The Metropolis Targeted
Look out the window the next time you are in an airplane. The comfortingly legible baseball diamonds and DNA strands of mutating suburban subdivisions change gradually from discernible units into an abstract grid, transistor buildings fed by a circuitry of roads. This in turn gives way to a patchwork of varying colors and textures, more like a paint-by-numbers schematic of a landscape than an actual landscape. This aerial view, at once familiar and otherworldly, has become as routine as that from a passing car on the Interstate Highway System; yet if asked to explain its nuances or fathom why it looks as it does, few among us could reasonably hold forth for very long without digressing into simple ruminations on its scale. It is visual wallpaper, scrolling beneath us like a nineteenth-century panorama, even if eschewed in favor of in-flight videos.
In the history of sight, however, this view is a mere blink. A fantasy haunting the imaginations of artists for centuries, it was not until the balloon travel of the nineteenth century that the world from the sky was first made visible, as a sublime incarnation of nature’s bounty and man’s great works. And it was not until the twentieth century that the wonder and novelty of the view was transformed into information—to be surveyed, pored over, processed, and stored away. In the short course of this evolution, as the experience of the aerial view and the meanings it held changed, so too did another aspect of airborne experience change: the capacity and will to inflict harm from above on those below.
A striking pattern emerged: As the ability to see and record aerial views became ever more refined, ever more thorough, the altitudes higher and the horizons ever more distant, so too did the military aspect of the overhead perspective shift. It developed from the primal creation of airborne psychological chaos in the nineteenth century (the mere sight of the balloon was an occasion of terror); to aerial reconnaissance and limited, though spectacular, offensive maneuvers (limited mainly to the battlefield) in World War I; to comprehensive military aerial mapping and full-scale aerial bombing campaigns directed at the “areas” and “marshalling yards” of industrial infrastructure in cities in World War II; to the emergence of cities as targets themselves, with localized strategic objectives replaced by the abstract statistical categories of “megadeath” and “overkill.” As the means of comprehending the city as a whole improved, so too did the means for wholly destroying it. It is perhaps no surprise that the ability to visualize the Earth in a single image coincided with the presumed ability to destroy the Earth with one massive unleashing of weapons, or that both accomplishments were byproducts of the same endeavor.
As mastery over the aerial view grew, so too did the presumption that landscapes and cities could be mastered, in two divergent enterprises. In the emerging field of urban planning, aerial imagery supported the assumption that cities and landscapes were scientific units of observation, aggregations of data that could be managed and fed into formulas. In the emerging field of strategic bombing, the same data provided by the aerial view helped transform cities and landscapes from places into targets. The Cold War was where the primacy of the aerial view and the targeting of the everyday environment intersected. The war was experienced almost entirely from an aerial perspective—the crime-scene photos of Cuban missile installations, the surveillance satellites, the overhead map projections of nuclear weapon damage, the airplane views of Bikini Atoll detonations—while there seemed no way more apt than the aerial view to capture the “exploding metropolis” (in demographic as well as strategic terms) as it stretched into new regions. As J. B. Jackson observed, at some point during the Cold War aerial photography went from a “photographic transcription of the eye” to “its own perspective, its own vision.” The Cold War was like one massive eye, a new way of looking at the world, including the city. This view has now become so familiar that we need to start from the beginning, to recreate the perspective and possibilities viewed in those first flights.
When the Prussian Prince Pückler-Muskau sailed over the city of Berlin in 1817, he reported being as astounded by the view as the means of ascension itself. Wrote the prince: “No imagination can paint anything more beautiful than the magnificent scene now disclosed to our enraptured senses: the multitude of human beings, the houses, the squares and streets, the high towers gradually diminishing, while the deafening tumult became a gentle murmur, and finally melted into a deathlike silence.” The aerial sublime had blossomed into view. In his 1836 tract Aeronautica, Thomas Monck Mason noted a similar sensation—a reverence toward some previously unimaginable whole as the familiar topography dwindled, and a simultaneous growth and reduction in the stature of the observer—aboard the Royal Vauxhallballoon with aeronaut Charles Green:
Distances which he used to regard as important, contracted to a span; objects once imposing to him from their dimensions, dwindled into insignificance; localities which he never beheld or expected to behold at one and the same view, standing side by side in friendly juxtaposition; all the most striking productions of art, the most interesting varieties of nature, town and country, sea and land, mountains and plains, mixed up together in the one scene, appear before him as if suddenly called into existence by the magic virtue of some great enchanter’s wand.
The views that artists had constructed in their imagination for centuries had been made real, although it was unclear what reality signified in this vast new abstraction. Painters such as George Catlin rushed to document the new landscape in such works as “Topography of Niagara” (1827), but opinion divided as to the exact nature of the new perspective. The influential art critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton opined that “a landscape always presupposes the personal presence of a human observer,” and that “views from the summits of lofty mountains or from a balloon may come under the term ‘landscape,’ but they are hardly landscapes, they are panoramas.” A true landscape, he wrote, would become clear were we to descend like the angel Gabriel:
On a still nearer approach we should see the earth as from a balloon, and the land would seem to hollow itself beneath us like a great round dish, but the hills would be scarcely perceptible. We should still say, “It is not landscape yet.” At length, after touching the solid earth, and looking round us, and seeing trees near us, we should say, “This, at last, is landscape. It is not the world as the angels may see it from the midst of space, but as men see it who dwell in it, and cultivate it, and love it.
One could scarcely inhabit the air, but its temporary occupation seemed capable of affecting the relationship one felt to the ground. The art critic Robert Hughes, describing the 1889 unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, noted that ordinary Parisians, upon scaling the unprecedentedly vertiginous iron structure, experienced both a frisson at the sheer marvel of the view, as well as a more subtle, profound sensation: “As Paris turned its once invisible roofs and the now clear labyrinth of its alleys and streets toward the tourist’s eye, becoming a map of itself, a new type of landscape began to seep into popular awareness. It was based on frontality and pattern, rather than on perspective recession and depth.”
As the nineteenth century progressed, the tone of the aerial view shifted from sacred reverence toward the sublime to a kind of mastery, which itself spawned two major technological impulses: the desire to photograph the terrain below, and the desire to use the overhead perspective for military advantage—for reconnaissance or bombing. The two strands quickly became interrelated, and thence proceeded at a complementary pace. In 1858, Gaspard Felix Tournachon (known as “Nadar”), sailing 258 feet above the valley of Bièvre, captured a daguerreotype of the Earth below, blurred by the vibrations of the balloon. “We have had bird’s-eye views seen by mind’s eye imperfectly,” he wrote. “Now we will have nothing less than the tracings of nature herself, reflected on the plate.” Daguerre himself had propagated a similar view: “The DAGUERREOTYPE is not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature; on the contrary it is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself.” Nadar and Daguerre’s comments betray what was soon to be a prominent current in aesthetic, as well as military, thinking: that photography contained truth, and that one could see things in a photograph that one would not necessarily see with one’s own eyes.
A few years after Nadar’s pioneering photograph, a Union officer in the American Civil War, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, flying in the balloonIntrepid, employed the emerging science of “photogrammetry” in a flight over Virginia. Photographs depicted, on a single photo plate, the entire landscape between the westerly Richmond and Manchester to the easterly Chickahominy River. A map grid was overlaid on the resulting photographic print, and the aeronautical observer relayed—via telegraph wire strung to the ground—intelligence about Confederate activity to ground commanders, who themselves had a duplicate of the image. With photogrammetry, observers could view the landscape as it was, rather than as it appeared in the often fanciful depictions of cartographers, even if photography, it would be shown, was not without its distortions.
Despite its infancy, photography seemed the ideal military science for airborne operations. J. C. G. Hayne, a nineteenth-century Prussian military engineer, predicted the balloon could be used to drop “grenades and other harmful things” on the enemy, who could retaliate by building houses with armored roofs. Indeed, upon inventing the balloon, the French brothers Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier immediately speculated on its use in warfare—specifically the proposed dropping of 14 tons of aerostatic explosives on the occupied city of Toulon in 1793—and as the Italian aerial warfare prophet Giulio Duohet pointed out in The Command of the Air, “long before the age of powered flight, men dreamed of employing aerial craft as weapons of war.” In June 1849, plotting an invasion of Venice, the Austrian army turned the dream into reality. An Austrian lieutenant of artillery, Franz Uchatius, had pioneered a “balloon bomb,” essentially a floating explosive with a fuse timed to the corresponding air currents and target distance. Unleashing a series of balloons from the paddle steamer Vulkan, the Austrians detonated nearly 200 bombs over Venice. The bombing failed to produce the envisaged terror. In the words of one historian, “the Austrian press spoke of its ‘frightful effects’ and hinted that it would now be easy to reduce the Queen of the Adriatic to a pile of rubble. These reports were obviously quite far from the truth, for almost all the bombs seemed to have dropped harmlessly into the water.”
The balloon became a weapon of theoretical terror, whose appearance in the sky portended a more sinister outcome than it could actually deliver. In the 1880s, the British deployed the balloon in South Africa, where “its ascensions had a wonderful psychological effect on native populations.” But a military survey in 1886 downplayed the strategic capabilities of the balloon: “At best it could be used against a city under siege, where the charges it hurled down would undermine the morale of the inhabitants, for ‘it undoubtedly produces a depressing effect to have things dropped on one from above.’” The more lasting legacy of the balloon was the view it produced, a method for envisioning cities in their entirety rather than destroying them. When George R. Lawrence flew his “captive airship” kites over San Francisco, taking pictures of the scenes of urban destruction below, the images captured were not of a city destroyed by aerial means, but by an earthquake. In those ruins, however, one might divine a prophecy of cities whose destruction, and the visual record of destruction, were to be carried out from above.
A few minutes after noon on August 30, 1914, on the eve of the battle of the Marne, a German Taube Monoplane appeared in the Parisian sky, droning over the Gate de l’Est, and dropped a scattering of explosives at the railway station. A woman killed in that afternoon’s bombing would be the first of some 500 Parisian victims of aerial attack, and the “five o’clock Taube” became inscribed in the narrative of urban life, as regular as the church bell, as unceremonious as the arriving Metro. Rather than an unhinged act of terrorism, the bombing was considered a plausible military action, as Paris was seen not as an “open city” but an enormous urban fortification, with even the Eiffel Tower bristling with machine guns and searchlights. To be urban was now to be subjected to the industrialized instruments of destruction. Great cities had been sacked before, but usually with ample warning—the airplane could appear instantaneously, drop its charge, and depart, an anonymous anarchist bomber of the sky. The airplane was rewriting geography, extending the temporary contours of the battlefield into the tangled streets of the metropolis. There was still nothing comprehensive in the attacks; the technology had advanced little from the Italian aviator Giulio Gavotti’s single-handed bombing of the Turkish position at Ain Zara (“Terrorized Turks Scatter Upon Unexpected Aerial Assault,” noted one headline) in 1911. In Gavotti’s day, aviators wore explosives around their necks. A 1916 German attack on London reads more like a police accident report than a chronicle of urban catastrophe. “[A] series of small explosions gently shook London’s busy West End. Unannounced and unheard beyond a few streets, the feeble blasts inflicted some damage between the Brompton Road and Victoria Station. Quite suddenly, as if by lightning, a baker’s shop lost its chimney. A stable was wrecked … ‘One cobblestone was cracked in Eccleston Mews, opposite no. 23,’ noted one meticulous report.”
At a 1907 conference in The Hague, article 25 of the Convention on Land Warfare had been changed, with looming air warfare in mind, to read: “It is forbidden to attack or bombard by any means whatsoever, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings that are not defended,” a formula that left open the question of what it meant to “defend” a town. While air warfare had been long envisioned, as in Tennyson’s 1842 line about “air navies grappling in the central blue” (Tennyson’s recourse to a nautical metaphor hints at how alien the concept of aerial warfare actually was), the concept of bombing from above was mostly beyond the purview of military thought, whether in tacit recognition of bombing’s chronic inaccuracy or in allegiance to some older code of battlefield ethics. Planes, the thinking went, were at best an ocular extension of the ground forces; one early British pilot declared that “no enemy would risk the odium such action would involve.” As the war progressed, however, and the technology improved, one German general observed that “the distinction between combatant and noncombatant began to blur.”
Excerpted from SURVIVAL CITY by Tom Vanderbilt. Copyright © 2002 by Princeton Architectural Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.