Thursday, April 21, 2011

Domus Subterraneous

As Above, So Below in Cold War America

“With the archaeology of the contemporary past, the past, the present, and the future are woven together in a way that gives the subject complexity, introduces new and unforeseen challenges and difficulties, and equally gives it a heightened sense of social relevance and meaning.”
After Modernity, pg. 184

"Look at the smokestacks, how they proliferate, fanning the wastes of original waste over greater and greater masses of city. Structurally, they are strongest in compression. A smokestack can survive any explosion— even the shock wave from one of the new cosmic bombs [...] as you all must know. The persistence, then, of structures favoring death. Death converted into more death. Perfecting its reign, just as the buried coal grows denser, and overlaid with more strata—epoch on top of epoch, city on top of ruined city."
Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, pg. 167

It is often the nature of symbols to congeal several cultural concepts into one object. In a similar way, the object of Cold War-era fallout shelter can be viewed as the embodiment of several concepts at once. (This list is by no means comprehensive, and in no particular order.) [1] evidence of a haltingly instituted civilian defense policy [2] a highly local reaction to decidedly non-local geopolitical forces [3] a largely futile gesture of families attempting to grapple with the possibility of nuclear war [4] examples of profound cultural anxiety being channeled into the consumption of industrial commodities [5] vehicles that reify the patterns and relationships of 'traditional' American family institutions [6] evidence of a shift in perspective towards systems theory on the part of American planners and policy makers [7] essential refuges for civilian population geared to ensure maximum retaliatory power in case of nuclear war.


If you've roamed the streets of New York City long enough, chances are good that you've noticed a strange urban emblem: faded signs that read "FALLOUT SHELTER" below a symbol of three downward-pointing triangles enclosed in a circle. This symbol--designed to evoke a radiation symbol yet still be distinctly recognizable--represents the Office of Civil Defense, the government department charged with devising institutions to protect civilians in case of a nuclear war.

These signs are the remnants of what was arguably the most widely implemented of a string of half-hearted programs initiated during the Cold War to prepare civilian populations in cities across the country to survive a nuclear attack. They mark buildings identified in the early 1960’s (usually by travelling squads of government engineers and experts) as having basements or foundational structures robust enough to withstand an atomic blast. Yet today those spaces, once provisioned as emergency shelters, have long since been repurposed. Building owners oftentimes are unable even to point out which spaces were designated as shelters. Still the signs linger as a material vestige, fading into the dense urban backdrop, obscured, but never erased, occasionally reminding us of a peculiar historical moment.

Mumford writes that the spatial logic of warfare is ingrained in the genetic code of the city. Yet during the 20th century the logic of warfare itself underwent dramatic changes. WWII solidified the notion that, in total war, population centers were legitimate targets of aerial bombardment. This change in the logic of warfare, already demonstrated in the bombings of working-class neighborhoods of German cities, was solidified when the first atomic weapons ever used were dropped on Japanese cities. Despite the “victory culture” that America experienced during the post-war years, immediately after Hiroshima, Americans were gripped by nightmares of a similar fate befalling an American city.

For decades, civic planners decried the filth and chaos characteristic of America's dense city centers. This also posed a problem for military planners concerned about the vulnerability to attack such concentration of resources entailed. The centuries-old defensive logic that produced the citadel, which advantaged the heavily fortified concentration of resources, was turned
on its head by the advent of atomic weaponry. The historical structure of the city was now considered an intolerable liability.

A new logic of urban planning, based on the emerging fields of systems theory and cybernetics, recommended the strategic dispersal of physical as well as communications resources into carefully networked structures that would be as resilient as possible to attack. The clearest deployment of this logic can be seen in an urban development plan for City “X” designed by Norbert Wiener, a preeminent thinker in the field of cybernetics, featured in an issue of LIFE Magazine. “By-passes for Railroads would keep traffic rolling, enable nation to hit back”, reads the caption on one image. The optimization of networks of communications and logistical nodes could make the national landscape one vast fortified network, able to retaliate to all but the most devastating foreign attack.

Not coincidentally, the postwar years also saw a middle class exodus from city centers and the development of an American suburban culture centered on the single family dwelling. Spurred to action by the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Kennedy Administration issued recommendations that American families build fallout shelters so that those who were spared a direct hit might survive the radioactive fallout attendant to an attack. However, a concerted and well-funded national sheltering program for civilians never emerged, and so sheltering, such as it was, remained a largely entrepreneurial enterprise.

The shelter industry was largely driven by a market for do-it-yourself home fallout shelter projects. Companies with names like Peace o’ Mind Shelter Company (Texas), the American Survival Products Corporation (Maryland), Fox Hole Shelter, Inc. (California) and the Bee Safe Manufacturing Company (Ohio) popped up, touting the benefits that their models could provide in case of the unthinkable. These features were invariably couched in the familiar terms of traditional domesticity and family structure. What is amazing about the way sheltering was marketed is the image of suburban normality which sheltering pretended to preserve. Many of these kits, however, were shoddy products sold by fly-by-night outfits, and which generally failed to afford any realistic protection. But the sales of fallout shelters, though larger in the American imagination than in real life, remained fairly consistent through the 1980’s and have recently picked up again after a slow period in the 90's.

The fallout shelter poses an interesting hypothetical archaeological problem. Although successive governments have attempted to quantify private fallout shelters in American neighborhoods, accurate numbers have always remain elusive. One of the things that captivated the American imagination most, the fact that shelters were, almost by nature, clandestine. Congruent with the generally paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War, many Americans became terrified that their neighbors were building emergency bunkers in their back yards under cover of night deliberately to exclude them in case of attack. Although the merits of shelters were hotly debated in the press, most of the evidence suggests that relatively few American families actually had one.
It appears that the fallout shelter in fact existed more as a figment of the American conscience than as a physical structure with which Americans had contact. But exactly where this imaginary landscape meets the physical is a question for future archaeologists to address.

The Situationist circle, made most famous by Guy Debord, author of Society of the Spectacle, criticized the marketing of private shelters as little more than a ploy on behalf of industry to goose a slack market for durable goods. The not-so-subtle evocation of paternal duty to protect the family, then, was simply a kind of blackmail devised for profit. “But here, as in every racket,” they jeer “’protection’ is only a pretext.” Shelters constituted a morbid form of consumerism, mirroring the home in every way, standing ready to provide for the continuation of traditional American family life.

This activity of planning for and rehearsing an unprecedented war of almost certain total devastation consumed huge quantities of cultural energy. This energy was reified, at least in part, in the form of conspicuous (or perhaps inconspicuous) consumption, and also as an artifact which represents a significant transition in American society towards one built on the nuclear family. Oftentimes instructions for building a shelter depicted a father and son working in cooperation, suggesting that building a fallout shelter could foster father-son bonding. Interior depictions almost invariably show the mother figure tending to traditional housework, surrounded by a blissful family, all insulated from the imagined horror above.

But the nightmare for which Civil Defense sought to prepare the nation never materialized. Thus, there was never any realistic test of existing measures, nor any concrete impetus for the development of civil defense infrastructure. Instead, the worst-case scenarios of the cold war were relegated mainly to the imaginary landscapes of military and civic planners. And yet it is likely that many shelters remain out there, just beneath the surface, forgotten.

[Citations forthcoming.]

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