Everyday Camouflage in the City

[Originally published in Lotus International # 126. Earlier versions published in proceedings of Second Savannah Symposium “Authenticity in Architecture” (2001) and in On Site Review #9]


“Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth drawers house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales the grocer’s….If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel….Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts. However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it.” –Italo Calvino

Camouflage, in both nature and warfare, is a means for escaping visual detection by an enemy or predator, presupposing a combative relationship between a viewing and a viewed subject. Yet, a civilian, presumably non-adversarial form of camouflage is increasingly present in many Western cities that has little to do with physical conflict and everything to do with (the prevention of) ideological conflict; with appeasing prevailing aesthetic sensibilities and notions of civic rectitude in the interests of creating an image of uniformity and cohesion.

“Everyday camouflage,” as it is identified here, is a strategy for concealing potentially problematic or undesirable building content by means of contrived architectural simulation. Examples include the concealment of new construction—especially urban infrastructure installations—behind traditional building facades; clandestine religious groups operating under the cover of “normal” secular architecture; banality concealed behind spectacular architecture; wealth disguised behind an image of poverty; or buildings whose contentious histories are “cleansed” by the application of new exterior surface materials. More generally, it is possible to identify three main cultural issues which seem to prompt applications of everyday camouflage: modernity, class, and memory.

In cases of everyday camouflage, the notion of “building type” is appropriated and at the same time subverted. The correlation that normally exists between building content and building form is taken advantage of in order to conceal by means of a deceptive simulation. A disjunction is thereby made to exist between what a building contains and what it “looks like” it contains. Any consistency between form and content is made to yield to a consistency among forms. Such an urban formal uniformity appeals to popular fantasies of the city as a harmonious space; a sentiment that is on the rise in an increasingly heterogeneous and pluralist age.

The existence of this everyday form of camouflage puts into question the socio-political construction of the city as the space par excellence of civilized society, revealing instead hidden deceits and the extent to which a mythical urban image must, at times, be made to prevail over reality (2). It shows, moreover, how the city is increasingly constructed and manipulated as a landscape; as “scenery” with which architecture is expected to conform, regardless of content. The very authenticity of what is experienced and seen is put into question by this marginal, relatively unusual phenomenon.

Everyday camouflage also reveals how architectural appearance can be made to perform in a strategic and performative capacity; how architectural aesthetics can comprise a stratagem—a means to an end—as opposed to an object of visual contemplation—an end in itself. The aesthetic of camouflage is, after all, “uninteresting” unless viewed outside of the field in which it operates. Likewise, examples of everyday camouflage in the city tend to make for visually uninteresting architecture: in most cases, these buildings look no different than neighboring buildings. And yet, the odd juxtapositions that these banal-looking buildings embody between interior and exterior result in disjunctions and “complexities and contradictions” that are nevertheless revealing.

In contrast with a stylistic use of camouflage, such as, say, Herzog and de Meuron’s seamless blending of the Dominus Winery into the Napa Valley landscape, the camouflage discussed here is not the result of any architecturally clever and innovative surface treatment. Camouflage here is an operative means of deception; not an aesthetic. This important distinction is analogous to the difference between a military camouflage pattern worn as a fashion style in cities (as has been the vogue), where it is obviously not intended as a means of dissimulation since such a pattern is completely ineffective in an urban context; and a military camouflage pattern worn in the field by soldiers or hunters in action, for whom it is not a “look” but an operative necessity.

Could the Dominus Winery’s exterior surface have been intended as a means of dissimulation? It certainly does not look like a traditional winery, but it also does not resemble any other type of building. In questions of camouflage, there has to be a motive operating within a certain context: if something is camouflage (and not an aesthetic pattern), then what is being concealed and, given the circumstances, why might this concealment be occurring? Just as a hunter is trying to avoid being seen by prey he is stalking or a soldier by an enemy, there may be interests in concealing certain programmatic activities occurring in certain circumstances.

Conversely, the examples of everyday camouflage cited here could very well not have been intended to be acts of concealment, even though the circumstances of the building programs in question could be seen to warrant it. We can really only ever speculate. But architectural theory—and in this case also cultural theory—is precisely that: speculation.

Architecture and Camouflage

The surface of a building always conceals from view, to varying degrees, that which it contains and shelters. Historically, architecture’s content has been revealed on the exterior by means of ornament and typological form. While interior styles could vary to reflect private tastes, the outward appearance of a building has traditionally been consistent with its function in some way. Richard Hill puts it quite bluntly: “The connections between the use of a building and aspects of its visible form are powerful and consistent.” (3) The very notion of architectural typology, or the categorization of buildings into ‘types’—not unlike the scientific categorization of plants, rocks or animal species—is premised on such consistency. Camouflage of any sort would not be effective without a set of assumptions on the part of a viewing subject; assumptions that have their basis in “normal” appearances.

Eighteenth-century Architecture Parlante addressed the issue of the outward expression of function theoretically, contending that a building’s façade must represent or symbolize its function on the exterior. In Claude Nicholas Ledoux’s project for a wheelwright’s shop at the royal salt works at Arc-et-Senans, for example, the building’s content is communicated externally by means of a pattern of concentric circles on the façade.

Claude Nicholas Ledoux: Wheelwright’s shop, Royal Salt Works at Arc-et-Senans

Such literal and highly specific display of content remains the exception and not the norm, of course. More typically, a wheelwright’s workshop would have occupied a building that looks like a workshop, with finer ornament or a sign communicating at closer reading a more exact idea of the activity occurring within. Typological form is premised on “types” of activity—public institutions, residences, religious worship, commerce, banking, industry, and so on—and not on “specific” activities. Such general categorization of types, in conjunction with more specific ornamental definition, allows for readings of building content at multiple levels of detail.

The Functionalist movement of the early twentieth century, on the other hand, which sought to do away precisely with ideas of traditional building types and ornament, argued, not unlike the architects of Architecture Parlante, that it is the exact function of a building that should determine its form. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour have noted, with respect to modernism, that “meaning was to be communicated, not through allusion to previously known forms, but through the inherent, physiognomic characteristics of form. The creation of architectural form was to be a logical process, free from the images of past experience, determined solely by program and structure.” (4)

Modernist transparency and form, which would be made possible by new construction techniques such as steel and reinforced concrete, would liberate the façade not only from bearing loads, but also from having to represent a building’s function through ornament and symbolism. Indeed, there was to be no more “façade” in modernism, but an exterior surface that was a seamless result of the interior: “A building is like a soap bubble,” wrote Le Corbusier in 1927. “This building is perfect and harmonious if the breath has been evenly distributed from the inside. The exterior is the result of the interior.” (5)

This notion of a more precise functional form, in conjunction with transparency, would become a hallmark of architectural modernism. Yet modernism’s abandonment of the notion of the building type in favor of physiognomic form, coupled with literal transparency, renders the city itself much more polymorphous and difficult to navigate; precisely the basis of much of the humor in Jacques Tati’s 1967 film “Playtime.” As Lewis Mumford writes, “In the past half-century, architecture has turned from enclosure to exposure: a virtual replacement of the wall by the window.” (6)

Architecture’s moral obligation to honestly convey content is reinforced, indeed reified, by modernist transparency. The very idea of transparency was revolutionary in its symbolism and utopian in its potential applications: to shed light into hermetic social enclosures and to open political processes to public participation and inquiry; the sort of values that are epitomized in the glass dome that Norman Foster designed more recently for the Reichstag in Berlin. “Transparency opened up machine architecture to inspection –its functions displayed like anatomical models, its walls hiding no secrets; the very epitome of social morality,” writes Anthony Vidler. “Transparency, it was thought, would eradicate the domain of myth, suspicion, tyranny, and above all the irrational.” (7)

Transparency never really succeeded in opening up the city, of course. For one thing, glass is never perfectly transparent due to its alter-ego; reflectivity. For another, it became apparent that for many modernist architects, transparency and function were alibis for engaging in formalist exercises. Nevertheless, the notion that a building should in some way reveal—as opposed to conceal—its content remained unquestioned throughout modernism. “A building should be true, not dishonest. Forms must be what they seem to be. A building should be a true expression of its purpose and of its age. Materials and structural systems should be used with integrity and be honestly expressed. The society of forms should achieve its goals through harmonious cooperation” wrote Edward Robert de Zurko in 1957. (8)

Urbanism and Camouflage

With the advent of architectural postmodernism, however, the tacit understanding that buildings should be transparent—either literally or figuratively—with respect to content gives way to the imperative that building form must conform with urban context. Everyday camouflage can be seen to represent an extreme form of urban contextualism, where it is no longer a question of architectural mediation between context and communicating or revealing content, but an outright prioritization of the former at the expense of the latter.

As with many aspects of postmodernism, the fantasy of the architecturally consistent city was foreshadowed in an earlier period. Toward the end of the neo-classical period, at the height of European colonial expansion worldwide, a cosmic image of the capital city as an architecturally unified entity began to take hold in the imagination of rulers and architects—even if this image was only a façade. Leonardo Benevolo has observed that “many of the most admired complexes of the late eighteenth century in England–the Circus and Royal Crescent in Bath (J. Wood, 1764 and 1769), the famous squares of Bloomsbury (1775-1827) and, later, Regent’s Park (J. Nash, 1812)—consisted in the superimposition of a uniform architecture upon a number of separate houses; symmetry and unity of perspective, originally the elements of structural planning, had now become the vehicle for mere external uniformity.” (9)

But whereas late eighteenth-century urban consistency is intended as the architectural expression of a consolidation of power by a ruling class, postmodern urban consistency can be seen more as a reactionary response to an emergent cultural pluralism and aesthetic heterogeneity; a side-effect of growing economic globalization and trans-national migration. In a global marketplace, commodities and the infrastructure and organization required to move them entail the proliferation of new, non-vernacular forms and expressions which, precisely in order to appeal to local consumers, are often dressed up.

Another aspect of globalization is that cities themselves have become internationally recognizable “name-brands” associated closely with certain imagery. This imagery, which is partially fabricated, then becomes one which the “real” city must literally build if it is to physically resemble it. The more consistent the real city becomes with this image, it is believed, the more it will in turn attract tourism and investment. The paradox is, of course, that as cities grow and prosper, they must modernize their infrastructure and, in the case of older cities, their building stock. This creates, in turn, a greater need to employ camouflage strategies for the sake of emulating the idealized urban image; a catch-22 situation.


Modernity is the object of concealment in most cases of everyday camouflage. Nowhere is this more blatantly visible than with the increasingly common heritage practice of “façadism,” whereby a decrepit building is demolished but its façade retained so that new, modern construction can be incorporated in-behind and, more importantly, out of sight. It involves great expense as the façade must be temporarily braced and supported while demolition and subsequent new construction occurs.

This controversial practice, which represents a compromise between outright conservation and outright modernization, raises the question: to whom does a façade belong—to a building, or to the public space that it faces? For many citizens, the face of a building is an immutable aspect of the collective memory of the city; which explains why façadism is rarely met with public opposition. But façadism is also good for tourism. It is especially common in European and American historical city centers; places where the traditional industrial economic base, which has relocated to the urban periphery or to other parts of the world, is being substituted by cultural tourism.

The very willfulness and expense of façadism suggests that the city is increasingly perceived as scenic landscape; as an object to be consumed rather than as a space of productive activity. Façadism constitutes a “camouflaging” of modernity by a society which increasingly demands the conveniences of modernization but at the same time rejects any image of modernity in the historical public realm. (10)

Rail tunnel ventilation facility behind retained historical façade, Paris
A public transportation mechanical facility situated in Paris illustrates this very well. The La Fayette ventilation facility, situated between the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, contains machinery that draws fresh air into rail tunnels below. It is hidden behind the façade of a Haussmann-era hotel that was retained when the rest of the building was demolished. The content—mechanical infrastructure for public transportation—is hidden entirely from public view behind an architectural façade belonging to another, very different type of building. The concealment of mechanical systems behind historical façades is encouraged in many cities’ architectural conservation policies; policies which were drafted in response to public outrage at the construction of buildings such as the Centre Georges Pompidou by Piano and Rogers in the 1970s; a building whose exterior resembles somewhat the content of the La Fayette ventilation facility.
Centre Pompidou: a cultural institution resembling a ventilation facility

Another practice, similar to façadism, and also increasingly common, is that of entirely new building construction—including new façades—which appear, even at close-range, to be historical. The argument cited in support of this more insidious form of everyday camouflage is not architectural conservation but rather contextualism.

An ensemble of 1986 office buildings in Richmond-Upon-Thames, United Kingdom, by Quinlan Terry, provides an example of everyday camouflage in which modern construction is completely masked behind an exterior that appears to date, in every detail, from a previous century. The buildings contain flexible, open-plan office space with central air conditioning, underground parking, and modern communications infrastructure. The buildings are sited between the banks of the River Thames and the historical center of the town, forming a series of public spaces that link town and river. The high visibility of the site from across the river would surely have been a factor favoring the use of camouflage in order to create an image sympathetic to the Prince of Wales’s vision of Britain.

Quinlan Terry: office building, Richmond-Upon-Thames

Contextualism—the visual blending-in of a building with its surroundings—is of course the operative strategy behind most forms of camouflage in general. (11) Contextualist architecture, especially when containing a modern program such as technologically advanced open-plan office space, clearly establishes a disjunction between form and content in which modernity can be seen, again, to be the object of concealment.

But modernity is not the only object of concealment in everyday camouflage. On the contrary, in the 1960s and 70s, it was common practice to clad older, traditional buildings situated in the central business districts of large North American cities with abstract louvers, screens or large commercial signs that would make them appear to be more modern. Manhattan’s Times Square provides the best-known example of this phenomenon. Here, new architectural layers conceal tradition within an historical context in which the aspired urban image was that of the modern metropolis. Today’s practice of façadism represents a perfect reversal of this form of everyday camouflage. In fact, the addition of new cladding onto older buildings can actually be compared to a long history of architectural palimpsests and the sort of historical layering existing in ancient cities; façadism, on the other hand, entails a resistance against historical layering; a maintenance of the status quo.


Another, less usual form of façadism has to do with designer culture, taste, and class distinction in urban situations where these values predominate. As opposed to the populism of retained façades, “designer skins” speak of an elitist form of façadism.

Barcelona Hilton: building by one architectural firm; facade by another

The Barcelona Hilton Hotel is large business-class hotel in which two different architectural firms collaborated: a “high-profile” firm designed the façades (Viaplana Piñon), and a “production firm” designed the rest of the building (Mir, Coll, Carmona). This building sets a precedent in which, from the very outset of the project, a “designer skin” conceals what is in reality a formulaic, banal building. The hotel’s important situation at the upper end of the Avinguda Diagonal, an important gateway into the city in its wealthiest district, prompted city planners to require that the client hire a firm from a list of architects “approved” to design building façades in strategic locations. As a city that has worked hard to become a global referent in architecture and urban design, Barcelona seems to be reaching a point in its radical transformation in which the growing expectation for everything to be “designed” must be satisfied superficially for reasons of feasibility.

Brian Murphy: Hopper Residence, Venice, California

The residence of actor Dennis Hopper in Venice, California, by Brian Murphy provides, on the other hand, an example of a banal exterior strategically concealing an extravagant and unusual interior program: that of a wealthy Hollywood actor who decides to build a house for his extensive contemporary art collection in a tough, working-class part of the city. It thus follows, to the letter, Adolf Loos’s dictum “the house should be silent to the outside; inside it should reveal all its wealth.” The house is windowless on the street façade and clad entirely in corrugated metal, a material that is visible on the many garages and industrial sheds in the area. The white picket fence, retained from the former tenants, is the only domestic interruption to an otherwise inhospitable exterior. Since it in no way resembles neighboring houses, the Hopper Residence is a non-contextualist kind of camouflage, resembling more a type of natural camouflage known as “mimicry” in which a species adopts exterior characteristics of a species that preys on its hunter. Mike Davis considers this house to be part of “an entire species of Los Angeles ‘stealth houses’, dissimulating luxurious qualities with proletarian or gangster façades.” (12)


The built works cited this far employ various camouflage strategies in order to conceal problematic content. Yet camouflage can also be applied retroactively to an older building in order to physically conceal a problematic history with which it is associated. In this sort of application, camouflage attempts to erase a painful collective memory.

Adaptive re-use of military hospital, Brigham City, Utah, before and after

The small town of Brigham City, Utah, is the site of an extensive array of military buildings renovated into housing that give an example of everyday camouflage concealing a problematic collective memory by means of a superficial application of colorful new building materials. What is now “Eagle Village” was originally a World War II military hospital and prisoner of war camp that was subsequently converted into the country’s largest Native Indian residential school. A private developer purchased the abandoned barracks in the early 1990s, after the school closed, with the intention of converting it into a New Urbanist “village” of affordable row houses. In order to present a new “residential” image to the blighted zone, a vertically striped multi-colored pattern was applied to the façades and roofs that corresponds with the new row-house units. Through the use of color and a “dazzle” camouflage tactic of disruptive patterning, the figural unity of this monotonous complex is broken and given a new image with the aim of creating a desirable commodity. Eagle Village raises, moreover, the question of what to do with buildings that were sites of problematic events. In the case of O.J. Simpson’s Los Angeles residence, the solution taken was to demolish a perfectly fine mansion. In the case of Nazi-era buildings in Berlin that were reoccupied when that city was made the capital of a reunited Germany, the solution was to publicly stress the new democratic use that was being made of these structures, psychologically disrupting the association between the form and the memory. (13)

Church of our Lord in the Attic, Amsterdam

The conservation of a religious group’s collective memory during a period of religious proscription is another situation in which everyday camouflage has been used. When Amsterdam was made Protestant in the Alteration of 1578, all public displays of Catholic symbols were prohibited—including Catholic churches themselves, many of which were either demolished or renovated into Protestant churches. Collective Catholic worship was allowed as long as it occurred in locations which appeared, on the exterior, to be inconspicuous. One such location, which remains intact today, is the Our Lord in the Attic Roman Catholic Church, on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal in the historical center of Amsterdam. This church was constructed between 1661 and 1663 in the attic over a new house and store for the wealthy hosiery merchant Jan Hartman. In contrast with the austerity of the Dutch Classical style used throughout the house, the church, which has two galleries suspended from the roof, is rich in ornamentation. Under Calvinist rule, the architectural concealment of Catholic churches was written into law, thus possibly constituting one of the first written treatises on the subject.


The above cases of everyday camouflage involve aspects of modernization, class or memory that, in their respective contexts, could be seen to be “at issue” with prevailing public sensibilities. Rather than provoke or stir up controversy, the buildings employ camouflage in order to avoid detection, and thereby confrontation. Such an attitude stands, interestingly, in complete antithesis to the current climate of spectacular and attention-seeking architecture. As Roy Behrens writes: “Art portrays a unified form and—however daringly—always distinguishes figure from ground in order to utter some “thing,” while camouflage always subverts these laws in order to say “no thing.” (14) How do we judge these works in architectural terms—are they necessarily “bad design” because of their fakery, banality, lack of integrity—because they are, in effect, simulacra? Can buildings designed to dissimulate attention even be considered “architecture,” or will they always be “mere” buildings, albeit unusual ones? Must architecture always look like “architecture”? (15)

These questions may be academically trivial since this phenomenon remains a relatively marginal one. But as Michel Foucault has shown us, it is precisely how a society deals with what it considers to be its aberrations and deviations that can offer more insight into what that society considers normal. Similarly, everyday camouflage sheds insight into urban “normality” precisely because it is a “false” and therefore highly contrived normality.

Everyday camouflage “appears” to occur mainly in technologically advanced urban societies that have undergone massive modernization in recent decades. It is no coincidence that its rise coincides with one of a hegemonic mass-media that employs urban imagery to promote lifestyle consumption. The city is revealed by this phenomenon to be a space of illusion and desire; an illusion that must be maintained, at times, by highly theatrical means. The fact that camouflage, which is adversarial by nature, occurs in the purportedly more civilized realm of the city says perhaps the most about the degree to which the city, as a concept, is shrouded in myth.


  1. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. Trans: William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972) pp. 13-14.
  2. Rem Koolhaas writes in S,M,L,XL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995) that “the historical city is full of falsifications and manipulations that make it impossible to talk about what is authentic and what is not.” (p. xxviii)
  3. Richard Hill, Designs and their Consequences (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) p. 111.
  4. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1972) pp. 7-8.
  5. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (London: The Architectural Press, 1927) p. 167.
  6. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961) pp.268-269.
  7. Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1992) p. 217.
  8. Edward Robert de Zurko, Origins of Functionalist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957) p. 11.
  9. Leonardo Benevolo, The Origins of Modern Town Planning (London: Routledge, 1967) pp. 13-14.
  10. In the United Kingdom, for example, public pressure is increasingly demanding that mobile phone antennas be concealed inside props resembling trees or church steeples so that landscape views are not “spoiled,” while many covenants of home-owner associations in master-planned communities prohibit satellite dishes unless these are made to resemble rocks, trees or architectural ornaments. See http://www.utilitycamo.com
  11. An important exception is “dazzle” camouflage, which uses a disruptive, highly abstract pattern in order to disorient and confuse and which was proved to be successful in protecting warships.
  12. Mike Davis, City of Quartz (London: Verso, 1990) p. 238.
  13. Stenen Spoken, “Ghosts of Stone”, Archis, 1991. Vol. 3, pp. 69-73.
  14. Roy R. Behrens, Art and Camouflage: Concealment and Deception in Nature, Art and War (Cedar Falls, Iowa: University of Northern Iowa, 1981), p. 14.
  15. Stan Allen writes, in Points and Lines (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999): “I’m more interested in what architecture does than what it looks like.”

Photography and research collaboration: Sheila Nadimi.

Research for this project was made possible thanks to grants from the Graham Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Netherlands Foundation for Art, Design and Architecture.

Thanks to: Roemer van Toorn, Rob Kovitz, Bishnupriya Ghosh, Miguel Roldán, Anjela Wilkes.


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