In a lonely place: Tom Vanderbilt

An e-mail interview with the author of 'Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America'.

At the beginning of June, I mused on whether or not the Digit blog was the right place to bring up matters of architecture. At the time I decided that it is worth taking a holistic 'unity-of-the-arts' approach to design and write about architecture where I felt it was worth bringing to the attention of Digit's readers. Of late, I have written a few pieces on issues tangential to building design, notably on abandoned mental hospitals, but the issue there was as much photography and cultural and psychological attitudes to psychiatry as architecture per se.

In that spirit, I would like to introduce readers to a book: Survival City by Tom Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt is a noted journalist and design critic, having contributed to the likes of the London Review of Books, Slate and I.D. and is also a contributing writer at the Design Observer.

His book was published a number of years ago but is still well-worth getting hold of a copy of. Exploring, as it does, Cold War paranoia through design, Survival City takes us on a tour of unused missile silos, ersatz-houses made only to be destroyed for testing purposes and crazy urban design schemes including underground shadow towns which follow the layout of the spaces above.

If you want an aural accompaniment to the book, consider Icebreaker's Distant Early Warning which, while the climactic opposite of Vanderbilt's dust-and-rust belt adventure, is replete with the same bizarre aesthetic of Cold War insanity.

This is the first part of an e-mail interview with Vanderbilt about Survival City:

Jason Walsh: How did you get interested in the architecture of the 'atomic age'?

Tom Vanderbilt: While working on a piece about the Bonneville salt flats, home of the famous land-speed trials of the 1970s, I stayed with a friend who was doing an arts residency in a dusty 1940s-vintage Quonset hut on the grounds of the old Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, a place that hosted initial assembly work on the atomic bomb. When the temperature had cooled down in the early evening, my friend and I would make explorations into the desert periphery. It was there I first saw the old bunkers used in the bomb assembly. They sloped from the ground like natural formations, their roofs covered in earth. I was told that they were now being used as storage facilities for the casinos just over the border in Wendover, Nevada. I was drawn initially by the sheer haunting oddity of the structures, which seemed like alien encampments on some lunar landscape; and then, at a more intellectual level, I was intrigued that these structures, once a vital part of the nation’s military complex, were now lying rather forgotten in obscurity. I began to wonder: What other Cold War relics were out there, what was left? 

JW: Some of the structures in the book seemed to take on a modernist
aesthetic. Was this intentional? Were they designed to speak of the future or was the design entirely approached as a process of engineering?

TV:When talking about things like missile silos and hardened relocation bunkers, the only operable aesthetic was that derived from the engineering. Building forms and materials were chosen based after extensive testing at places like the Nellis range in Nevada. Not surprisingly, concrete and metal were the building materials of choice. This I suppose puts the majority of atomic-age architecture firmly within the modernist camp, though not through any conscious choice of its designers. One might argue that this was the most pure modernism, as the concrete exteriors were not used in homage to some kind of ‘brutalist’ aesthetic but merely to provide a certain acceptable ratio of blast protection or blockage of radiation. The modernist architects like Le Corbusier envisioned themselves as doing away with any romanticist or ornamental impulses in their work, but given the rather poor record of many of these ‘machines for living’ as actual living environments, we might say that this was an aesthetic ideology rather than one founded on pure functionalism; i.e., the buildings looked more modern than they actually were. It’s hard to get more ‘form follows function’ than when you’re sitting in the chair of a launch command center capsule, buried underneath the South Dakota prairie. Its built on shocks to help ride out a nuclear blast, and it rather resembles a submarine - every square inch is accounted for, there’s nothing superfluous.

JW: Design as a whole - architectural, industrial, graphic and fashion - has changed vastly since the 1950s. Is there anything you miss about the designs of this period, having studied it so closely?

TV: I wouldn’t say there’s anything I would miss. I suppose on the one hand many of these missile silos, radar ranges, and test environments represented the cutting-edge of technology, and were taken as monuments to the future, but as I walked, climbed, and crawled through these spaces, thick with the scene of deep mildew and creeping decay, I couldn’t shake the feelings of claustrophobic death.

JW: Things like the underground school and underground shadow town would be considered unthinkable today. Does this reflect a change in
out world-view other than the lifting of the nuclear threat?

TV: I’m not sure these are actually considered unthinkable. I was just told that all new building in Singapore, for example, must contain a survivable underground evacuation space; and the Swiss still lead the world in underground shelter building. Obviously, we’re not talking though about spending entire months underground here, and the idea of massive nuclear attack has largely been replaced by more localized fears of suicide bombers or biological-weapons attacks. The irony here is that in the current kind of threat condition, many of those old Cold War defense structures would now actually be more useful. It was always in doubt that a bomb shelter could keep one safe from nuclear and blast and the subsequent fallout - and then what kind of world would you emerge into anyway - but a properly designed shelter might actually keep one safe from what they call an … attack.

But yes I do think the idea of “winnable nuclear war” and other Cold War shibboleths are no longer taken as an article of faith by Americans. And we no longer do ‘duck and cover’ drills and live under this vague atmosphere of constant ‘preparedness’ in a war that was not a war. I don’t think the sense of menace has entirely dissipated, though, it’s just shifted its form, into a world of entirely random threats and outbreaks of violence, everything from anthrax attacks to school shootings to subway bomb threats. But where is the danger coming from - from within or without? How do you build against that? And rather than try to build things to survival nuclear attack or to build things underground, the focus now seems to be on preserving a kind of normalcy, particularly with big public buildings, while carefully employing all kinds of subtle defense measures into the design. It’s the bunker with the human face.

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