Wednesday, August 6, 2008

At Large in the Library: Survival City

Vanderbilt, Tom. Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Tulane University Library: Howard Tilton Memorial, F595.3 .V36 2002

It begins. . .

"I want to get to where the Cold War is still ending in America, so I set out after sunrise one early July morning from Grand Forks, North Dakota, bearing west on U.S. 2. After some 45 miles, I turn left on N.D. 1, then drive another 45 miles down a road of typical Dakotan sparseness, so empty that passing drivers wave with old-fashioned courtesy at the sheer novelty of human company. . . "

Tom Vanderbilt's fascinating study takes the reader through the open terrain of the American West, in search of vestiges of its Cold War era architecture. He roams through the Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Texas as he uncovers the secret (and not-so-secret) projects of the U.S. military. He addresses the seeming paradox of co-existing International Style glass-sheathing and blast-resistant concrete bunkers.

One might imagine that the architects who conceived these remote experiments would be exclusively nameless government engineers and security officials, but Vanderbilt's book is populated with the likes of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), who designed Oak Ridge, Tennessee (aka "the atomic city"); Erich Mendelsohn, who worked on the government's Dugway Project; and Paolo Soleri, who designed the experimental community Arcosanti. Just consider the advice of the mainstream architecture community as conveyed in Architectural Record from April 1958: "'Atomic radiation is a new building design element to be taken into account with wind, weather, and sanitation.'"

I just wish the book contained an index! And my thanks to Penn State's architectural historian, Dr. Craig Zabel, for making the book recommendation. Cheers!

[Photograph: Benjamin Halpern. Safeguard Complex, near Nekoma (Cavalier County), North Dakota, c. 1970. HABS/HAER, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Arcosanti is not, by any definition, isolationist.