The demise of Osama bin Laden is certainly the news story of 2011. Among the torrent of analysis, news stories and blogs this event has generated, bin Laden’s home of the past five or six years has attracted considerable comment.
Apparently part of the reason that this 3-storey concrete villa attracted the suspicion of the CIA was the building’s design, notably its tall surrounding walls and small number of windows. A White House spokesman was widely quoted: ‘Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom-built to hide someone of significance.’
One doesn’t wish to query what is already received journalist wisdom, but my reaction on viewing photos of bin Laden’s hideout was admiration for its utter anonymity. Far from generating suspicion, it seems more likely that the generic character of bin Laden’s pile was a significant part of the reason that he could reside undetected in a Pakistan garrison town.
The building may have been larger than its neighbours, but similar ponderous villas can be found in great numbers across most of the world, especially its less prosperous parts. Concrete may appear non-domestic to Australian eyes, but it is the popular construction material of today’s world. Its materials are cheap and widely available, its labour intensive construction is not a problem in low-wage economies, and it is easy to add extra floors and rooms to concrete structures; the ends of reinforcing rods are often left exposed for this reason. Of course, it’s also easy to build very thick concrete walls.
Architectural flourish is seldom a feature of such residences but enclosure within a compound is, especially in areas where public space can be dangerous. Bin Laden’s mansion would not look out of place, for example, in the outskirts of Naples. To this one can add Pakistan’s highly patriarchal society, where domestic life is routinely hidden behind walls. There is no reason to disbelieve the spokeswoman for the Pakistani Foreign Minister, that such compounds are common in Pakistan.
Hideouts are an exotic sub-genre of architecture. Slate this week published a gallery of famous ones; bin Laden’s is modest compared to that of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug warlord assassinated in 1993. But the real Escobar showpiece is his Hacienca Los Napoles, a massive theme park and mansion constructed for his family featuring a zoo, lake and airport; it’s now a public park and tourist attraction.
Escobar’s Hacienca belongs to the architecture of power, as analysed by Deyan Sudjic in his book The Edifice Complex. Through violence and bribery, Escobar was able to humiliate Colombia’s civil authorities; the Hacienca was a means of flaunting both his wealth and immunity. Bin Laden never had this opportunity. He attempted to build a grand residence incorporating a mosque at Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was bombed before he could move in.
However bin Laden’s anonymous hideout shares features with the homes of the very rich. An ostentatious mansion was once a necessity for any self-respecting magnate, but the enclosed compound is now the favoured option. The main Sydney example is the Bellevue Hill compound of the Packer family, formed since the 1930s out of nine different properties. Examples elsewhere include the homes of Bill Gates, Michael Dell and George Lucas. The only available photos of such places are taken from prying helicopters. Fugitives aren’t the only people prepared to pay up for anonymity.