Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Hidden Landscape of the Cold War

Survival city’s picture. From

Fort Mc' Arthur in San Pedro, California. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

After the World War II, the foreign policies of the US and the Soviet Union interacted with the chaotic and fluid state of international relations to produce the Cold War. WWII accelerated fundamental changes in the global distribution of power, in weapons technology, in the balance of political forces among and within nations, in the international economy and in relations between the industrial nations and the Third World. (From The Cold War: an international history)
The cold war was an imaginary war that gave birth to shelters in underground bunkers. Some constructions are metaphors of the Cold war: the Berlin Wall –a barrier to keep people in-; the Iron Curtain that symbolized the ideological and physical boundary dividing Europe in two separate areas, from the end of World War II in 1945 to the end of the cold war in 1991 (dates from; the DEW line Distant Early Warning line which was a series of radar stations built above the Arctic Circle with an electronic trip wire signaled by Soviet planes during the early years of the Cold War. The Pentagon is another related monument, but it’s clearly visible. But the Cold war landscape was also defined by what could not be seen, in the subterranean command facilities and emergency relocation centers connected with unseen communication networks. The phrase “Cold War architecture” has nothing to do with buildings but to security arrangements.

Fort Mc' Arthur in San Pedro, California. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

Fort Mc' Arthur in San Pedro, California. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

The scale of the structures built is impressive, and usually the human scale was disregarded to follow the proportions of speed and space requirements for war technology. An example of a project of big scale is the “atom bomb city” of Oak Ridge in Tennessee, 1949, that brought Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) to be considered one of USA largest architectural firms. In a smaller scale, there are thousands of forgotten basements in home shelters, and approximately 1600 of three people bunkers abandoned on hilltops and remote locations. Another kind of “simulated construction” is the nuclear weapon storage area, for the first generation of weapons. A few of them still remain obsolete or maybe for other munitions; they are even shown on more recent maps. The next generation of storage bunkers –called igloos- were made under American standards. I can see these models for naval weapons driving in Bolsa Chica and Edinger av, pretty close to the sea in Huntington Beach. As they are covered with grass, making them part of the green landscape, I suppose they are not visible from the air.

Atom bomb city, by SOM. From

3 man bunker. They had only a chemical toilet and basic instruments to measure size and location of nuclear explosions. there would have been radio or telephone contact with a larger unit to pass this information on. From

If the “ building” was destined to launch a missile, two different spaces are qualified as “hard space” that covers those functions essential to launching and the “soft space”, whatever is outside the doors reached by catwalks and staircases. Another classification is “black space”, which cannot be seen and the “white space”, the visible one. The presence of one presupposes the other and one is affected by the other. The city and landscapes were not protective enclaves any more, they were considered targets. As aerial views tools advanced, an emerging field of urban planning supported by aerial imagery emerged; cities and landscapes were scientific units of observation with aggregation of data that could be edited and represented in formulas.
Now, the atomic bunkers are used as storage facilities and local casinos, and the abandoned places are becoming part of archaeological  history. There are some salvages of structures developed into new sculptural forms as “recontextualized” objects. In the words of Tom Vanderbilt the desert ”had become modern, functional”, and in this situation there is a kind of satisfaction. In Germany, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the country, the remains of constructions that once divided West from East have become relics.
For those who are interested in the Cold War there is a Museum with an impressive gallery that can be visited on line
In December 11, 2009, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., the Founder of The Cold War Museum (, announced that the museum had found a physical home. The Cold War Museum leased a modest size two story building and secure storage facility at Vint Hill, located in Fauquier County, Virginia,  less than 30 miles from Washington Dulles International Airport.

Painter, David S. The Cold War: an international history. Routledge, London. 1999
Vanderbilt, Tom. Survival City. Adventures among the ruins of atomic America. Princeton Architectural Press. New York. 2002

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