Camouflage is precisely not invisibility. Light doesn’t pass through camouflage, and neither does camouflage project an image of its surroundings onto itself. Camouflage is very simply this: the confusion of figure for ground.
Countershading is a good example. Many animals differentiate figures of interest (prey, predators, reward, danger) from ground (the earth, trees, walls, mundanity, non-danger) by noticing the presence or absence of shadow. That which casts a shadow tends to be a figure on the ground, an object of note; that which doesn’t, tends not to be. Countershading, then, is a coloration pattern wherein the lower parts of an animal—the legs, the belly, the front base of the neck—are lightly colored, while the upper parts—the nape, the back, the head—are dark. Thus, where one would expect there to be dark shadow, there is brightness; & where one would expect brightness from the glare of the sun, there is darkness.
Camouflage is a tactic of representation, a fiction. It seizes on a visual aspect of the world and falsely re-presents it, turning it on its head. Countershading is an illusory reversal of the nature of light, and, thereby, an exploit of a method of figure/ground differentiation & cognition employed by almost every creature that perceives light. And this mode of cognition, of categorizing the world into figure and ground by relations of lightness and darkness, is so universal that almost every creature who hunts or is hunted presents some degree of countershading: fish, mammals, birds, insects—even creatures who are not themselves able to perceive light. 1
Camouflage works to dissolve the figure into the ground. Could we say that every camouflage we might analyze has already failed? For its very purpose is to ward off the accrual of object-hood, the perception of meaningful edges, borders, or silhouettes; of demarkations from the world. But if camouflage functions to dissimulate & dissolve the body, it only does so by reifying & visually expressing in inverse the perceptions of others. A caterpillar may be incapable of perceiving color, but its vibrant green body is a prescient image of how its predators perceive—like a negative of a bird’s system of visual cognition. It now feels appropriate to mention that the first mass deployments of military camouflage in World War I were helmed by artists at least as much as by scientists.2
Some sixty years later, during the late Cold War of the 1980s, a British major invented a camouflage pattern to dissolve tanks and armored vehicles into the streets of Berlin.3 Framing and painting cardboard silhouettes of British tanks against what patches of Berlin he saw thru his office windows, he developed a motley of blue, grey, tan, & brown pastel squares, 18” on a side, which rendered the killing machines almost indecipherable from the german metropolis. This camouflage pattern was applied first to the vehicles under his command, then, following remarkably successful trials, to the entire British armored force in Berlin—when suddenly, like a virus, the pattern leapt the Berlin wall and appeared on the armor of the Warsaw Pact.
A “disruptive” camouflage like “Berlin Camo”, as it came be known, functions through a kind of multifactorial countershading. Where standard countershading relies on one overarching radical inversion, that of light and shadow, disruptive camouflage is a good deal more promiscuous, pulling multiple conflicting, conflated, and non-representational sub-patterns from its environment. Disruptive camouflage may even draw on elements of countershading itself in its spatters of indigenous colors, lines, & shapes—Anything and everything in order to “disrupt” the eye from visually “enclosing” or cognizing the figure. In a sense, it is all the form of the ground with none of its content, a perfect parody.
Successful camouflage is a simulacrum of the essence of a place—even if such an essence never existed—for it is itself a fiction, a game of appearances incoherent outside its nest of nested relations. If Berlin Camo worked, it worked only because of what it took for its ground and what it took for its figures. It worked on a vehicle parked in the street; at no closer than 50 yards; in Berlin at the time of the Wall; within the scope of the perceptual technologies of the visible spectrum then deployed by NATO & the Warsaw Pact. All these heterogenous accidents, all these imbricated subjectivities had to cohere for Berlin Camo to illude & elude. One could even say—for it was never actually put to the test by live combat—Berlin Camouflage only ever worked in the war-gaming imaginations of the soldiers & officers, there and then stationed, Soviet and capitalist, in the final years of the Cold War.
The impartial truth of camouflage lives at the inverse of disinterested inquiry and immobile thought. It’s a necessary fiction spun at the edge of life and death, a rigorous vagary. It’s an equal product of the deaths it causes and of those it staves off. Camouflage may grow ever more specific to a ground, ever more granular, just as the ground grows in interminable fractal expansions the closer you look. But so long as the looker can look a little closer, or a little to the left, or look besides another looker, camouflage will never be an image of the ground, a replica, simply because an image plane seen from one direction will soon fail from another; or, like an impressionist painting, function at one scale and rapidly disintegrate at another. Camouflage must be an abstraction in order to delude at all. It necessarily preserves the distinction between figure and ground in order to blur it. And yet, even as an abstraction, the efficacy of camouflage is limited by the parallax & scalar disintegration that a looker’s movement may entail. All camouflaged figures are thus forced to choose the beginnings and ends of their fictions, their periods of abstraction, by the qualities of their own bodies, and by which period, of the looker’s total potential field of movement, their bodies have most reason to hide during. A pattern designed for the human body at small arms range looks like a solid block of color on a tank at heavy weapons range. Berlin Camo began on the streets of Berlin and ended fifty yards away—outside of that, it was too late for the fiction to matter one way or another.
My claim is simple: Camouflage is an essential tactic of invasive architecture in New York City. It is used to blur the figure of gentrification into the ground of the neighborhood. It is used to ward off critical objecthood. It draws the skyline over the silhouette.
Like the khaki and olive uniforms of early mechanized armies, invasive architecture once reached for minimally textured drabs in the 50s & 60s, perhaps hoping to blend into the city through a lack of conspicuousness. And yet, as the British and American armies realized at about the same time, an absence of conspicuousness over a large enough expanse is itself quite conspicuous. The condominiums typical of this design were reviled in their time for their looming, blank facades, which were all the more distinct for their regular, rectilinear forms. Even today, they and their apartments continue to sell distinctly below market price.4
About two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, and on the cusp of what we call the Great Recession, two high-rise condominiums rose up in the Lower East Side. The gentrification of LES wasn't by then a new story, but the height and scale of these condos, stories taller than their surroundings at the time, were still remarkable enough to cause both of the employed architecture firms, themselves quite pedigreed, a certain degree of self-conscious consternation.
And lo and behold, how strangely familiar a pattern of disruptive, irregular blue and tan blocks appear across their facades.
101 Ludow deploys a pixelated, earthy tiger stripe seamlessly over the axes of its envelope, as if it were at once the ubiquitous brick of the LES and a patch of overcast sky. Blue Tower, perhaps more successfully, deploys scattered sky-blue squares to disrupt & be disrupted by patches of darker navies, blacks and purples. None of the squares form a cognizable pattern, though our eyes would naturally seek it in the contrast of light and dark. Altogether, the facade appears as an indecipherable pattern of simultaneous vertical and horizontal forms, which are themselves shaded randomly into the colors of a bright sky, sheet glass, and building walls—ultimately drawing both the sky and the patchy texture of the blocks surrounding up over the building.
Both architecture firms—Rawlings Architects of 101 Ludlow and Bernard Tschumi of Blue Tower—explicitly state their intent to “blend” or camouflage their structures into their respective environments, Rawlings with "bricks of a palette similar to the fabric of historical Lowest East Side buildings”5 and Tschumi through a “ pixelated envelope that both projects an architectural statement and blends into the sky, simultaneously respecting and embracing the dynamism of the neighborhood”.6 A note however: I don’t believe we necessarily need such tidy confessions from the designers of invasive architecture to characterize the perceptual operations of their facades. As a general rule, I’ve no clue of the rational designerly intent behind the aesthetics I perceive, and am affected by. But then, a caterpillar or a deer needn’t intend its camouflage to function in order for it to do so. My argument is primarily concerned with the effect that such heterogenous shapes, colors, lines, and volumes have on our perceptions of the buildings they ornament.
In any case, a walk down any re-zoned gentrifying street reveals that 101 Ludlow and Blue Tower appear to occupy a kind of midpoint of invasive architecture facade ornamentation. Elsewhere, it would appear that when condo facades don’t revive post-war looming drabs, they become incredibly convoluted. Shapes and patterns stop and start with no apparent structural or systematic cause. There’s a constant rectilinear bracketing and re-bracketing, each loud bracket undermining the other, of an effect that’s somehow both brash and deeply self conscious. It reminds me of how pickup artists dress.
Larger buildings in this vein reproduce the geometric cacophony of entire blocks unto themselves, as if 3 or 5 or 7 buildings were all cut and pasted into each other. The line between one building and the next—the line denoting one building as itself, as a unified entity, fades from sight. In contrast to the old, blank giants, these buildings exemplify that the key to true ineffability, to being that which cannot be thought or said, is continuous self-disruption: Not the absence of signal, but a signal that won’t stop interrupting itself, thereby always eluding its reception as figure. What can you even say about a building which appears to be at least 3 or 5, a different style, order, rhythm, & color pattern for each partially disgorged volume? The only consistency left is literally internal—in the rigorously unit-maximized striation of its internal layout. A thousand faces for a grid.
At this point, the visual efficacy of the camouflage of such architecture has more to do with the naval dazzle patterns of WWI than contemporary disruptive variants. Dazzle patterns accept the impossibility of hiding too large or unmistakable a figure atop the ground, and instead focus on confusing the looker’s perception of that figure’s speed, identity, and heading across the ground. Dazzle camouflage was designed for the combatants of an earlier naval warfare who could only rely on targeting in the visible spectrum, with ships and submarines deploying telescopes and observation-based calculation to determine a target’s class and vector. In such circumstances, bold, geometric patterns which could confuse the position of a ship’s prow & bow, or the size of its wake, or its length & height had the potential to introduce error into the hunter’s ballistic calculations, and so help the prey survive. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that the manipulators and manipulations of capital have an interest in confusing perceptions of their speed, identity, and heading.
But ultimately, at this far end of the spectrum, it’s clear the effect of these facades has shifted beyond camouflage as I’ve defined it so far. And we have to ask, who would these buildings hide from, anymore, anyway? After all, what little opposition Rawlings and Tschumi’s buildings faced was largely of their own conscience—Tschumi, in any case, continues to cultivate the professional identity of a socially engaged architect. I should rather acknowledge that after the so-called end of history—that is, the collapse of “really existing socialism”—the gates of the city lay blown off their hinges. All the old foes—communities, zoning boards, architecture critics, the professional injunction to build buildings that serve the social (assuming that was ever an effective force)—these were & are still roundly defeated by an unprecedented capital assault. With developers choosing bargain basement firms or trying their own hand at the drawing table, an architect’s noblesse oblige soon turns into a liability. Under such conditions, I claim invasive architecture turns into the architecture of occupation.
In light of this, let me define camouflage one more time: Camouflage is about being visible in relation to the ground in ways that coerce the looker’s mechanics of perception into a forming a cognition beneficial to the camouflaged in either doing violence to, or avoiding violence from the looker. And perhaps, with invasive architecture’s victories, we’ve left even this expanded definition, and now, like the livery of a species whose predators have all died out, the markings which had once served to conceal and confuse hereafter serve only to distinguish specimens of the same species as they turn to compete among each other. Ad copy aside, however, these buildings fall far short of any real formal differentiation—aesthetically, they have far more in common than not, even within the parameters of their own architectural lexicon. Nor, lacking any clear signification or centrality—indeed, being defined by their incoherent decentralization—could you really call them monuments. And yet, like monuments, they attempt a form of mass address.
A force that shifts from invasion to occupation must also in certain ways shift from the illusion of absence to the illusion of omnipresence—a flag on every street, an ear at every door. Couldn’t we say that although cutting a building into multiple pseudo-subbuildings helps elide an immediate perception of its true immensity by dispersing its scale into a multiplicity of sub-assets, that multiplicity also works reciprocally to increase how populous the architecture of occupation appears to be? A condo project the size of a block may splinter into what looks like 7 different, smaller buildings, yet these smaller buildings don’t just add up to a large condo, but to what looks like an entire neighborhood. I’d place such a structure at the very crest of the shift between invasive architecture and the architecture of occupation. It still retains certain visually deceptive elements tactically useful for blending an invasive force across a hostile ground. But more than anything, the architecture of occupation hides as architecture: Not by evading visual perception but thru architecture’s inherent quiet interstitially, its grounding of certain flows to foreground others, its mundane creation of figures by routing them. In its decentralization, expanding spatial distributions, aesthetic self-disruptions, & pseudo self-differentiation, the architecture of occupation begins to broadcast not a signal, not a coherent figure, but an ostensibly a-signifying field, a ground noise increasingly difficult to cognize as new, or alien, or indeed, as an object of cognition at all. The fractured, functioning figure begins to form the ground itself; and to the extent that it does, it becomes the ground which figures us all. But what do we really think differentiates this architecture of occupation from any building that came before it? Pierre Bélanger is right to say “a critical map of architecture isn’t a plan, but a section.”7 A plan shows shelter and meaningful space and the flows of life; a section shows walls and time and the infrastructural flows which permit life to exist. Architecture is always already ground in plan; in section, architecture and all its dumb, blank faces are compelled to remain but figures among others. And if ground can ever be recaptured, it’s only through a violent re-figuration, through refusing the ground its pretensions to nature, neutrality, & its ravenous delineations—for this, finally, is the identity of the ground: the great delineator; of silhouettes, of fields, of borders, of limits. The ground demarcates life & meaning through its own apparent immobile a-signification. To retake the ground is not only to rout it into figuration, but to do so by taking its place instead, even as a camouflaged imposter at first, for to remain a figure would be to leave things unchanged. Is this against meaning? Is this against nature? Then let it be—to retake the ground is to raise the dead.
- Forbes, Peter. Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. Yale University Press, 2011.
- Wright, Patrick. “LRB · Patrick Wright · Cubist Slugs: The Art of Camouflage.” London Review of Books, 22 June 2005,
- Davies, Wayne. “ELMRA Articles - Berlin Brigade Urban Paint Scheme.” Ex-Military Land Rover Association, Dec. 1999, www.emlra.org/index.php/articles/berlin-brigade-urban-paint-scheme.
- Chen, Stefanos. “The Plight of Post War Apartments.” The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2017.
- “101 Ludlow.” Rawlings Architects, 2016,
- “BLUE Residential Tower.” Bernard Tschumi Architects, www.tschumi.com/projects/6/.
- “Pierre Bélanger. Lecture ‘We Have Never Been Urban.’” Strelka Institute, 28 Apr. 2018.