shadows and lighting that can be played by such a varied roof pattern. it turns the whole interior into the veldt while a drone is looking for one particular zebra. more interestingly, led lights can be attached not just to the bottom but to the top. these can blind drones no different from an interrogator’s backlight, turning the tables on the querulous drones.

on the human scale of things, shelter is key. panels can be replaced, removed, or revamped as needed to let in the sun, the rain, and the moon. the city is not hermetically sealed, only wary of trouble. it cannot be overemphasized that the city is a home and a community. the courtyard (spoken of later) that is protected by this roof is the place where the community reads books, takes picnics, and gossips about neighborhood beauties. the roof allows people to feel comfortable meeting and mixing, knowing that there is something between them and the unspeakable darkness outside.

the minarets

if the idea of a minaret makes you uncomfortable, as it assumes peremptorily the drones’ use as a weapon in the contemporary war on terror, a church steeple or a zoroastrian tower of silence can be mentally substituted. the minaret exists not just as a tower from which to call adherents to prayer, but as a symbol of the beliefs of the inhabitants and their pride in those beliefs. “we are who we are,” the minaret proclaims, “and all of the technology thrown at us will not break us.”

the symbol of the minaret is unbreakable. and if a drone tears down a minaret, it will be seen as an attack on the community just as strong as one that takes human life. the tower represents a sacred space that is respected and held dear. to begin trifling with the sacred space is to make war on the people who find it sacred. in the closed system of shura city, it is impossible to find out who is inside the sacred space and thus who precisely is having war declared upon them.

architecturally, the minarets add a vertical element, along with the badgirs. but where badgirs must be of a certain height and form in order to properly catch the winds, minarets are afforded a bit of creativity and ingenuity in their construction. this breaking up the vertical plane can make close inspection by undesired drones quite risky.

the badgirs

temperature control is important enough for comfort, let alone for defense. badgirs are an ancient construction used to suck in air through a chimney and then cool it in a cellar before distributing the cooled air throughout the building. the simplicity of design allows for ornamentation and extrapolation: bells, whistles, prayer inscriptions, totems, and the like can adorn a badgir and perhaps imbue it with mystical powers. the practicality of the design allows for temperature control even without electricity, and can be modified simply by stopping up corridors. basement or courtyard pools – or fires – can also modify the air coming in.

temperature modification is also a form of defensive obfuscation. drones, since they cannot literally see through concrete, instead use variations in temperature as part of the palette to paint a picture of what is going on inside. any confusion here gives the drone operators the chance to doubt their machines. unlike chimneys or exhaust pipes, bagdirs are not external proof of life but a passive cooling system that works whether or not there are people inside. their existence proves nothing but ingenuity. heat-sensitive systems designed to pick out humans from goats, or even from walls, will be rendered that much more useless by the comforting breezes coming from a bagdir.


this project is by no means complete, and is intended primarily to be a jumping-off point. entryways, exhaust systems, watercourses, and indeed any permeability must be scoured for defense from drones. robot spies can be as big as a commercial airliner and as small as an insect, and depth of defense will always be required. the technological arms race is not over, it is merely beginning.

what this project proposes is a new way to think about space. drone warfare proposes that every inch of land is (and all of its inhabitants are) part of the battle space. the “gorgon stare” project explains itself thusly. life has become a perpetual defense. an architectural solution to perpetual defense must bring people out of a siege mentality.

the population selected for drone attacks must know that death may come at any moment (good or no) for any reason (good or no). 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 not about judgment on the survivors or destruction of their persecutors. shura city is about using architecture to create a space for humanity in an increasingly inhuman sphere.

coautherd with aj kohn. published in murmuration festival