Imagining a Drone-Proof City in the Age of Surveillance

As drones become common as tools of the military and intelligence agencies, how are architects and designers responding?

Shura City
Shura City Asher J. Kohn

As drones become increasingly common tools of war and surveillance on the battlefield and in our cities, how are architects and designers responding? Previously, we’ve looked at personal counter-surveillance measures, but it’s likely that future designers will move beyond the scale of the individual to larger projects such as drone-proof architecture or perhaps even urban-scale counter-surveillance. Concerned about what he sees as the improper or unjustified use of drones, law student Asher J. Kohn has imagined how an anti-drone city might look and function. This isn’t a science fiction scenario, but a seriously considered urban design strategy. In fact, considering that the speculative plan for what Kohn has named “Shura City” is designed to counter the most technologically sophisticated weapons ever developed, the proposal is surprisingly low-tech.

Shura City disrupts the machines’ equipment and confuses remote operators through the careful use of materials and design strategies. “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,” says Kohn. The anti-drone city must be logical enough for inhabitants to navigate, yet random enough to befuddle automated surveillance. Kohn, not a trained designer, is vague on the interior layout, but suggests a flexible, adaptable plan inspired by Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, the high-density, modular residential project built as part of the 1967 Montreal Expo. Key features of Shura City include colored glass-block windows to prevent unwanted surveillance, a transparent roof enclosure that provides both thermal control to undermine drones’ heat sensors as well as a complex structural and lighting system to create a visual interference for drone tracking systems. This confusion is all carefully optimized to prevent individual targeting. Minarets (or church steeples or other religious towers) surround the city; an important cultural gesture gesture to unite the community that has the added effect of interrupting drone flight patterns.

There are, of course some near-future sci-fi-ish features included, such as QR code window screens that communicate to the passing drones, “letting the machines outside know that they are not welcome and should fear coming closer.”

The proposal isn’t meant as a call to arms to anti-drone architects, but a demonstration to inspire all professions to consider interacting with drones instead of simply being subjected to them. As Kohn notes, “This project is merely intended as a setting-off point for discussions on proper defense and on what ‘proper defense’ might mean.”

Artist’s concept sketch for The Citadel: A Community of Liberty
Artist’s concept sketch for The Citadel: A Community of Liberty The Citadel

Shura City isn’t the only conceptual utopia that responds to current political issues. A group of “Patriot Bloggers” recently started a movement to develop a community in the mountains of Idaho for people who “are bound together patriotism, pride in American exceptionalism, our proud history of Liberty as defined by our Founding Fathers, and physical preparedness to survive and prevail in the face of natural catastrophes…or man-made catastrophes such as a power grid failure or economic collapse.” The Citadel: a Community of Liberty, as the project is known, is also designed to resist the prying eyes of outsiders. It combines the fortification and charm of medieval castles with the everyday banality of high-rise condo living and suburban development. There isn’t much information available on the design of The Citadel, other than a conceptual plan and an illustration of a condo-castle. However, it is noted that homes “can be finished with several facades, from a log cabin to vinyl siding, to a brick face, to an elegant and stately Federal design.” It sounds like a standard developer project or gated community, except the gates are massive stone walls topped with battlements and each home is equipped with a generator, 2,500 gallon water tank, a composting toilet, a one year supply of food, two AR15-variant rifles with 1,000 rounds of ammunition each, and a safe room.

Unlike Shura City, the design isn’t a response to any potential attack –in fact, it’s made clear that the Citadel is not designed to withstand a direct attack from military of government forces– but it is a symbolic reflection of a group’s political beliefs. In this case, “Rightful Liberty” as defined by Thomas Jefferson: “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

The Citadel isn’t the only American community being planned according to political beliefs. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck aspires to build his own self-sustaining utopia, “Independence,” inspired by the work of Walt Disney and Ayn Rand’s Objectivist manifesto Atlas Shrugged.

In a lot of ways these projects, especially Shura City, recall the 1970s idea of Defensible Space. Developed by architect and city planner Oscar Newman, defensible space posits that the design of residential settings can deter crime and reduce residents’ fear of crime. Newman’s principles, which include enhancing visual and physical access to encouraging a sense of community and accountability, were successfully applied to the design of housing developments in urban areas and his influence can still be felt today. More broadly speaking, Shura City is part of a larger history of defensive urban design.

Most famously, there’s Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris that paved boulevards through the city to allow the movement of soldiers and to deter the populace from construction barricades. During World War II, Hitler transformed all of Europe into a fortress while closer to home, military facilities were disguised as suburban towns with a little Hollywood magic. More recently, there’s bollard-ization of American streets and fortification of its financial buildings and monuments as a response to terrorist attacks. In light of this history, it doesn’t take much to imagine buildings that deter drone attacks or invasions of privacy through visual or spacial means; high-tech building materials could block electronic signals or cancel thermal signatures. Perhaps entirely new architectural forms will emerge to disrupt surveillance algorithms or provide camouflage. In this architectural arms race, as the nature of war changes, so too will the nature of defensible space.

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