Hidden in plain sight: Tricky ways to make industrial infrastructure vanish

We love technology, but it turns out we don't really like looking at it very much. Find out some of the clever ways we can make tech in public spaces vanish.

During World War II, the most important technological infrastructure was composed of the factories that produced the weapons and vehicles used by the belligerent powers. To prevent those factories from being destroyed by enemy action, ingenious camouflage was deployed to make them invisible from the air; the United States enlisted Hollywood set designers to create entire fake towns that covered the factories.

Today, tech infrastructure is hidden for a different reason: Though our modern society depends on power lines, railroads, and wireless data broadcasts, our sense of aesthetics tends to recoil when the stuff is built near our homes. That's why we've developed a number of ingenious ways to hide this vital (but ugly) tech from sight.

23 and 24 Leinster Gardens, London

The London Underground was one of the first great public works projects of the modern age, burrowing tunnels underneath what was already in the 19th century one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world. The engineers grappled with the need give trains the opportunity to literally let off steam. In one case, as the tunnel passed under Leinster Gardens in Westminster, they demolished two upscale townhouses and built façades facing Leinster Gardens in their place, maintaining the street's upscale character. The house on the left in this picture is real, while the house on the right is a false front.

23 and 24 Leinster Gardens

Here's a view of the rear of the house -- you can see the hidden train in the open trench. The homes have become well enough known in London that they've been the subject of some pranks -- pizza deliverymen are sometimes sent there, for instance -- and featured in an episode of the BBC's revived Sherlock series.

58 Joralemon Street, New York

A similar structure exists in Brooklyn, though unlike its London counterpart it's still a complete building, one that was originally a home but since the 1910s has been owned by the various companies and state agencies that have run the New York City Subway. Dubbed "the world's only Greek Revival subway ventilator," the house actually contains electrical equipment and access stairs to the tunnels. Some neighbors of the house worry that it's haunted; however, the nature of the house seems to be an open secret, though the MTA won't confirm what goes on there.

A dying art?

Even new transportation infrastructure may follow in the footsteps of these century-old examples: the Purple Line, a light-rail line in the planning stages in parts of Maryland adjacent to Washington, D.C., will have its power substations concealed not by stately townhomes, but by faux-suburban houses more appropriate to the local environment. (The Maryland transit agency distributed this picture, depicting a substation in the suburbs of Toronto, as an example.)

And yet not every big transit project is willing to hide its support structures. Despite the example on Joralemon Street, New York's MTA is building larger and more obtrusive ventilation shafts for its under-construction Second Avenue Subway, much to neighbors' displeasure.

Mott Haven ConEd Substation, New York

It seems strange that inhabitants of the Bronx would have more pull to get local industrial infrastructure camouflaged than inhabitants of the Upper East Side, but that's apparently the case. The recently constructed Mott Haven ConEd Substation, a block-sized facility, is surrounded by fake townhouses. Nick Carr, who works as a movie scout and writes the Scouting New York blog, says it looked like a "Hollywood backlot version of New York" -- and he, of course, is in a great position to recognize it as such.

Do it yourself

Not everyone can afford to build a fake city block just to cover up some unsightly electrical equipment. But then again, not all unsightly electrical equipment takes up an entire city block. If you just want to conceal that waist-high electrical box in the corner of your suburban yard, why not cover it with a fake rock that can be easily removed if the utility company needs to access it? There are of course any number of vendors that will sell you a fake rock, but for on-the-nose branding you can't beat D.C. Works Inc.'s URL, Fakerock.com.

Cell phone trees

If trains and electrical networks are the defining industrial infrastructure of the 20th century, then cell phone towers are the symbol of the 21st. We all complain when we can't get any bars on our phones, but many balk at the idea of a huge metal tower in the midst of a natural setting outside of a city. So cell phone towers get camouflaged -- but the results aren't always perfect. This fake tree, for instance, might have passed a casual inspection, if not for the fact that it's so, so very much taller than the rest of the forest.

Up close and personal

This picture, taken inside the Great Falls National Park in Virginia, shows how design can help maintain a rustic feel, more or less. Still, the trunk of that fake tree is gargantuan; you begin to suspect that you're on the forest moon of Endor.

Cell phone 'trees'

Sometimes the design for these fake trees becomes extremely stylized. For instance, nobody is going to mistake this tower for an actual palm tree, not even for a moment. Yet by putting forth the effort to make it look a little bit like the surrounding foliage, the designer makes it less obtrusive and more in tune with the environment, even if it isn't actually convincing per se.

When nature must stay natural

Sometimes, though, standards are higher. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is under particular pressure to keep the land under its control looking pristine, even though that land houses various industrial and semi-industrial structures. As part of a bid to start building renewable energy facilities on BLM land, the agency is experimenting with military-style camouflage, in the hopes that such buildings will remain unobtrusive.

Urban camouflage

Of course, it's not just natural landscapes that need to be protected. Dutch designer Roeland Otten has worked to develop ways to camouflage industrial infrastructure within cities that go beyond just building façades around them. He uses photographs of the surrounding cityscape to cover the structures, helping them blend in further; often he tweaks the images, pixelating them as in the one you can see here, to add som visual flair while still having it fade into its surroundings.

Credit: YouTube.com
Custom algorithmic camouflage

And is there anything a human can do that other humans aren't trying to teach computers how to do? Current research at MIT is going beyond Otten's techniques, experimenting with algorithmically designed camouflage generated by combining photographs taken from multiple angles. The end results can be quite eerie to the human eye, with images that appear to split and flow over surfaces unnaturally, but they are designed to trick you from most angles, for a few seconds.

And in the end, that's all you need. Because when it comes right down to it, most of us don't look very closely at things. But perhaps you'll see the world through new eyes now.