Building a town for training foreign agents

A new training center gives US foreign service agents an opportunity to learn how to move and operate in an urban setting:

Take the 19 miles of intertwined roads that replicate virtually every type of automotive interchange, intersection, and interstate likely to carry the federal agents tasked with protecting US diplomats and citizens around the world. They include traffic-free driving circles, twisties, and long highway sections where agents learn to evade ambushes and intercept suspects. The tree-lined labyrinth is both a tempting playground and a post-apocalyptic vision of suburban emptiness.

The nearby off-road course includes a simulated rocky riverbed, a real sand pit, a craggy hill, and cement staircases. Agents weave Jeep Wrangler Rubicons through a field of moguls. Elsewhere on the 1,300-acre compound you’ll find a rappelling wall, an explosives range, and live fire “shoot house.” In the “smokehouse,” agents learn to escape burning buildings. In the tactical maze—a warehouse holding dozens of interconnected rooms—teams of agents practice security missions. They bust down doors and stalk their enemies, while instructors observe from catwalks.

All wild stuff, but nothing compared to the centerpiece of this new training center: the “military operations in urban terrain” simulator. Also known as the MOUT, this is a proper town, complete with back alleys, main drags, and a life-size US embassy compound. The multistory buildings sport rooms, stairs, balconies, and rooftops, all of which can serve as stages for faux bad guys or the agents securing the structure while managing a search, evacuation, or watching over a motorcade. The only thing missing is a Starbucks on every corner—or any other permanent set dressing. The town is a blank, reusable canvas that can be modded to play a global capital or developing nation’s unkempt urban center. Actors interact with agents; networked speakers replicate rumbling tanks, bleating goats, midtown Manhattan traffic, and more…

So much for having fun. A pronounced aura of menace colors exploration of even the empty facility, as I discovered during a visit the day before it officially opened. As I went from door to door and floor to floor at twilight, it was easy to sense what agents will face: uncertainty and unfamiliarity, speckled with chaotic radio chatter, aggressive crowds, small arms fire, even pyrotechnics. “It’s designed to make it as realistic as possible, in order for the brain to really make the synapses kick together and go ‘Yeah, this is real life,’” said facility director Bob Weitzel.

Having a training ground seems to make sense: executing maneuvers in a stressful moment could be easier if someone has tried something similar before. At the same time…

1. How much can a training ground like this really replicate complex communities around the world? Having the physical space is one thing but then adding the layers of people and meaning would be really hard to achieve. The article hints at the ways they get at simulating an experience but I would wonder how much it matches reality.

2. It would be interesting to know how much more successful agents are after training in a facility like this versus learning through other means. How much difference does having a tangible training ground make? How many hours does an agent need in the simulated settings to feel comfortable?

3. I wonder how this setup differs from a Hollywood backlot. Did the creators of the training ground borrow from what movie and television producers regularly do?

Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

Paraphrased future: “Love or hate McMansions, the ones in Chicago deserve to be recognized”

Brutalist architecture may have few admirers but this does not stop people from suggesting the style is worth examining or saving. Here is a recent headline from Curbed Chicago: “13 Brutalist masterpieces that every Chicagoan should know; Love or hate the style, Chicago’s concrete buildings deserve to be recognized.” And this is the argument made about why these buildings are worth looking at:

Popular during the 1960s and 70s, Brutalism should not be overlooked for its historical importance. Though Chicago lost a few Brutalist buildings—most famously Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014—the style might even be poised for a comeback.

“In many cases, concrete buildings captured the aspirations of the city at critical times,” Chicago-based architect Iker Gil said in a statement last year. “As we shape the future of Chicago, it is worth trying to learn from the lessons and opportunities represented by these remarkable buildings.”

If this argument is successful, then it is a short step toward a similar argument for all kinds of architectural styles and buildings. In particular, the same case could be made for McMansions. Even though many critiqued such homes, what buildings better capture the consumeristic exuberance and grandiosity of the 1990s and 2000s? What buildings better illustrate the sprawling of America and a dedication to private single-family homes that flaunt the status of the homeowners? Why not preserve at least a few McMansions for future generations to remember and learn from?

Somehow, I suspect the calls for preserving McMansions will be more muted or absent. Brutalism seems to attract the attention of enough elite or leading proponents that some of its most interesting buildings will survive. Few leading architects, critics, or designers will stand up for McMansions. Still, I would suspect enough of them will last 50+ years and the legions of McMansion buyers and builders may just come together to make sure some survive much longer.

Argument: the star of Downton Abbey is the house

All television shows have settings and locations but few are as important as the large home on Downton Abbey:

The main character in Downton Abbey is not a person at all. It’s a building. Downton Abbey.

There it is in the opening credits of the new film and, despite a whole raft of new changes that I am trying not to give away, there it stands at the end, towering over all of the humans who enter and exit its doors, more custodians than owners, really.
The domestic edifice is this hugely successful franchise’s reason for being, the explanation for the movie, the lodestar for the show’s fans. Individual characters can die — and, God knows, they have. But if “Downtown Abbey” itself were ever to fall, then the story would be over.

This is unusual. Most long-running TV shows are centered on either an individual or a family. “Mad Men” could not survive past the death of Don Draper. “Dexter” needed Dexter. “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White. “Game of Thrones” (73 episodes!) had numerous story arcs, heaven knows, but it still remained the story of communities, not unlike “The Wire” or “The Deuce.” “Star Wars” is a generational saga at its core. And, of course, superhero franchises need their superheroes. (Or their close relations.)

In many television shows, the setting functions more as a backdrop than anything else. The opening credits may show a city and/or home. The show itself may feature a few main sets, typically a place of residence and a workplace. But, swap one city or suburb for another or home for another home and the show could go on.

Would the same be true for Downton Abbey? If the show took place in a different English manor – which are occasionally seen on the show and in the movie – would it be a different show or a weaker show? Is the show popular because of the house or is the house popular because of the show?

It seems like a step too far to suggest that a bad or mediocre television show could be rescued by or solely built on a unique and interesting setting. Good characters encountering interesting situations is a necessary ingredient, even in a show that depends on an unusual and/or popular location. Yet, we could study the degree to which a setting or location or building figures in the plot and popularity of a show. For example, would The Sopranos be the same show without the suburban McMansion the family lives in?

Publication on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago region

I recently had an article published in Visual Studies titled “Still Standing After All These Years: The Presence and Internet Presentation of Religious Buildings in the Chicago Area, 1936-2016.”

Here is the abstract:

Scholars have examined the changes in religious architecture over time but few have focused on the ongoing presence of religious buildings in communities nor how long-standing congregations interact with their older building. This study utilises two Internet data sources – Google Street View and the websites of religious congregations – to examine the fate and online presentation of the buildings of four Protestant denominations in the Chicago region from 1936 to today: Disciples of Christ, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Presbyterian, and Seventh-day Adventist. The patterns found show the stability of many church buildings over eight decades and how they help anchor some religious groups – even though newer congregations use a number of these structures – yet congregations make unique choices about presenting their buildings through their website. These findings suggest religious buildings continue to influence their original religious congregations, newer groups using the building and neighbourhoods decades after they are constructed.

Addition to the abstract: we could use more research on how older religious buildings are used, celebrated, and renovated by their original religious congregations, new religious groups, and other organizations. Additionally, what do these long-standing buildings mean for their neighborhoods and communities, even if they are no longer utilized for religious purposes?

Measuring the success of a leader by the number of buildings and public amenities named after them

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn suggests the Chicago Riverwalk should be named after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and also discusses the number of buildings named after prominent Chicago mayors:

In situations like this I usually invoke my “hall of fame” rule. That rule requires that, when faced with the urge to slap a politician’s name onto public property, we emulate how pro baseball and pro football halls of fame require players to have been inactive for at least five years before they can be considered for induction. (Hockey and basketball make their luminaries wait only three years.) The purpose is to prevent cheap sentiment and spasms of nostalgia from coloring the cool judgment of time.

For instance, the years have not been kind to Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley. The further his six terms as mayor recede in memory, the more fiscally irresponsible and ultimately destructive Daley seems.

He dined on our seed corn — most notably by selling 75 years’ worth of parking meter revenue for a paltry $1.15 billion in 2008. He failed to make the painful decisions that would have kept local pension funds healthy. He left flaming piles of debt for the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Transit Authority. I need not go on.

There’s a reason that a neighborhood branch library is still and perhaps forever the most significant public structure to bear Richard M. Daley’s name (compared with his exhaustively honored father, Richard J. Daley). By 2024, similarly harsh retrospective assessments may discourage us from putting the Emanuel name on the riverfront jewel he relentlessly championed.

Attaching names of prominent officials to buildings and other public structures (such as highways or an interchange) has a long history. Once a leader is out of office, they can fade from public memory. A prominent feature of the urban landscape with their name on it can help keep their name in public view for decades, perhaps even centuries.

Often, the name is attached to something they helped create. This is where putting Emanuel’s name on the Riverwalk makes sense: if he helped make it happen, his name reminds Chicagoans of at least one good important thing he did. His legacy will likely be mixed but who can deny the value of a nice public amenity?

But, the gesture can also seem vain, backfire in the long run, or . Self-application of a name probably would not work. Consider the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. in major American cities. Or, the numerous honorary streets in Chicago that few notice. Even worse may be names that few remember even as the name is regularly invoked (the fate of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago).

It will be worth tracking (1) how many places in Chicago bear Emanuel’s name in the long run and (2) how these named places affect his legacy.

If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions

McMansions are rarely celebrated and are often skewered (read more here and here). Yet, given the number of McMansions constructed in recent decades plus the number of Americans who live in McMansions, I predict this: we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine at least a few McMansion preservation districts or homes converted into museums and/or local history sites to help future American residents envision the past.

Critics argue McMansions have a multiple negative traits including their size, their architecture, and what they stand for. At the same time, not all buildings and structures that are preserved or celebrated are ones that all Americans celebrate. Take but three examples: ranch homes, modernist homes, and Brutalist buildings. Ranch homes have their own proponents and backers but they are also derided for their simplicity and lack of traditional architecture, particularly in mass-produced suburbia. Modernist homes may catch the eye of architects and those interested in minimalist design but I think more Americans would prefer a McMansion. And Brutalist architecture may come under fire but a number of prominent public buildings in this style still stand and will be preserved.

If future Americans want to understand typical life at the turn of the twenty-first century, they may need to see and tour a suburban McMansion. This does not mean that the presentation will be all positive. Those future visitors may scoff at the open design, the architectural mish-mash, the hobby rooms and copious amounts of storage space, the granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, the use of McMansions in horror stories, and the rows upon rows of such homes. Or, such a preserved home might endeavor to explain why Americans continued to buy McMansions even with the negative connotations of the term.

I look forward to seeing some of the first McMansion preservation sites. These may be both business and community opportunities as well as part of an effort by Americans to better understand their own past. And because there are so many McMansions and they are so emblematic of a particular era, let the era of McMansion preservation begin.