Current Issue: Vol.33, Num. 1 August 2018
COMMON LANDSCAPE and the ENVIRONMENT
Common Landscape was the title of John R. Stilgoe’s book about the man-made environment of America from 1580 to 1845 (1) . In his extensive study, “common” is understood as design agreed upon by all. Here, we adopt the term to express the reshaping of the American metropolitan landscapes for the past fifty years. Common landscape in today’s metropolitan areas is the amorphous result of dis-regarding the design possibility of relating places to live to places to work. This disjunction began in the mid-1950s with the construction of superhighways traversing open country as well as urban ar-eas—effectively converting many city blocks into parking lots—and it has ended with the use of per-sonal electronic devises to communicate and avoid traffic altogether, whenever possible.
Traditional cities were places to live and work, centers of commerce and cultural activities. Those are no longer fixed factors. The place where one lives can be totally unrelated to the place where one works. If the presence of personnel is needed to perform specific tasks at particular locations they are expected, in most instances, to provide their own means of transportation, and if the work can be transferred through electronic devises, then the location of the person doing the job is irrelevant.
The result of an inactive live-work relationship is an indeterminate setting where groups of buildings within the landscape are crisscrossed by roads. This has produced a totally impersonal environment where the only possible reminder to differentiate places is the nature of the place itself. Understand-ing the natural environment is the key to building effective places to be in for whatever the intended purpose. Perhaps we are producing environmentally sound places without totally realizing that we are doing so, or perhaps not. We see design projects focused on saving energy, or producing ener-gy, or disregarding energy consumption. They all are part of the human growth and activity equation. Mr. Stilgoe defined the word landscape (2) as follows: Landscape is a slippery word. It means more than scenery painting, a pleasant rural vista, or ornamental planting around a country house. It means shaped land, land modified for permanent human occupation, for dwellings, agriculture, manufactur-ing, government, worship, and for pleasure. A landscape happens not by chance but by contrivance, by premeditation, by design.
The great tradition of site planning and landscape architecture practiced in the United States for the past 100 years should have been accepted by now, but it is not. Recent political events show us that in order to accelerate production and money-making situations our society can disregard logic and produce situations that will cost more to correct in the long run.
Beatriz de Winthuysen Coffin, FASLA
In this issue of In Situ, Information Bulletin 33:1 we review a new exhibit explaining the design of three new towns built for the specific necessities of the WWII atomic research and production
(1) Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 by John R. Stilgoe, Yale University. Press, 1982
(2). idem, page 3
CITIES OF THE ATOMIC AGE
The exhibit opened March 3, 2018 and runs through May 3, 2019. It depicts the three chosen sites for the project: Los Alamos, New Mexico, perhaps the best known because of the testing of the atomic bomb there; Hanford/Richland, Washington, by the Columbia River, where there has been much done to decontaminate the site in the past decades (3), and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. These fa-cilities were started in 1942 and were built in less than three years, and were immediately occupied upon completion.
Fear of contamination and the politics of atomic explosions, are still with us, hardly a topic to enjoy, but enough time has passed since the first use of the devastating weapon to be able to ap-preciate as historic the three sites where the first production took place. They were declared historic legacy in 2014 and are now under the care of the National Park Service. With this perspective in mind, we can consider with an open mind the site planning concepts and ideas used for their devel-opment.
The exhibit begins explaining the terminology used, from the Greek concept of atom to nucle-ar fission for the release of energy. It covers the ideas of the scientists, politicians, and military who gave shape to the project.
We are here only concerned with some of the site planning aspects of the projects. It is known that the Los Alamos site was picked by physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who knew its arid site was well suited to the proposed use. The process of choosing the other two sites, both by the war gener-als, is not well explained, except that isolation and at the same time good access were required, The locations also needed to be in a mild climatic zone where work could take place year round, have an abundance of water, and have accessibility to electric power to process materials.
As site planners, it is interesting to note that the residential areas of the secret towns were de-veloped using garden city concepts, previously used by the Roosevelt Administration planners in 1937 to develop Greenbelt, MD, and the other garden cities of that period (4). It is also interesting that the repetitive use of prefabricated modular components was perfected at these sites to accelerate building construction.
Secret cities accommodated a young generation of men and women (most not older than 27) and families with young children. For this reason the residential sectors of the sites were shaped as communities with walking access to schools, parks, shops, activity areas, and amenities.
The architects and engineers who designed these secret towns were also young at the time and they used the expertise acquired on these projects to start their own firms, such as the famous firm of Skidmore, Owens and Merrill (SOM). Some of the Bauhaus concepts, and the glass towers built in the 1950s and ‘60s had their principles of design tested on the modular structural compo-nents for the war site production. The extensive and monotonous developments like Levittown with their repetitive homes designs and layouts were also part of the mentality of that era.
(For the purpose of our In Situ, Information Bulletin, we only refer here to one of the secret cities, Oak Ridge in Tennessee.)
(3) Hanford produced two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium during World War II and The Cold War. Five plants, located in the center of the site, processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors, discharging an estimated 450 billion gallons of liquid to soil disposal sites and 56 million gallons of radioactive waste to 177 large underground tanks.
(4) The city of Greenbelt and the “Greentown” concept, by Laurence E. Coffin and Beatriz de Winthuysen Coffin; In Situ In-formation Bulletin, 10:4, July 1989
OAK RIDGE, TENNESSEE
Oak Ridge is the most interesting of the three secret cities. According to the description of the place , General Leslie Groves ordered the acquisition of over 56,000 acres in East Tennessee as the princi-pal production site for enriched uranium.
The area is situated along the Clinch River, which was already managed by the Federal Govern-ment in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Newly constructed dams controlled flooding and produced electricity. In Oak Ridge five parallel ridges create natural barriers to separate the nuclear production facilities. It is located 25 miles from the city of Knoxville, and it enjoys the mild climate required for the intensive activities.
The area has a history that appeals to visitors and residents alike. There were five small communities there, dating to the 1700s, and a story is told of a vision that the area would become a large city: Legend has it that in 1900 John Hendrix, known as the “Prophet of Oak Ridge,” predicted that a city would be built on Black Oak Ridge. Further, he envisioned that a huge factory would be built in Bear Creek Valley to help win the greatest war the world has ever known.
Three thousand residents were ordered to vacate their homes to make way for the projects. Eviction is always a problem, but in this case many of the residents welcomed the new job opportunities cre-ated by the project.
Town planners were to provide housing for an estimated 30,000 people, but by 1945 the population had reached 75,000. They used prefabricated “alphabet“ houses, with models A, B, and C repeated throughout developments. Houses were assigned to the newcomers according to family size. Fortu-nately, grading was kept to a minimum to expedite construction. There were also dormitories and apartments, and prefab “flat tops.” Problems accommodating 75,000 people in less than three years were inevitable, but planners made a great effort to create the site as a pleasant place to live. A cap-tive audience, so to speak, which was there due to the war-time demands, they enjoyed perhaps a better live-work relationship than what we can offer today.
Oak Ridge remained under direct federal control for fourteen years after the war and although the population has decreased, it is still a viable and pleasant place to live and visit.
(5) A Guide to the Manhattan Project in Tennessee, by Cynthia C. Kelly with an introduction by Richard Rhodes In September 19, 1942. Published by the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
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