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.