I walked by this interesting and charming residential building in northern Berlin the other day. It turns out it was designed by Brandt und Simon Architekten, who incidentally also designed my local bar, Kohlenquelle which, to be perfectly honest, I up to now suspected had never been designed at all. The striking feature of the building however is the pixelated façades made up from tiles or shingles, allowing the building to merge with the surrounding garden, to dematerialise and disappear depending on how you observe it. It is in a sense a form of ‘stealth architecture’, the term is, if I remember this correctly, borrowed from Mike Davis’ ‘City of Quartz’ (a terrific portrait of Los Angeles and a great analysis of the militarisation of urban and architectural space for anyone who has yet to read it). Mike Davis uses the term to denote alleged (it is in their nature to be elusive) buildings in Venice Beach that are built for affluent clients yet designed to appear insignificant and shoddy from the street so as not to attract burglars. The building above is a different type of ‘stealth architecture’, where the stealth element is more a matter of style than of military tactic.
In the military sense of the word, man has constructed ‘stealth architecture’ since he started building. Shelter was always constructed so as not to attract attention, at least until city walls and other defensive structures replaced the need for concealment to an extent. In times of peril, many smaller mountain towns would have hidden refuges as a last resort of protection. All ages have produced stealth architecture in the military sense. Bunkers constitute the avant-garde of military stealth architecture. Recently however, the civilian application of stealth as style has evolved, from all corners of the world, for various motives, but with one common aim; to create architecture that pretends it does not exist.
One example of ‘stealth architecture’ is ‘Old House’ in Tyson Street, Melbourne, by Jackson Clements Burrows Architects. Commissioned by a client to build a modern building, restricted by the preservation zone the site was located in, the architects negotiated a compromise. They constructed a modern building, but the street façade was clad with a full-scale photography of the old building. The result was a trompe l’oeil, if one stands directly in front of the building; the new and the old merge and become indistinguishable. Its angles and perspective lines line up from that one point, in a way thus preserving the homogeneous character of the area.
The architects describe their project like this:
“The project attempts to elevate the difficulties of obtaining planning approvals in heritage areas into a sublime and ironic gesture which may generate debate about the problem itself. In this sense it is both a critique of the process and a surreal architectural solution which is evocative of the site’s memory and historical context.”
It is a compromise where the new building and the image of the old merge, forming a very strange unity of past and present. One could argue that the project enters into a dialogue with its context through its obvious falsification of the history, while the jabs at the planning department and the complications created by heritage laws are perhaps a commentary that can best be expressed in other ways than architecture.
Sweden has its fair share of stealth architecture. The gallery designed for Magasin 3 by Block Architecture is one interesting example. The façade of the building was clad by a ‘fence’ of reflective aluminium louvers that mirrored the surrounding landscape, allowing the building to appear or disappear as one looked at it. An almost shy structure that hides behind a mirror, a very non-intrusive form of architecture that dissolves into the park. Was this ever built by the way? I have never seen it, but then again, that was half the point, perhaps it is there and I have just never looked at it from the right angle while squinting. It is an interesting thought; perhaps it lies there, forgotten, only to be discovered accidentally one day by an old lady walking her dog.
Another interesting project is the Tree Hotel designed by Tham Videgård, a hotel room halfway up a tree in the gigantic forests of Northern Sweden. Its reflection distorts the view of the forest, creating a very light building completely subjecting to the natural landscape. The slight distortion of the forest and its perspective is the only sign of the building. I cannot help but think this will make a marvellous ruin if its location and existence is ever forgotten and then stumbled on by chance decades later.
A similar project, also subservient to the landscape is ‘Juniper House’, by Murman Arkitekter on the island of Gotland. A modern wooden building is here covered by a second skin, a camouflage suit, of full-scale photographs of the juniper landscape making up the context of the building. The resulting building becomes almost invisible and suddenly materialises and dematerialises depending on weather conditions and angle.
It is easy to dismiss ‘stealth architecture’ as a simple comment on the context, or in some cases even the planning department. In that sense, stealth architecture would simply be apost-modern, tongue-in-cheek, double-coded nod to the history of the site, and the context. In the worst case scenario, it is only a method for imposing new architecture in sensitive contexts disguised by a barely credible veneer of adaptation, a deliberate falsification undertaken to exploit new territory. On the other hand, the architects of these buildings have sought a way to construct a house, while at the same time offering the opportunity to view the scene without the building. In other words, ‘stealth’ is a method for having the cake and eating it too, a great feat to which mankind has always aspired but never quite pulled off. This type of architecture can also be interpreted as a more complex post-modern dialogue with context and history. Furthermore the architecture questions the nature, role and impact of architecture. Creating optical effects of dematerialisation is part of the interchange with context and beholder. It is however also a will to be invisible, an architecture of invisibility and transparency, ephemeral architecture in a sense, that disappears with the blink of an eye. This architecture presents a hyper-real image of the world without the architecture, a world where the sun is always shining on the driveway, where the junipers are sunlit forever. Stealth architecture becomes scenography for a dream.
The dream of immaterial architecture is more prevalent than one would imagine, particularly so in Sweden. Take one more look at competition winners over the last years, many if not most, renderings present buildings that are transparent, half hidden behind trees, ephemeral and light, sometimes even with either top or foundation covered in mist, erasing the structure or at least disconnecting it from the context in which it is to be inserted. This is how both architects and clients envision their buildings: invisible.
The most simple expression of this is of course the characterless glass box, always transparent in visions and renderings, almost always surprisingly massive in reality. In a sense, these are paper versions of ‘stealth architecture’, visions of nothing. The trees in renderings are almost toxic green and the lawns and playing children as saturated in vivid colours as the buildings are transparent and discreetly invisible, out of focus. Abstraction of materials and details enhance the illusion of the unreal, an ephemeral, hovering, building that sits in a sea of vibrant green invisible to all but those who look directly at it.
Actual ‘stealth architecture’ is paradoxically comparatively honest, making an actual effort to dematerialise, stealth architecture is invisibility with a purpose. The glass boxes, on the other hand, become bulky faits accomplis, realities we realise we cannot ignore and learn to live with. The desire to dematerialise architecture in different ways raises the question of architecture’s role in society and our cities. Is this a way of addressing the dichotomy between the taste and aesthetic preferences of architects contra those of the public? Is the architectural profession simply engaged in a process of creating invisibility cloaks for modern buildings, to camouflage our work, saying “–look, it isn’t so bad, you can hardly see the building behind all those kite-flying children”? Architects are conjuring up images of a world without architecture. It is an act of legitimisation through self-effacement. The glass boxes can be interpreted as manifestations of a society fearing architecture, and of an architecture fearing society.