FEATURE

An architecture of mass surveillance

by Harry Fisher

15th September 2020

Brutalism holds a complicated place in our collective psyche. At its roots in England, it was derided as vulgar and ugly, and while such views do not hold as much currency today, they are certainly still widespread. The previous year has seen the beginning of the demolition of Herbert Fitzroy Robinson’s Sampson House, the sculptural Welbeck Street Car Park, and a proposal for the significant alteration of Lasdun’s Southbank IBM building. The recent popularity of Brutalism and its position as the go-to hipster architectural style has somewhat softened the image of it in recent years, yet many of these buildings are still treated in horrendous ways by the institutions that maintain them.

Plans for alteration of Dennis Lasdun’s Southbank IBM Building - Photo: 76 Upper Ground - https://76upperground.com/

One need only walk across Waterloo bridge at night to see that the Southbank Centre’s sculptural staircases have been sullied with a gaudy layer of yellow paint, and its facades obscured with shipping crate restaurants and circus billboards. The administration of the Southbank Centre has also given the Southbank Centre, and its more noble older sibling, the National Theatre, a lighting makeover at night. The idea that a lighting scheme somehow makes the angry grey boxes that constitute the National Theatre and Southbank Centre more happy and appealing is condescending thinking on behalf of then Mayor of London, Ken Livingston, that it surely deserves reconsideration since revitalised appreciation for the beton brut. The era of abuse of such buildings which runs far deeper than lighting additions, I would optimistically posit, is coming to an end. The collective psyche governing our approach to Brutalism, one of disdain and aversion, is dissolving and the new vision becomes clearer every year, projects like SOS Brutalism pioneering the way forward in preserving this unique and important style.

The Southbank Centre’s yellow makeover - Wikipedia - Saval / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Other aspects of our collective psyche are less promising. It is unfortunately hard to deny that in the UK, awareness of our government’s utilisation of methods of mass surveillance is less than in the US. The politics of distrust in government surveillance in the States is unusual in that it unites the libertarian strand of the Right with the progressive liberalism of the Left. In the UK, our trust in the government depends on what party is in power and our preference for either one. Either way, the subject of surveillance is rarely touched. 

 

For example, the awareness of GCHQ’s continued mass surveillance of UK citizens is almost completely missing from the current political discourse around the pandemic, as shown by the media’s disinterest in the issues of COVID-19 tracking apps. As a revamped version of this tracking app finishes its pilot programme, one can only hope that its privacy breaches will be pushed against, be that through activism or mainstream media coverage. With this lack of discourse in the media, comes a distinct lack of discourse amongst academics. Art history is sadly an area where the architecture of surveillance has barely been breached beyond studies on Big Data, despite its relevance to both artists and architects in the assessment of our built culture.

‘The Doughnut’ GCHQ headquarters, Cheltenham - wikipedia- Ministry of Defence / OGL v1.0 (http://NationalArchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)

The architectural imprint of mass surveillance in the UK is visible. Beyond the Hi-Tech flash of ‘The Doughnut’ GCHQ building or the Postmodern headquarters of MI6, the architecture of surveillance is shared equally between a restrained Neo-Georgian architecture and Brutalism. The mass surveillance of UK citizens is an endeavor that has largely moved online over the past 10-20 years, with more and more of our communication being through the internet. However while data centres have replaced telephone exchanges as the houses of our collected data, communications companies often simply repurpose the same buildings, though some of these monoliths have been lost to time.

The demolished telecommunications hub, Mondial House, Southbank - Photo: Mondial House © ugarthr 2006

Many of these data centres are placed in the most remote of locales in other countries. The US has a particular penchant for remote and arid climates, like something straight out of Independence Day, mysterious houses of restricted information. The truth is far more banal and grounded in a popular discourse of online trolls and armchair activists. If you were to break into the servers of these buildings, you’re more likely to find the personal data of someone who put #antifa in their twitter post than evidence of aliens.

The NSA’s ‘Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center’, Bluffdale, Utah - wiki - Photo: ParkerHiggins (Electronic Frontier Foundation) / CC0

Architectural questions aside, data centres like that in Utah pose environmental issues equal to or perhaps greater than a few wacko’s paranoia, given how much it takes to power these sorts of facilities. It doesn’t seem likely, however, that anyone is going to be able to sustain a targeted campaign against the environmental impact of surveillance infrastructure given that the past 10 years of whistleblowing has done little to dislodge that infrastructure. We all accept our online data is stored somewhere, so the knowledge that it goes to one more place than we expected is no surprise. Nor does it seem a popular concern that some of the most restricted data in the UK is kept in cozy looking buildings in parks. That’s fine if you believe you’ll never do anything wrong in your life that you don’t want exposed. But subversive speech is seen as threatening social order by the agencies that amass this data, displayed chillingly in a scene from Laura Poitras’ documentary Risk where an FBI agent briefly explains her ‘anti-US’ activities. The trial currently commencing for Julian Assange’s extradition to the US only makes this issue more applicable to us in the present day.

Telephone Exchanges are essentially automated forms of the person on the other end of the phone in old films when they say “Operator. Yes I need to make a call to New York, Mr Schneider at the Ritz”. They are tube stops for your phone call. Most local areas have Telephone Exchanges, however it is not in these buildings where wiretapping occurs. More often it is in Central Offices, rather than local ones. A Central Office essentially relays smaller telephone exchange calls across long distances so that not every local telephone exchange has to have expensive equipment. Therefore placing monitoring equipment in a Central Office gives access to the telephone communications of a whole region. 

AT&T’s central office on 33 Thomas street, NYC - wikimedia commons - Billie Grace Ward from New York, USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Though data centres present a flashier face to surveillance infrastructure, it is these telephone exchanges that perhaps pose the most interesting architectural dilemma. Generally, Brutalist buildings that once were considered rough and ugly are now trendy spots for photo shoots or coffee shops (anecdotal evidence based on regular visits to Southbank Centre’s workspaces which often featured passing by a figure draped in boldly coloured cloth pouting for a camera, though backed up particularly by Barnabas Calder’s analysis of the revitalisation of these spaces in the final chapter of Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism). 

What does our growing familiarity with Brutalism mean for our trust in government? Memory of these buildings first being erected is dissolving, and what is left is an appreciation and care for buildings that were once considered autocratic impositions. Will our trust in Brutalism become trust in these windowless centres for surveillance? One might argue that awareness of these buildings will create greater interest in their functions. Yet the large amount of Neo-Georgian architecture that is used to house telephone exchanges has masked their function because of our familiarity with the architectural style. Unfamiliar architecture is easily vilified. 

Former Telephone Exchange at Baynard House, Blackfriars - Photo: Andreas Praefcke / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

This question of image is perhaps best illustrated in analogue by the recent questions as to whether Huawei can continue to operate in the UK because of the risk of Chinese surveillance. It is telling that no questions are asked about BT, or Vodafone or any other British telecommunications company, despite successive UK government’s clear collaborations with these sorts of companies as indicated by the 2014 Snowden documents regarding GCHQ and NSA surveillance (the NSA’s use of ‘partnerships’ being far more explicit, with Verizon and AT&T being named). The fallacy that people in Western democracies have far greater freedoms than people in countries with far more explicit surveillance only requires one slightly authoritarian government to be realised. Can we feel sure that here in the UK we aren’t on the other side of the door from one? As with architecture, the unfamiliar is vilified at the expense of the truth. 

It would be a dream to have more accountability in these issues. Comparative bombshells like those released by the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI (as recalled masterfully by Johanna Hamilton in 1971) having tangible impacts. As a case in point, BlueLeaks, data leaked by anonymous regarding police conduct in the US, doesn’t appear to have resulted in much at all, despite its reaffirmation of the existence of a wide network of surveillance practices targeting innocent protestors. 

A simple solution for the overly paranoid? Use Tor, a browser that hides what you're doing online so that while using it snoopers will only see that you are using Tor, not what you are searching/browsing on it. Otherwise keep on doing whatever it is you’re doing, just know Gary at GCHQ Cheltenham can very easily see your visits to the Kermit the Frog fansite.

RAF Rudloe Manor. Ark Data Centres' Masterplan for Spring Park Data Centre Campus, 8 miles north of Bath. Photo: Lifted from https://www.secret-bases.co.uk/secret4.htm?permalink=burlington , © Ark Data Centres

For those particularly interested in visiting buildings that are part of this surveillance infrastructure there are various resources that detail their locations. For telephone exchanges, using this exchange database in tandem with Google Maps yields a great deal granted you are able to spot a BT sign. And for wider surveillance practices one need go no further than Alan Turnbull’s brilliant Secret Bases site. Understanding the infrastructure of surveillance architecture must be a pillar to our comprehension of state surveillance and of surveillance capitalism, supplementing our opposition of shady conglomerates and nebulous state policy with a very physical enemy. 

lewis duncan

Staff Writer

Lewis Duncan is a first BA student and a staff writer for the Courtauldian. After studying sculpture for a year, he wants to write about current artists and art in the city, capturing some of the art scene’s energy for Courtauldian readers. He will also be looking closely at his main interest, architecture. Having lived in London all his life, he knows the built environment can be difficult to navigate, but by sharing experiences, he believes we can unlock the city.

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