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Dr. No, Die Hard, and Deleuze: Mechanical Spaces and Movies – Life Without Buildings

Dr. No, Die Hard, and Deleuze: Mechanical Spaces and Movies – Life Without Buildings.

John McClane crawls through the mechanical spaces of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard.

“What about that duct up there?” I asked.

“What about it?”

“Couldn’t someone get through there? I think it’s about 18-inches across.”

“You mean like Die Hard?” He looked skeptical.

“Exactly! Exactly like Die Hard.”

“Well…” the contractors sized up my slight frame then looked back up toward the exposed return duct. “I couldn’t make it through there but someone like, ah…”

“Me?”

“Yeah. You might be able to get through there. You planning to rob the place? ”

“If I was, it’d be a lot harder with that vent blocked.”

“Alright, I guess we can put some bars up there, McClane.”

During my former life as a designer, I actually had that conversation. Several times, in fact. And every time, Die Hard came up. Die Hard (1988) is a popcultural shorthand; it’s a simple, well-known reference that can be used to communicate complicated ideas – even between architects who love to overcomplicate things. When the security contractor asked me, “you mean like Die Hard?” what he was really saying was, “you mean someone with the proper motivation could crawl through the mechanical system of this building, which was not designed for the human body but rather for efficient air handling, and enter this bank surreptitiously?”

That is exactly what I mean.

[…]

Armed with little more than a zippo lighter and a chip on his shoulder the size of Madison Square Garden, McClane combats the invaders with architectural guerrilla tactics, evading detection by moving through ventilation ducts, elevator shafts, and seemingly every other conceivable space except those programmed by an architect.

[…]

In a 2010 article, writer Geoff Manaugh branded the liminal territories that are tactically occupied in the Die Hard series as “Nakatomi Space, wherein buildings reveal near-infinite interiors, capable of being traversed through all manner of non-architectural means.”Nakatomi Space. What a terrific expression. It so succinctly describes such a complex idea – what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari would call “Rhizomatic Space,” which, at its most basic, is a theoretical, nonhierarchical space constructed of elaborate connections and multiple points of access. But theory is so much easier to understand when buildings are blowing up so let’s just stick with Nakatomi Space.

Somewhere on the cultural spectrum between John McClane and Gilles Deleuze is Franz Kafka, whose stories are full of Nakatomi Space and other architectural viruses, none more explicit than “The Burrow” (1931). In this allegorical tale, a nameless, paranoid creature compulsively digs through the earth, creating an elaborate tunnel system to ward off possibly imaginary enemies. Among their enumerations on the concept of rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari explicitly mention burrows, due to their “functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout.”[1] Those  spatial functions inherent to the burrow are the same encountered by the fugitive. So while Manaugh equates Nakatomi Space with a type of militaristic movement, I see it more as a fugitive geography.

Though John McClane is undoubtedly the hero of the film, he is indeed a fugitive; a man singled out, hunted, and forced to flee through the liminal spaces of a Los Angeles high-rise. For McClane, as for the criminal fugitive, the built environment functions as both an accomplice and an obstacle, offering concealment one moment and obstructing escape the next. The same ducts that let McClane move undetected through the building might just bend or break at the wrong moment to reveal his location. His actions defy any architectural program or conventional circulation. The fugitive exists outside of design. His actions aren’t anticipated by the architect, planner, or engineer, so he must adapt and improvise. It seems appropriate then that McClane moves through undesigned space. The mechanical ducts he crawls through and elevator shafts he climbs are afterthoughts, consequences of architecture. Architects can go to great lengths to keep these systems concealed and the result is often an invisible labyrinth of articulation, a maze within a building, navigable only by currents of hot and cold air. And of course, the occasional New York City police officer.

[…]

One of the protagonists of Inception, a heist movie with existential trappings, is a young architect who designs dreams and, through the magic of sci-fi , literally builds memory palaces –manifestations of the ancient Roman mnemonic device—in other people’s minds. During the film’s climax, the aptly named Ariadne creates a nearly impregnable, Brutalist ice fortress whose labyrinths can only be navigated by her team of highly trained dream-thieves. But as the plan inevitably goes awry and the team is attacked by mental constructs created in the mind of their intended target, it’s revealed that a contingency was put in place to cut through the elaborate architectural maze with a secret network of large ventilation ducts that ostensibly serve no purpose other than surreptitious entry. Once again, mechanical space becomes the primary mode of circulation to undermine architecture. Like the burrow in Kafka’s story, this space was designed by a protagonist facing enemies that were imagined into existence. The thoughts of Kafka’s sad burrower could easily could have come from one of Inception’s architects or paradox designers: “I certainly have the advantage of being in my own house and knowing all the passages and how they run. A robber may very easily become my victim….[But] I am not as strong as many others, and my enemies are countless; it could well happen that in flying from one enemy I might run into the jaws of another.”

In Ian Fleming’s novel Dr. No, James Bond quite literally runs from one enemy into the jaws of another when he is taken prisoner on a small island and thrown into a smaller gray cell whose “walls were entirely naked except for a ventilation grille of thick wire in one corner just below the ceiling.” Bond, being the super spy he is, sees the vent as an opportunity for escape. Unfortunately, the diabolical Dr. No planned for this. In fact, he wanted Bond to escape through the ducts, as he had transformed his mechanical system into an elaborate obstacle course designed to torture and kill the spy. 

[…]

In evil lairs, even the HVAC is evil. As Bond crawled, squeezed, and climbed through the elaborate system of tunnels and shafts, he was exposed to electrified grills, scalding vents, and two dozen tarantulas before being dumped out into the sea to do battle with a giant squid. What Dr. No realized is that every aspect of a building –or a lair– can be designed.

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