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Poster from the exhibition: “The only defense against the atomic bomb, once dropped is not to be in that place.” Dr. Irving Langmuir.

When I was about ten, there was a column in the entertainment section of our local newspaper entitled “Things I Learned Enroute to Looking Up Other Things.” It contained all kinds of fascinating information. For example, one column in 1976 pointed out, among other things, that over 3000 cities and towns in the US have no public transportation except taxis, that the eyes are not a separate organ but an outgrowth of the brain, and that virtually no other language than English could allow three words as differently spelled as “does”, “was”, and “fuzz” to be pronounced alike.[i]

Historical research always turns up things like this – potential diversions from the task at hand but fascinating enough not to leave alone. One such discovery I made while looking into mass-production housing after World War II was from the proceedings of a conference and exhibition held at MIT in January 1951 entitled “Housing: a National Security Resource.”[ii] The first panel at the conference discussed the following question:

“Should not the ability to deploy the population of our large cities with rapidity be the tactical criterion of our civilian defense planning rather than a major focus on disaster relief?”

This raised difficult and counterintuitive concerns about city planning during a time of constant threat from nuclear weapons. The concentrated populations of cities, their dense communication networks, their highly consolidated resources – all certainly virtues of modern cities – made them extremely vulnerable as military targets. As a vivid example, one panelist pointed out that the city of Cologne in Germany had decreased from a population of 763,000 to 40,000 during the war. Nuclear destruction had proved to be similarly ruinous in Japan, and the current threat to the US was very real. Beyond the immediate devastation, another panelist emphasized, “social disasters might be greater than the primary damage.” People fleeing bombed cities would almost certainly overwhelm transportation networks but would have nowhere to live once they arrived outside the fallout areas.

One serious proposal that emerged in the discussion was to de-concentrate urban populations into settlements of fewer than 70,000 people (military planners calculated that the huge costs of producing nuclear weapons would not generally justify their use on towns smaller than this). The typical pattern of these reconfigured cities would include a central business core of 10-20 miles in diameter, a 10-20 mile “exit ring,” and a 5-10 mile “life belt” or “dispersal ring.” Such a plan, if applied to all cities over 100,000 inhabitants, would cost taxpayers about 300 billion dollars – approximately the total cost of US involvement in World War II. Recognizing that the price of such an undertaking was not feasible while the government was also building its cold war military defenses, even a partial solution might be desirable. By moving part of the urban population into these dispersal zones, and making occupancy “subject to willingness to billet other city dwellers during emergency periods,” it seemed realistic to relocate about 30% of the population out of target areas, “a significant percentage,” one panelist asserted (he didn’t mention what was to become of the other 70%).

Debate ensued about whether conventionally-built or manufactured/mobile houses would be more suitable for this urban re-deployment. The conferees didn’t reach any firm conclusions on this, but some of the issues they considered were: economizing material and labor, minimizing transportation costs, overcoming building code restrictions, assuring building quality and longevity. While there was some difference of opinion on the specific implementation of the dispersal plan, everyone agreed that proper national defense depended on finding good solutions to these issues.

What fascinates me about this stark Cold War conversation I stumbled upon while looking up other things is how strongly geopolitical challenges shaped design decisions in the 1950s – and how oddly similar our situation is today. Although, thankfully, the threat of nuclear annihilation no longer shapes our thinking, we face other global challenges, such as terrorism and atmospheric warming, that we must not forget when designing our cities, infrastructure, and houses. And these still demand the same considerations of public security, resource conservation, code compliance, and building quality that designers worried about sixty years ago.

Written by Alex T. Anderson, Associate Professor, Associate Chair

[i] Sydney Harris, “Sunday drivers are worst,” Tri-City Herald, November 28, 1976. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1951&dat=19761128&id=52ktAAAAIBAJ&sjid=0YkFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6153,7181739 (accessed 2/2/13)

[ii] Housing: A National Security Resource, (Cambridge, Mass: Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation and the School of Architecture and Planning Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1951) n.p. All subsequent references are from this booklet.



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