Mark Lamster | Essays

The Architecture of the Secret Lair

"Whatever it is, it's not a mansion." This was the reaction of a friend to the term used so often in the press to describe Bin Laden's seedy concrete bunker, with its crummy striped awnings and tacky furnishings. Certainly, it's a long aesthetic way from Newport. Disparage it though we may, however, it remains rather astonishing that this large compound was built without drawing the attention of our many intelligence services. (What Pakistan's military knew is another story.) Presumably, Bin Laden's experience in the construction business was a factor. But fear seems also to have played a role. According to reports, anyone who got too close was warned away by armed guards. 


The Bin Laden compound makes an interesting contrast with the secret modern lairs created for Bond villains by the legendary production designer Ken Adam. These have routinely been described as unrealistic, insofar as they could never be built without drawing attention. It's curious now, in retrospect, to think that it was fear that kept the local population from Dr. No's island hideaway (which was just off British and American territory). Though Bond films make us think of visual extravagance, the most visually arresting set from the film was the rather raw interrogation room, with its cross-beam, ocular ceiling. What was in Osama's basement?

If the Bin Laden compound is less aesthetically spectacular than the evil lairs imagined by Adam, so is the command center from which he was dispatched. Photographs of the White House "Situation Room" show the president and his security team jammed uncomfortably into a small room with dark wainscotting and unflattering light. But for the presidential seal by the door, it could be a conference room at an airport hotel. By any stretch, it is a far cry from the war room Adam created for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: a massive room, dramatically lit, with an immense circular table and global maps on the walls. Adam said, and the anecdote may be apocryphal, that after his election, one of the first things Ronald Reagan wanted to see was this room. Hollywood shaped his vision. It shapes ours, too.

Comments [3]

Bin Laden's Lair Receives LEED Certification
Scarlett Billows

Only interior designers would even think about the interiors of Bin Laden's house. I know the first thing I thought when I saw the photos was what a great oriental rug on the floor.
You could layer a little more mystique on the whole situation by considering the secret of the location of this compound was kept by the construction crews meeting an untimely death and being entombed into the surrounding concrete walls..... certainly Hollywood would have thought of that.
Connie Long, ASID

Ronald Reagan on the White House "war room"

"...the evidence that Reagan confused the world of movies with the world outside became apparent the moment the president took office. On that day in January 1981, in the middle of a tour of the White House, Reagan asked to see the "war room" - and expressed terrible disappointment when he learned that it only existed as a set in Stanley Kubrick's film Dr Strangelove."

Nick Oakley

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