Halloween offers a great excuse to celebrate architects who know how to throw good parties, as well as architects who know how to dress up as their own buildings. But during a time when we obsess over costumes, it's also worth thinking back to the architects, engineers and slight-of-hand artists who devised ways to hide buildings during wartime. It's difficult to imagine in an age where drone pilots can pull up live feeds from the battlefield on a laptop, but during past conflicts, especially WWII, the military went to elaborate lengths to keep homes, factories and even whole cities out of the crosshairs of enemy bombers. These infamous stunts, in effect creating costumes for buildings, go well beyond Potemkin villages and cardboard cut-outs, and stand as some of the more curious intelligence actions of the wars.
A newsreel touting the success of an army operation that hid a Boeing plant in Seattle.
Operation Camouflage at Lockheed Martin's Burbank, California Plant
Suburbs may get called synthetic or surreal, but few earned those descriptors as much as the fake neighborhood placed atop this key manufacturing facility in the wake of Pearl Harbor. After the Japanese attack, the American government feared additional long-range bombing missions and decided to conceal and protect important installations across the west coast. The military recruited Col. John F. Ohmer, who had witnessed the successful British attempts to conceal building during the Nazi blitz, to hide the massive factory. Ohmer assembled an engineering battalion and hired Hollywood set designers to help turn the manufacturing facility into a replica of Americana, complete with rubber cars. With open spaces and runways planted and painted to look like fields, the building were covered in chicken wire, netting and canvas, then topped with fake homes and neighborhoods. Employees worked despite the subterfuge, and over the course of the war, shipped out nearly 20,000 planes to help the Allied war effort. Other sites received similar treatment. Hollywood set designer John Stewart Detlie did the same thing to a Boeing B-17 plant in Seattle. The above videos show workers, who participated in the fakery by walking through the dummy towns as if running midday errands, looking up at the corner of Synthetic Street and Burlap Boulevard.
A Fake City of Lights
Towards the end of WWI, the French military constructed a miniature Paris, complete with street grids and a replica train station, in an attempt to fool the bombers of the Imperial German Air Force. Without sophisticated radar technologies, pilots of the time had to rely mostly on sight. According to The Telegraph, the complex was a huge undertaking; built at Maisons-Laffitte, 15 miles from Paris on a stretch of the Seine that resembled the river's curves near the capital, the fake city employed construction companies and an electrical engineer. Their work was never tested, however. The Germans surrendered before the project could be completed.
Artists were intimately involved in efforts to hide buildings and military vehicles with the aid of optical illusions and visual perception. In WWI, artist Norman Wilkinson created "dazzle ships," wildly decorated vessels with blocky stripes that distorted and disrupted the aim of enemies. During WWII, many governments recruited top modernists to create guides for camouflage or means to help protect their cities. According to Gizmodo, no less a modern master than László Moholy-Nagy was hired by the city of Chicago to help conceptualize methods of large-scale urban concealment.
The Magic Gang and the Disappearance of Alexandria
No look at concealment and illusions would be complete without the story of a magician who may or may not have played tricks with history. Supposedly, illusionist Jasper Maskelyne was the leader of the "Magic Gang," a unit which used visual trickery to hide fortifications for the British during WWII. While his stories have been strongly disputed, one legend has it that he built a fake version of Alexandria, Egypt, complete with an illuminated street grid and antiaircraft batteries, that fooled Nazi pilots and saved the city. Supposedly, he even designed a series of mirrors to be placed near the Suez Canal to create disorienting light effects.