A Space That Is Not the Battlefield

by Patrick Sykes
Designers Asher Kohn and Hiba Ali spark debate over an imaginary city fortified against drone attacks.

The dust is settling on Shura City, yet not a single brick has been laid. Since releasing this proposal for a drone-proof city, in 2012, Asher Kohn has encountered sharply divergent reactions. I spoke with Asher and Hiba Ali — the artist who created a virtual model of the city — as they planned its interior spaces.

The original proposal is a semi-ironic response to drone warfare. It features a design meant to obscure the information that a drone operator uses to identify targets — colored glass to alter skin tones, paneled roofing to cast shadows, windows coated in self-destruct codes. The plan draws upon traditional architectural elements from the Middle East and the Maghreb. Bâdgirs (windcatchers) minimize human heat signatures, and mashrabiyas (projecting windows fronted with intricate latticework) hide Shura’s 700 residents from view.

Fortified cities, of course, are nothing new. The pentagonal walls of Palmanova and the octagonals of Neuf-Brisach are among the most prominent of many historic designs for residential war machines. But drone warfare calls for a new approach. When the asymmetry between parties is so great, the targeted community is unable to simply increase defense in proportion to escalating danger. Shura City is based on the notion that creative use of space may succeed where other interventions fail. Its purpose is to spur debate.

One might argue that any fortified settlement normalizes fear of the world outside. Stephen Graham and Anna Minton, for instance, have written about gated communities and their propensity to instill a sense of vulnerability as much as security. Asher contends that fear of drone attacks is already present and can only be reduced by preventing civilian casualties. Yet security measures can also reduce the quality of life for residents. “An architectural solution to perpetual defense must bring people out of a siege mentality,” Hiba maintains. “If the city’s exterior is experienced as protective, it should not be a cage, and its interiors should be comfortable, adaptable.”

Asher points to the open floor plan, which allows people to “to make the most of the city, giving them a safe place to create their own city.” This counters the authoritarian nature of top-down urban design. Empowering residents to organize — both politically and architecturally — is one of Shura City’s most widely praised features. The word shura means “consultation” in Arabic, representing a form of direct democracy envisioned for the city.

Unlike most fortified cities, Shura isn’t equipped for residents to fight back. I asked Asher how he reconciles this with the promise of empowerment. He explained that a target’s refusal to engage places the moral ambivalence of drone attacks into stark relief — in the international arena and maybe even in the mind of a drone operator. Similarly, the city’s defensive system impairs the drone’s ability to process information so that operators have to pause and reconsider the possibility of unintended consequences.

Given the complex imbalance of drone warfare, a fortified pacifism may be the only hope of effective resistance. From an operator’s perspective, Asher concludes, “if someone is a drone target, they must present themselves as a target — ‘being with your family’ is putting innocence in the crosshairs of a drone, instead of just ‘being with your family.’ You’re never allowed to not be on the battlefield. More than anything else, we’re trying to make a space that is not the battlefield.”

Patrick Sykes is a writer, editor, and radio producer based in Istanbul.