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ADS4: Plots, Props & Paranoia – How Architecture Stages Conspiracy

Tutors: Tom Greenall & Matteo Mastrandrea, with Nicola Koller

July 2019 marked five decades since humankind first landed on the Moon. While it took 400,000 virtually-anonymous NASA engineers, scientists and technicians to achieve this feat, only one person was required to start the conspiracy theory that the event was staged. His name was Bill Kaysing. 

Despite the extraordinary volume of evidence that proves the landing actually occurred – including 382kg of moon rock collected across six missions, corroboration from Russia, Japan and China, and images from the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter documenting the tracks made by the astronauts in the moon dust – Kaysing’s theory has ensured that today, just over half a century later, more than one in ten Americans believe the moon landing was a hoax.

Everything is Connected

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Nor are they uniquely American. A recent YouGov poll found one in six British people agreed with the statement ‘the moon landings were staged’. Four per cent believed the hoax theory was ‘definitely true’, 12 per cent it was ‘probably true’, with nine per cent unsure. Moreover, 60 per cent of British people believe at least one conspiracy theory about how the country is run, or question the veracity of public information. Similar theories and beliefs have, for some time, been a feature of countries around the world. So what has changed?

Mark Lombardi, World Finance, 1970-79 (4th Version), 1997
Mark Lombardi, World Finance, 1970-79 (4th Version), 1997

Outsiders and the disenfranchised have always embraced the existence of wild plots and cover-ups, however in the last few years the ‘paranoid style’ has gone mainstream. Far from being a characteristic of those on the margins, distrust and paranoia now seem increasingly justified – even accepted – as an appropriate response to our contemporary, networked condition. In his 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon described paranoia as ‘nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected’. Today, everything really is. The devices we carry are connected to one another, speak to one another. We all use technology that feeds our paranoid thoughts. One of the first symptoms of clinical paranoia is the belief you are being watched, a belief that is now entirely reasonable. Every email we send, every text message we write, every phone call we make, every journey we take, each step, breath, dream and utterance is the target of a vast system of automated intelligence gathering, sorting algorithms of social networks, spam factories and the sleepless gaze of our own smartphones and connected devices. So, who is paranoid now? 

It is no longer good enough to dismiss the chemtrailers or 9/11 truthers as the lunatic fringe. Especially as they have started to take over governments and bring down countries. Europeans are being replaced by foreign invaders, aided by cultural Marxists who are plotting an Islamist subversion of the continent. The Bilderberg group – and/or the Illuminati – are instating a totalitarian New World Order. Angela Merkel is the secret daughter of Adolf Hitler. Barack Obama is illegitimate. George W. Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. The Holocaust is a hoax. Members of Pussy Riot are agents of the West. And the European Union is resurrecting the Roman Empire as a communist super-state. These are just some of the malicious falsehoods told by populist political actors across Europe, many of which are publicly promoted by the presidents of the United States and Russia. Understanding the complex machinations of contemporary conspiracy has never felt so urgent.

Yet, the unearthing of a conspiracy often meets with indifference and inaction. Indeed, the narrative of today’s conspiracy boom is one in which actual malfeasance can be disclosed publicly by politicians and those in power with minimal consequence. Consider Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus, or the corruption surrounding the Garden Bridge. Or the 2017 release of the Paradise Papers – a huge cache of documents revealing the legally suspect offshore financial arrangements of UK CEOs, cabinet ministers, royalty and celebrities. The papers disclosed the kind of connections that the artist Mark Lombardi spent years researching and drawing. Yet the disclosure of these papers did not produce yet a public outcry – just the widespread recognition that normality is not normal anymore. The ascendancy of conspiracy theories is matched only by the apathy which meets their validation.   

Conspiratorial Aesthetics 

So, what has caused this conspiratorial boom?

Conspiracy theories and paranoid exegeses seem to erupt every time there is a significant advance in communication technology and media. Mass printing provoked pamphlets like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Radio proffered enigmatic ‘number stations’ like ‘The Buzzer’, which have fascinated conspiracy theorists since the first world war. Television and film have been subjected to the same kind of scrutiny and symbol hunting. In the 1940s, some commentators thought Tom and Jerry was Nazi propaganda and the Zapruder footage from Dealey Plaza has been checked and rechecked for evidence of a cover-up for decades.    

Stanley Kubrick, The Shining, 1980. Film still. Conspiratorial Aesthetics – conspiracy theorists believe Kubrick references the Apollo 11 Moon landing, which he is popularly believed to have helped stage, in this film.
Stanley Kubrick, The Shining, 1980. Film still. Conspiratorial Aesthetics – conspiracy theorists believe Kubrick references the Apollo 11 Moon landing, which he is popularly believed to have helped stage, in this film.

In the words of Arthur C. Clarke, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Each new technology produces new gaps in the public’s understanding of their world, and, for conspiracy theorists, new ways to manipulate those gaps. The internet has engendered a veritable proliferation of these theories. Gaps, it would seem, are everywhere online, at a point where everything has never seemed as connected as this.

Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us – and we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things – it is called apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet. The internet is an apophenic machine. One in which, while we look for shapes in the same cloudy sky, we are each seeing radically different things.

Inundated with information, we attempt to gain some kind of control over the world by finding patterns and telling stories about it. We attempt to master it through narratives. These narratives are inherently simplifications, however, no single story can account for everything that’s happening – the world is too complex for simple stories. Instead of accepting this, the stories become ever more baroque and bifurcated, ever more convoluted and open-ended. Paranoia in the age of the network produces a feedback loop. The failure to comprehend a complex world leads to a demand for more and more information, which only further clouds our understanding, revealing ever more complexity that, in turn, must be accounted for by progressively more byzantine theories of the world. More information produces more confusion.

Although conspiracy theories have been borne out of this particular media behaviour, the internet’s peculiar logic has exacerbated the paranoid style and pushed distrust to an extreme. As Kathleen Stewart notes in Conspiracy’s Theory Worlds, ‘the internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into nothing and no place, floating through self-dividing and transmogrifying sites until you are awash in the sheer evidence that the internet exists.’ The conspiratorial mode and the internet’s data hoard were, it transpires, literally made for each other.

The modern condition is networked. Modern thought is also networked, or at least it attempts to be. But not in the open, expansive, way techno-utopians hoped. Instead, the basic unit of action is the hyperlink – the leap between pages, ideas, people and personas that catalyses belief in conspiracies. This leaping across and between sites has been core to the web’s functionality and pleasures. Legal and technical battles over ‘deep linking’ have time and again confirmed the centrality of user-defined links, to the expense of website owners’ control over the manner in which content is accessed. In a tacit acknowledgment of responsibility, last year, Pinterest blocked vaccine-related searches on its sites after measles outbreaks in several US states. In the conspiratorial mode, the sheer availability of information is the primary criterion for significance. And the default data hoarding inherent to the contemporary internet and its linking of information makes it ripe for conspiracy building, leading to what many are calling the ‘New Conspiracism’.­­

This state has engendered a conspiratorial aesthetic – a series of tropes and mannerisms widespread in the conspiracy community – that ADS4 will interrogate and deploy throughout the year. Blow-up photography, crazy walls, redacted text, low resolution footage and white noise will all be mined for their relevance to world-building and representation. If ambiguity is the most effective weapon used by those in power to mask conspiratorial behaviour, then it is also the most productive aesthetic technique to mobilise interest in as-yet-uncovered conspiracies. ADS4 will exploit the gaps in the media we use to create ambiguous things – objects, architecture, worlds – that speak to our ongoing inability to tell fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, conspiracy from conspiracy theory.    

Staging, Plots & Props

Throughout history, the theatre and theatrical performance have met with opposition and hostility. Its earliest objector, Plato, declared his reservations to theatre on moral grounds around 380 BCE and anti–theatricalism has re-emerged in various forms over the following 2,500 years.

The logic of the theatre is also the logic of conspiracy. Conspiracies are staged, they are plots, they are rigged. They are made up of criminal acts and crime scenes. They rely on and manipulate our wilful suspension of disbelief. Without the vocabulary of theatre, conspiracies would be even harder to describe, or delineate.

Lori Nix, Laundrette, 2012. Large-scale models as tools for forensic analysis.
Lori Nix, Laundrette, 2012. Large-scale models as tools for forensic analysis.

In 2019/20, ADS4 will make the case for the contemporary relevance of stage design. Building on the studio’s previous research into television, film, documentary and postproduction, we will explore the direct influence that stage design (alongside technology) has in shaping human behaviour – our hopes, fears, paranoias and desires – and the new rituals that emerge as a result. Using large-scale physical models, as well as digital tools, we will design scenarios and plots, props and actors in order to better understand how architecture stages conspiracy. 

The theatricalism of conspiracy often plays out in popular culture, fostering a proliferation of conspiratorial storylines. We will analyse these ‘massified’ art forms so we can better interrogate the general public’s growing comfort with conspiratorial thinking. Now, formerly arcane corners of research into covert activity have infiltrated popular culture. The post–war mind-control programme MK-ULTRA of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for example, is today the subject of both the television series Stranger Things and the documentary-based miniseries, Wormwood. Furthermore, TV shows like True Detective, Orphan Black, Westworld and The OA are themselves constructed like conspiracies, with webs of interconnection, opaque symbolism and internal and external references that reward intense engagement.

These narratives encourage the ‘paranoid-critical mode’ – a Surrealist method developed by Salvador Dalí in the early twentieth century. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas described this method as the ‘synthetic reproduction of the paranoiac’s way of seeing the world in a new light – with its rich harvest of unexpected correspondences, analogies, and patterns.’ Building worlds in this way means that everything is potentially relevant. There is no bycatch in the conspiratorial mode. It refuses to countenance the existence of the inadvertent, casual, or incidental.

Art has never shied away from engaging in cynicism, speculation and conspiracy. This has produced works like Lombardi’s forensic network diagrams documenting the uses and abuses of power, which led to the FBI removing one work from public view when exhibited at the Whitney in New York after 9/11, and Hans Haacke’s documentation of real estate holdings in Manhattan, which exposed one of the city’s biggest slum landlords. By contrast, architecture has tended to be a vehicle for conspiratorial activity. This complicity includes Margaret Thatcher’s ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool in the 1980s in the name of ‘urban regeneration’, which was only revealed by the release of official documents 30-years later, to Johnson’s opaque proposals for a number of Free Ports to boost the British economy post-Brexit. Approaching the city as a crime scene, we will deploy various design methodologies to expose wrongdoing.

Elmgreen and Dragset, Death of a Collector, 2009. Architecture as a stage for conspiracy.
Elmgreen and Dragset, Death of a Collector, 2009. Architecture as a stage for conspiracy.

ADS4 & Extinction Rebellion

Conspiracy theory has become the dominant narrative format of our times. Properly read, it explains everything. It reflects the world we live in – a world of limited knowability and existential doubt, in which we are forced to acknowledge the narrow extent of empirical reckoning, together with the poor returns on overwhelming flows of information. The conspiracy theory is a better approximation of reality today than any rigid binary encoding can ever be. This is an acknowledgement that all our apprehensions are approximations and the more powerful for being so. 

Seeing conspiracies everywhere is often denounced as an idiot’s game, a dark inversion of wishful thinking. How convenient would it be if everything oppressive was the fault of some nameable person, company or institution? Today this form of thought has become a necessity, the only way to legitimately conceptualise and question the world we occupy. Through critical and speculative design, combined with surreal methods of world-building, ADS4 will adopt a paranoid-critical mindset to uncover the litany of forces that shape our lives, revealing new modes of existence.

In 2019/20, ADS4 will work with Extinction Rebellion. In collaboration with XR co-founder, Clare Farrell, and the XR Arts Group, we will explore the significance of conspiracy in/for the environmental movement. This collaboration will not only consider its nefarious effects, but also its potential uses and benefits as a form of direct action, or malicious compliance. The ADS4 Live Project will involve both years and will lead to a series of design outputs – both spatial and strategic – throughout the year.

If architecture provides a stage for conspiracy then how might we, as architects, use our agency to promote a productive discourse around the future of the city rather than promulgate further distrust?

Thomas Ruff, jpeg rI01, 2007
Thomas Ruff, jpeg rI01, 2007


Tom Greenall has completed award-winning buildings with DSDHA, whose Christ College Secondary School was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2010. He has taught Architectural Design Studio 4 (ADS4) at the RCA since 2011. Tom studied architecture at the University of Sheffield and the RCA, qualifying as an architect in 2011. Tom was made an Associate Director of London-based architectural practice DSDHA in 2013. His work has been published in over 20 languages, he has exhibited internationally, and has written for both Building and Building Design magazines.

Nicola Koller is a designer working for acclaimed fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, designing and commissioning retail spaces worldwide and running design projects of special interest to Paul. Nicola heads an in-house multidisciplinary studio of furniture designers, interior designers, industrial designers and architects. Nicola has overseen and completed over 300 projects from concept to completion with Paul Smith in 24 countries. Including major flagship projects in London, Paris, New York, Antwerp, LA, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Shanghai. She graduated from Oxford Brooks University with a BA in architecture in 2000. She continued her education in architecture at the RCA, graduating with an MA in 2003.

Matteo Mastrandrea is a designer and researcher who works as an associate at Es Devlin Studio in London. He has taught Architectural Design Studio 4 (ADS4) at the RCA since 2016, and studied at the University of Cambridge (2010), University of Oxford (2013), and the RCA (2016).

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