Security and Invisible Architecture


NOTE: Do not point a camera anywhere in the direction of this loft building on the southeast corner of 16th and Callowhill. It is a Federal building and houses, among other important satellite offices, the regional branch of the Department of Homeland Security. Although I should have known this, I assured the fired up + dutiful security guard that I “just took one picture” (read three) and, more importantly that “I’m not Taliban” which, with a well-timed beard stroke, seemed to diffuse her officious wrath. Yet most security personnel are unconvinced by declarations that you’re “just into the architecture” and in an open and free society they’re perfectly within their right to be dubious.

I’m sure many have experienced the strange withdrawal of buildings, bridges, objects and infrastructure from the photographable realm. I experienced it most acutely directly after 9/11 on Staten Island where a noble citizen alerted a park ranger because my friend and I were taking pictures of a fort and (perhaps) catching the Verazzano Narrows Bridge in the background. (I do recall that actual terrorists were later detained for suspiciously filming the span.) There’s really no getting around this new veil of security and officials’ new protocols of discernment – in fact I think it’s necessary and most security personnel react well to candor and some due deference.

The problem is when this government-sanctioned withdrawal threatens an understanding of built space, or tears holes in the urban fabric. This problem intensifies when the government chooses to be discrete and adaptively reuse older structures. While most government buildings built after the 1960s heavyhandedly reflect security consciousness, or are so cartoonishly ponderous as to be instantly associated with something vitally government, buildings like the regional branch of the DHS look disarmingly like other aspects of Philadelphia’s industrial ruinscape.

This is not to suggest that photographing a building is the only route to understanding its architecture or context, but photographs are vital records for historians of architecture. In truth, I was initially drawn to this building because of its “architecture”, as I am to any industrial structure which despite being built by “efficient” corporations using “efficient” modern methods still takes the time to show off some crafted historicist or classical motifs. I’m interested in this facet of industrial buildings because I consider these finials and lintels (sometime cast concrete) to be 1.) an effort by companies to differentiate their structures, to present distinctive, classy, and permanent public fronts or 2.) the reaction of architects, artisans, masons, and bricklayers to the growing mechanization of building construction through materials like concrete. This building, which has concrete cast stone finials and some interesting inlaid tile text seemed to reflect a care and concern for its public front. In this sense, a photograph of it was integral to my argument that reinforced concrete may not have revolutionized building to the degree previously thought.

If I was stopped this explanation probably (hopefully) would have sufficed. But as this war of elusive foes and elusive ends continues I don’t see a diminishing of the government’s power to cast a veil of invisibility over more and more commonplace structures and objects. It is this war’s logic of surveillance and counter surveillance that makes the nondescript building that much more desirable as a foxhole.




6 thoughts on “Security and Invisible Architecture

  1. You’re a dangerous character, my friend. The “I’m not Taliban” quip was pretty harsh. Poor guy’s just doing his job…

    I think it a shame that world events have had such an impact on people’s fears for their own safety or privacy that we have started to overreact to the various types of “incursions” that could happen at any given moment (I think of Independence Hall when I say that). You can’t help but to wonder at how much we might be losing out on when we try to limit our exposure thusly.

  2. I am surprised government officials did not confiscate your photos of The Cliffs, an outpost of the S.O.U., an organization seeking liberty for Ukraine by brandishing our large scimitars. Arrggghhh!!!!

  3. Could someone please cast a cloak of governmental invisibility over my horrible memorial on Dilworth Plaza? Frankie’s across the street in representational mode–everybody knows it’s him. Eddie Bacon gets a marker from the PHMC. What do I get? I get a bent up piece of tin covered in pigeon shit. Don’t ever photograph this–I can haunt you from beyond. I did way more for this city than ol’ Rizzo ever did. Unless you count poor race relations and massive white flight as things to be proud of. Sigh, the necessity of po-mo memorials from the early 80s. Double sigh.

  4. Thank god the above pic is only a sliver of my memorial. While I like my plaza, when it comes to my memorial I’ve seen better urban design along the NJ Turnpike around the Meadowlands, than here in our fair Centre Square.
    Question: How many Philadelphians even know the proper name of my piece of guano covered white tin dedicated in my memory for future generations. Who among you looking at this thing understand my unique sense of good government? I wonder what the City will dedicate to the current mayor? Hmmmm…

  5. I was angrily instructed not to photograph the main post office at 30th street. I really just like the eagle sculptures adorning the entrances… but I guess those symbols of our country are off limits.

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