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The architecture of the drug trade

Sam Jacob forays into marijuana grow houses and the landscapes of drug use

You can’t tell a grow house from the outside. It’s only through the registers of the invisible spectrum that its internal weirdness becomes visible: massive red blobs on heat-sensitive cameras, bizarre spikes in electricity use and so on. These are houses that have been converted into cannabis farms. Often rented on short-term lets or squatted for the three months it takes to harvest the illegal crop, they use the shell of an existing home as a kind of cloaking device, like an architectural hermit crab.

Inside, the shapes and angles of domesticity are papered with foil and blasted with 1,000W horticultural bulbs, a kind of sci-fi gardening lashed together with duct tape, casual cabling and garden-centre hydroponics. This is agriculture that not only breaks the law of the land, but also bends the laws of nature by concentrating and accelerating growth through artificial means. From lounge to bedroom to attic, the interiors are forested with cannabis plants. Rooms become landscapes, as though the normal order of interior and exterior have inverted. We see these scenes in police-bust photographs. Like Max’s bedroom, which grows into the land of the Wild Things in Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book, these images suggest a physiological dimension to the transformation of house to landscape.

In the obliteration of domesticity by drug production, we see a perversion of architectural typology – the familial replaced by the pharmacological. Spaces intended for the tenderest of social activities become an image of rampant, psychoactive-rich growth, powered by industrialised agricultural techniques and organised with black-market ruthlessness.

Drug agriculture turns things inside out. Its illegal status means that nature is forced into all kinds of perverse situations. From the grow houses of suburbia to the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the private armies that secure Colombian coca crops, varied scales of production demand their own illicit infrastructures.

There is a long-standing relationship between drug consumption and the cultural understanding of landscape. From Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to the M25 raves of the late 1980s, new perspectives, new uses and new ideas of landscape come about through the way that drug use allows us to see. If we think of Jim Morrison driving into the Mojave Desert to take mescaline, the Beatles with a harmonium in a tree, the situationists hyped on varied substances wandering the backstreets of Paris, or Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters wiring up sound systems around a valley to distort perceptions of distance and proximity, we might be assembling an atlas of drug-induced landscape research.

The legislation of prohibition forms a logic which turns the normal organisation of space – of exterior and interior, of visible and invisible – inside out. Think of the X-rays of drug mules who use the digestive system as a form of storage, the false compartments articulated lorries use to hide contraband, or spy gear that conceals one function within another. This is a shadow version of architecture, which turns the logics of conventional design upside down and inside out. Architecture and design spends so much energy being explicit about function, accommodating programme and use, and articulating these concerns. The shady world of illicit architecture is equally aware of these issues, but its desire is to disguise the signals of its use.

Shadow design works on the underside of architecture, exploiting the expectations and appearances of normative built fabric. It operates as an inversion of the legitimate social and legal codes of architecture, finding gaps and worm holes in which to operate. It is only in the dawn-raid bust that these operations become visible, splashed on the local news. It’s here that we see the possible strangenesses that lurk within every architectural scenario. And it’s here, in their total disregard, that we see how completely architecture operates as a manifestation of social and political codes.

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