Landscapes of Obscured Conflict: A Topographic Legacy

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Landscapes of Obscured Conflict: A Topographic Legacy

Brendan William Pettersen @ Columbia GSAPP, Spring 2017 [Advanced VI Studio, Critics: Mark Wasiuta and Eduardo Tazón Maigre]

Recipient of the William Kinne Fellows Traveling Prize and the Lowenfish Memorial Prize, May 2017


Produced in an academic studio extending Mark Wasiuta’s “Collecting Architecture Territories” initiative and in fulfillment of university-funded independent traveling research, this project is predicated on a claim: war is an act of design.  Architecture can substantiate this claim through manipulations of space, material, structure, and light illuminating invisible histories responsible for warfare’s archaeological remains.  If acts of warfare are also acts of design, their logics must bear the capacity to guide architectural designs forensically revisiting and interpreting these violent acts.


During the Second Indochina War, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia sustained tens of millions of United States Air Force (USAF) bombing sorties.  The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) accounts for most of these sorties in a dataset detailing their coordinates, mission dates, aircraft models, ordnance models, quantities of ordnance in weight and number, and bomb damage assessments.  Manually compiled from printed sortie reports, together these data frame bombing as a process of specification.  As evidenced in this dataset and its corresponding topographic results, these bombings yielded substantial alterations to their targeted sites’ geomorphic characteristics at a degree of specificity not dissimiliar to land art but at a scale of physical and political impact never before seen in self-consciously artistic practices.  Marking the trauma these territories and their people suffered for over nine years and continue to do so under the threat of unexploded ordnance, fields of bomb craters stretch for hundreds of kilometers, together constituting what may unintentionally be the world’s largest work of land art.


In Ban Sènphan, a small Lao village in Khammouane province within which the design proposal tests the project’s underlying claim, several hundred of these bomb craters coexist with monumental limestone cliffs and houses fabricated from ordnance scraps.  Laos, whose countryside along the Vietnamese border hosted a crucial segment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, especially displays the lingering consequences of violent acts Americans performed over forty years ago.  The United States’ covert war in Laos lasted from 1964 to 1973.  The millions of sorties responsible for bomb craters on Lao soil–every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day–operated under the guise of the CIA’s Air America, a dummy corporation posing as a passenger airline in Thailand.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail, one of military history’s most extensive engineering feats and the target of Air America in Southern Laos, delivered North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies to South Vietnam through a complex network of routes across Laos and Cambodia that included Ban Sènphan.


The proposed design is a crater-collecting apparatus whose purpose lies between an active archaeological site and a memorial.  It acknowledges the alien nature of Laos’ bomb craters by presenting a resultant architecture disengaged from the local vernacular and wholly dependent on the logics of the craters’ formation.  Gridded representations defining this territory, once used to provide coordinates for USAF bombing sorties, become spatial devices that enclose, expose, and measure craters.  This strategy facilitates the preservation and study of the artificial topography’s historical and future conditions alike.

The design’s circular boundary and center on a crater reference the radii of the bomb blast that produced this crater and its extended shockwave.  Identifying sorties responsible for the craters within this circular boundary followed thereafter.  USAF bombers achieved a “750-foot circular area probable”: half of their bombs fell within a 750-foot (230 meters) radius.  In considering the other half of bombs dropped beyond this territorial enclosure, the actually curvilinear paths of sorties, and the probable incompleteness of the data, the process of deduction required informed conjecture.


Circulation choreographs movement along the deduced bombing sorties’ paths to identify the craters’ chronological sequence, while ruptures in the Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete canopy and masts register the direction from which bombs originated and the force of their blasts.  Path widths correspond to the wingspans of warplanes that traumatized the site decades ago.  Circular walkways whose dimensions reference blast radii present obstacles to circulation, emphasizing the interruptions bombings yield in the landscape. Visitors must navigate these craters as obstacles and sources of contemplation alike.


The canopy precisely replicates the topography below it, reaching a maximum height of 30 meters from the ground to its protrusions above to register the height of 1000-pound (450 kilograms) bomb blasts’ vertical force.  It rises a minimum of 18 meters above grade to accommodate the height of trucks on a road passing under the level walkway through the highest point in the scope of the intervention.  Walkways below the canopy maintain a level surface to signify the experience of flying at a consistent height while bombing.  Gently curvilinear box trusses form masts that lift the canopy and walkway with tension cables at their tops.  The pattern of these tension cables relate to the sortie paths: all craters formed along the same sortie link in this fashion above the roof.


This research and design intends to amplify awareness of an important historical event that remains understudied while testing architecture’s capacity to collect and interpret disturbances registered in a traumatized landscape.



Who influences you graphically?

Direct influences included 1960’s US Air Force strategic maps seen in the Independence Palace in Saigon, Forensic Architecture, Boullée, and Piranesi; indirect influences included James Corner, Design Earth, Nemestudio, Laura Kurgan, Perry Kulper, Stan Allen, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

What defined the use of mediums of both the drawing and the film? How do these operate differently?

Drawings served an active role in producing the design, while the film serves a passive role presenting the site and analytical sequence illustrated in the drawings as clearly as possible.

Drawings documenting places as remote and atypical as Ban Sènphan, Laos may fail to convince that the deeply unusual conditions they describe are in fact very real.  This can detract from their poignancy.  As such, the film is instrumental in establishing the site’s believability–it confirms a sequence of events latent in the analytical drawings by audio-visually relating them to the actual conditions portrayed in drone footage I took above cratered landscapes in Laos.  The raw field recordings are sounds I captured in Quảng Trị Province in Vietnam and Xieng Khouang Province in Laos, both of which sustained unrelenting US Air Force bombing raids.  Coupled with the hum of the drone, the natural sounds combine in ways that render their peaceful ambience eerily sinister.


The drawing medium served an important role related to the initial studio premise of analyzing “collecting apparatuses” and collectible artifacts tethered to specific “territories.”  Drawing these apparatuses and artifacts–which in this project’s case are bomb craters–tested their suitability for prompting an architectural response.  As a general rule, concepts that cannot be drawn in spatial and material terms have limited potential to become architecture.  This rule proved useful for grounding early research towards an eventual design proposal.  Its utility continued throughout the design process–later on, the data-mining algorithms that generated the series of analytical maps informed the architecture itself.

Landscapes of Obscured Conflict: A Topographic Legacy from Brendan Pettersen on Vimeo 

What is your take on the map as a human construct?

Each medium possesses biases resulting from its limitations.  Maps are no exception–they facilitate territorial human behavior by dehumanizing the subjects captured within their bounds.  They offer strategically advantageous overviews of landscapes that through the map’s inherent detachment from human scale become subdivided into territories of natural, political, and analytical significance.

Maps and their spatial subdivisions are principally subjective constructs so deeply embedded in the logics underpinning our globalized society that from within, it becomes difficult to imagine how societies might operate in their absence.

Colonial histories frequently demonstrate the extent of maps’ performative roles.  Subdivisions across the African continent arbitrarily reordered space into nations deliberately misaligned with existing tribal territories.  In his book Cultural Techniques, media theorist Bernhard Siegert argued grids are a diagrammatic device that through their conveniences of abstraction and planning efficiency assisted mass territorial divisions–maps spanning most of North America west of the Ohio river imposed a continent-sized Jeffersonian grid over native settlement patterns.  Lastly, US Air Force operations in Laos and Vietnam inevitably functioned during the 1960’s and 1970’s through maps and coordinates–it is by no mistake that their records could permit me to reconstruct the sorties that produced Ban Sènphan’s bomb craters through the mapping medium as well.

German media theorist Friedrich Kittler is relevant as well to this way of thinking.  His understanding of media as technologies that typically emerge in militaristic contexts–and in so doing confer their logics onto everyday situations whether evidently perceptible or not–had a palpable influence on my thought processes.  Like all media technologies, maps are to be made and used with full awareness of their powerful histories and potentially dangerous tendencies.

How important was the map as a mechanism/tool to develop first the research and then the proposal?

The map proved essential to both processes as it naturally fit the narrative and became a strategic design tool.  The underlying representational concept was to use the map–the representational style of choice for war operations–to draw attention to its historical implementation for dominating unknowing subjects and territories captured in the map’s frame decades earlier.


Mapping exercises procured data-mined evidence of histories embedded in the site but not immediately apparent in its present condition, as craters alone cannot tell us the full story of their formation.  The same data provided the quantitative basis for the architecture: the design acquired its metrics from the scripted mapping process and formal devices from graphic techniques employed in the maps.  This translation from the mapping medium to the architectural medium was the principal design problem.  Addressing this problem transferred the logic behind the violent acts I researched into the tectonic logics of the architectural proposal.

What is the effect of the more abstract image/model?

The abstract image depicts an earlier iteration of the design that evokes the project’s atmospheric and formal intentions.  It is an aerial view isolating the roof without its boundaries.  Presented out of context, the canopy reads as a scaleless barren landscape with a series of perforated protrusions not unlike mountains.  The desire was then to extrapolate this mood and formal strategy to the scale of the site.


The renders seem almost desolate- what is the purpose for this? What defined the specific views and their framing?

Not only does the project narrative concern challenging subject matter, but the proposal itself marks a site so infested with unexploded ordnance that many residents of the village have elected to move elsewhere to continue to pursue agriculture–they can no longer resell bombs to Vietnamese scrap metal dealers for profit.  The proposal intends to match these realities with a gritty, uncomfortable aesthetic also partly inspired by the abundance of abandoned roadside construction visible across the Lao countryside during the wet season.

Given the proposal’s size, the views define a range of moments. An exterior view depicts a monumental approach intended to resemble an airport runway and the ascent of a bomber whose wingspan formed the walkway’s width.  The canopy and limestone cliffs are simultaneously visible for formal comparison. Another exterior view illustrates the relationship between the field of box truss masts and conical space frames that drop to grab craters.  We can see the wooden plank ramp transitioning to the thoroughly industrial walkway and below us an abandoned motorbike for scale.  The extent of the intervention here appears relentless–a 500-meter-radius GFRC canopy whose oppressive scale heightens the impact of war crimes witnessed therein.


A walkway-level view simulates the experience of standing underneath the canopy and seeing from across the railing an array of box truss masts striking the centers of craters with light illuminating them from oculi above.  The relentless canopy becomes a second horizon–a datascape floating above a landscape framing both distant craters and cliffs. Sometimes framing became a matter less of aesthetics and more of functionally illustrating a clear relationship, such as a wide angle representation framing both an oculus above and a crater below a circular platform simultaneously. The ground-level perspective under the canopy presents the results of the walkway’s suspended structural system: an unobstructed view across the landscape, to the cliffs beyond, to the walkway above, and to the oculi shining daylight onto this cratered land.



Brendan Pettersen is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s M.Arch program, where he received a Lucille Smyser Lowenfish Memorial Prize for his final semester project designed for Mark Wasiuta’s studio and a William Kinne Fellows Traveling Prize to continue his research in Vietnam and Laos in July and August 2017.  He has been invited as a guest critic at NJIT and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, worked for former Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens and Yale School of Architecture critic Aniket Shahane, served as a history and theory teaching assistant at GSAPP, and volunteered for the Paul Rudolph Foundation.


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