Concealed City: Disguise is a Way to Protect One's Private Life in a City with Eyes

Deception, concealment, camouflage. Nature's numerous examples of disguising as a strategy to survive have provided humankind with plenty of inspiration for military unobtrusiveness throughout history. Today, disguise appeals as a way to protect one's private life in the City with Eyes. In a time when monitoring and surveillance systems are increasingly pervasive, Monica Hutton reflects on concealment strategies that are being developed, and which agencies they can deploy as part of complex urban ecologies.

What happens when the sensor-imbued city acquires the ability to see – almost as if it had eyes? Ahead of the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," ArchDaily is working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section at the Biennial to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies – and Artificial Intelligence in particular – might impact architecture and urban life. Here you can read the “Eyes of the City” curatorial statement by Carlo Ratti, the Politecnico di Torino and SCUT.

The evolution of disguise in design can be discussed as a socio-natural response to emerging technological scenarios. Decentralized infrastructure distributed throughout cities and peripheries continues to change the way individuals and groups view the city, and how the city views us. There is an expanding presence of devices that actively view, collect, share, and process data related to our everyday activities. In a world that is increasingly monitored, and arguably more transparent, innovations to remain discrete, unobtrusive, and hidden are emerging. Design strategies to disguise technological devices or subjects have become more sophisticated. In turn, this is altering the legibility of urban space. At times it is difficult to decipher and easy to be deceived. Camouflage that occurs naturally across species has long been a source of ecological study. Over time it has influenced designs that blend and mimic the appearance and form of other elements in the environment. The following aims to articulate the relationship between cross-species bodies and urban space as simultaneously natural and human-made. It examines how disguise is used as a tool of power and resistance, drawing on examples of groups and individuals who are deploying, responding to and re-appropriating technology to conceal objects, themselves, and others. These evolving design practices, and rising creativity support speculation on the future blending between nature and culture. 


Examining the relationship between disguise and design calls for adopting a more-than-human point of view. Throughout the world’s forests, oceans, deserts, and open prairies there are species that play tricks on the perceptions of others through their outward presentation. Between the background and foreground of these settings, subjects have been able to use their bodies and the materials surrounding them to go unnoticed, or to be confused with something they are not. Some of these subjects are predators, others are prey. Taking on various tactics of movement, some remain motionless while others create illusions through the movement of their bodies. An octopus shifts the color and texture of its skin to blend in with rocks, corals, or other surfaces it comes in contact with. The bodies of stick insects are largely indistinguishable from the branches of the plants that they live on. Owl butterflies are well known for large eye-like markings on their wings that have been thought to look like the face of a more intimidating creature; an owl or a lizard. Each eyespot, or ocellus, on the owl butterfly resembles a light colored iris with a large pupil. As a visual marker, the functional role of the eyespot has been debated. Many consider the mimicry to play a defensive role and it has been discussed as an anti-predator mechanism that deters or confuses the attack of predatory birds or small mammals.

Human strategies for deception, notably adopted for military use, have a history of borrowing principles from how other species are visually understood, or misunderstood. American artist Abbott Thayer (1849–1921), comprehensively recorded and illustrated his contributions to camouflage theory. These were compiled in the book ‘Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Discoveries’, published ostensibly by Gerald H. Thayer in 1909. Although Thayer’s work is not without criticism, it led to proposals for humans to appropriate protective coloration for their own devices. Techniques of disruptive (or dazzle) patterning, countershading, and background blending on ships and aircrafts were deployed to evade targeting and surveillance during World Wars I and II. Pioneered by artists, large ships were painted with intersecting geometric shapes in high contrast colors. Instead of going completely undetected, the complex and disorienting graphic pattern made it difficult for others to predict the speed and position of the vessel. This is a powerful example of how humans have extracted logic from the study of natural history and applied it to design and technology to aid political and economic pursuits.

Strategies to break apart the visual continuity of human-made structures have continued to be adopted over time. This has resulted in designs that challenge the perception that there is a crude binary that splits the city and environment apart. Instead city and environment are blurred together in a socio-ecological condition. This relates to Donna Haraway’s discussion of the term nature-culture, recognizing that nature and culture have an inseparable ecological relationship, formed biophysically and socially. The following discusses how the city and nature have continued to disguise each other over time. The definitions, distinctions, and overlaps between them are the source of constant debate among theorist and experts. With rising dialogue on the current geological age, the proposed Anthropocene, and the undeniable global impacts of humans on the environment, this relationship has only become a more pressing topic over time. As strategies of concealment continue to advance, our perceptions are challenged to distinguish between subjects and understand the complex relationships between them and the larger context. 

Specifications by Species

Human invention has repeatedly used other living species as host and concealer of technology. These species may have been viewed as plentiful, dispensable, discrete, mobile or more appropriately sized resources to achieve an intended technological aim. Small automatic devices have been attached to birds since the early twentieth century, allowing for breakthroughs in aerial photography and expanding the range of surveillance that was possible at the time. Camera-fitted pigeons were deployed in wartime, and species have increasingly been used as intelligence assets. This trajectory of invention and design leaves questions of ethical relationships between humans and other species, and how we view each other. These cases, where species are treated as a body or vehicle for human agency, reflect embedded cultural views of species hierarchy and cross-species relationships.

Concealed City, mixed-media composite drawing by Monica Hutton.

Concealment design has also focused on finding ways for technological devices to impersonate living species. With expanding infrastructure following rising urbanization, inventive measures of concealment have emerged to make synthetic structures appear as inconspicuous parts of the landscape. The twentieth century spread of the modern cellular communications network in the United States is a notable example of this. Complaints about the visual impact of new antenna towers rising across the country resulted in the development of techniques to make them appear as trees. By doing this the towers could go unnoticed by many passersby, mistaken as just another one of the plants it was installed next to. Only upon a closer and more deliberate view would someone notice something was off. A company called Larson Camouflage had experience on similar projects, including faux landscapes for Disney parks, museums and zoos. The company pioneered the concealment industry for wireless communication infrastructure with the first Mono-Pine model designed and built in 1992, and later expanded its range to include Palm, Elm, Cypress, and Cactus models. This allowed the infrastructure to visually blend into various regional environments, adopting the form of vegetation common in the area. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which made it more difficult to regulate the placement of towers in the landscape of communities, led to municipal ordinances to have them camouflaged. Through the interaction of technology, urban development, government policy, and landscape this hybridized form of mimicry emerged and spread throughout the country.

Technology mimicking species has reached new heights in recent years. Bird-like drones closely imitating the weight, wing movement, flight behavior and patterns of their living counterparts, are now occupying the sky. When observed from the ground it would be difficult to distinguish between this type of drone and a living bird. Dutch robotics company, Clear Flight Solutions, has been fabricating remotely controlled robotic birds of prey under the title Robird. Models are designed according to the specifications of different species. One mimics the peregrine falcon, the world’s most widespread bird of prey. Trying to control current urban and ecological issues, Clear Flight Solutions promotes the use of the robotic birds to deter actual species from occupying areas around airports, farms, harbors, landfills, and industrial sites. In this way the technological replicas are driving away the living inhabitants of landscapes. Several Chinese military and government agencies have been reported as using similar devices in the form of doves for surveillance. This serves as an example of how closely technology is being designed to mimic the appearance of living bodies. Devices disguised by the form of insects, trees, and birds have made it increasingly difficult to decipher our surroundings and respond to an underlying logic. Lacking the ability to clearly classify all of the subjects we are now interacting or crossing paths with, we are left to find new ways to navigate our environments.


In response to expanding technologies of surveillance, individuals and groups are designing their own measures to exert a level of personal control and to redefine the relationship between their bodies and the city, showing creativity amid increasing automation. Science communicators such as Rachel Carson have well-described the potential for technology to be both a positive and negative force over the short- and long-term. Those invested in responding creatively to this potential are using design to counter rising technological infrastructure, with prototypes and methods that can be deployed at the scale of individual citizens. 

Some have embraced the role of an observed subject as a means to take control of their own representation in the city. Artist Jill Magid used her 2004 project, titled Evidence Locker, to engage in a relationship with Citywatch (Merseyside Police and Liverpool City Council), which uses a system of citywide video surveillance in England. Over 31 days in Liverpool, Magid worked with the police to film her movements in the city using public surveillance cameras, and wore a bright red trench coat that made it easy to locate her in a crowded setting. She obtained the CCTV footage from each of the days by submitting legal Subject Access Request Forms that made it possible to share the material with a wider audience and to personally garner power over the curation of that content. Other artists have been investigating ways to disguise subjects being observed. Adam Harvey, whose work explores the impacts of surveillance technologies, developed the project titled CV Dazzle to investigate how hairstyling, makeup and accessories can camouflage wearers from face detection technology. In what can be viewed as a twenty-first century evolution of Thayer’s ideas, Harvey breaks apart the continuity of identifiable facial features and spatial relationships that facial recognition algorithms rely on. Looking for ways to distract how computer vision reads the human face, Harvey’s work offers a toolkit for citizens to present themselves in a way that acknowledges and subverts their own surveillance. 

Studying the emerging landscape of concealment offers a new lens to view behaviors and patterns of urban navigation. Developing a sensitivity to the duality of what is visible and what remains hidden in the built environment can be a valuable skill. It will continue to play a role in how societies and species respond and adapt to changing surroundings. This can be discussed in the context of ongoing debates surrounding the continued impacts of humans on the environment, and competition among the species for territory, resources, and intelligence. If the current trajectory upholds, and our environments continue to become more highly monitored, design will evolve alongside to disguise subjects in new ways and according to vastly different agendas. These may be the agendas of individual citizens, groups, corporations, or governments. We need to think critically about the legibility of our surroundings as this occurs. How might we stay alert and maintain awareness of how subjects are being observed and represented in urban environments? How can we navigate the ethical terrain with care? What are the impacts not only on humans, but on the lives of all of the other species? This includes not only those species that may be disguised, but those that may be at risk of disappearing altogether. Understanding these more-than-human needs for visibility or privacy will be key as we face, and try to decipher, our shifting appearance in the future.


1- Stevens, M. (2005). The role of eyespots as anti-predator mechanisms, principally demonstrated in the Lepidoptera. Biological Reviews, 80(4), 573-588. 
2- Thayer, A. H. and Thayer, G. H., Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Disclosures (New York: The Macmillan Company. 1909).
3- Haraway, Donna J., The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Vol.1. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).
4- Goodyear, Anne Collins, and Margaret A. Weitekamp, Eds., Analyzing Art and Aesthetics (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2013).
5- Kohlstedt, Kurt. “Botanical Imperative: Why Cellular Network Towers Get Disguised as Trees.” 99% invisible. 19 Nov 2018
6- Chen, Stephen. “China takes surveillance to new heights with flock of robotic Doves, but do they come in peace?” South China Morning Post. 24 Jun 2018
7- Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).
8- Magid, Jill. Evidence Locker. 2004. 15 Oct 2019
9- Harvey, Adam. CV Dazzle. 2017. 1 May 2019

About the Author

Monica Hutton is a researcher and designer with degrees in urbanism, architecture, and environmental design from Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Planning (S.M.Arch.S.), and University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture (M.Arch., B.Env.D.). Working towards alternative methods for designers and architects to get involved in emerging urban issues, Monica develops formats for communication across humanities, sciences, and visual arts. Her design work and writing crosses scales of architecture, landscape, and urbanism, related to topics of environmental legibility and public agency. 

"Urban Interactions": Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) - 8th edition. Shenzhen, China

Opening in December, 2019 in Shenzhen, China, "Urban Interactions" is the 8th edition of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). The exhibition consists of two sections, namely “Eyes of the City” and “Ascending City”, which will explore the evolving relationship between urban space and technological innovation from different perspectives. The “Eyes of the City" section features MIT professor and architect Carlo Ratti as Chief Curator and Politecnico di Torino-South China University of Technology as Academic Curator. The "Ascending City" section features Chinese academician Meng Jianmin and Italian art critic Fabio Cavallucci as Chief Curators.‬‬‬

"Eyes of The City" section

Chief Curator: Carlo Ratti.

Academic Curator: South China-Torino Lab (Politecnico di Torino - Michele Bonino; South China University of Technology - Sun Yimin)

Executive Curators: Daniele Belleri [CRA], Edoardo Bruno, Xu Haohao    

Curator of the GBA Academy: Politecnico di Milano (Adalberto Del Bo)

"Ascending City" section

Chief Curators: Meng Jianmin, Fabio Cavallucci

Co-Curator: Science and Human Imagination Center of Southern University of Science and Technology (Wu Yan)

Executive Curators: Chen Qiufan, Manuela Lietti, Wang Kuan, Zhang Li

About this author
Cite: Monica Hutton. "Concealed City: Disguise is a Way to Protect One's Private Life in a City with Eyes" 01 Mar 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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