DESERT OF DREAMS

by Tom Vanderbilt

(originally published Jan/Feb 2001 in ArtByte: The Magazine of Digital Culture)

 

 

Tom Vanderbilt excavates the ruins of the future at Arcosanti, Biosphere 2, a missile silo, and White

Sands, New Mexico, birthplace of the apocalypse.

 

The American desert, land of lost civilizations, wayward prophets, and air-conditioned fantasy,

has long been the country's last New Frontier, where dreams might be played out with a

minimum of interference—if only, as in the scene in Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays, we can keep

sweeping the drifting sand back to the perimeter of the yard. It is a vast tabula rasa, where one's

mark can be seen for miles—whether it be the earthworks of endowed artists, the ancient trails of

primeval visitors, or the pockmarked craters of an aerial bombing range.

 

In this regard, the desert was the perfect home for the Cold War, not simply for its sheer size and

emptiness, but because the desert, in America, has come to signify the future. The Cold War was

at heart a conflict projected toward the future: the race to see who would first reach space, whose Air

Force would first reach 10,000 bombers, who would explode the first 25 megaton warhead.

 

Despite its overwhelming aura of fatalism and apocalypse, it also concealed a perverse

undercurrent of optimism, a belief that the science and technology that was being funded by the

so-called "imaginary war" would someday mean a better life for all—if it did not kill us first.

It is no surprise that the place where people most often go to reinvent themselves in a country of

reinvention is the desert city of Las Vegas. It is, after all, a city that has witnessed many

futures—the Mormons, the Mafia, the Manhattan Project—and would not exist at the scale it does

without the massive technological life-support systems upon which it rests its confidence in

unimpeded future growth. The city exists as a collective delusion that it is not a desert, and such

an illusory environment is fertile ground for those seeking to nurture their own illusions.

 

The desert has attracted all manner of dreamers, from millenarian cultists to visionary artists to the

advanced weapons scientists of the United States Air Force. They have all made their mark, tested

something or another on America's proving ground. Like bleached bones or bullet-ridden "No

Trespassing" signs, these dreams lie in the desert sand, faded and chipped but intact, legible.

Several months ago, I traveled to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico in search of these relics of

the future.

 

There have been few dreams as outsized as those of Paolo Soleri, the enigmatic Italian-born

architect and onetime disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Lured to the desert in the 1940s to toil at

Wright's Taliesin West, Soleri soon estranged himself from the master and began developing

plans for model cities based on a theory called "Arcology" (a somewhat fluid and elusive notion,

like the concepts of fellow traveler Marshall McLuhan). Soleri's plans for towering cities that

would house millions of people, sketched out madly on endlessly spiraling sheets of butcher's

paper, became a cause cèlèbre in the art and planning worlds. There was little Soleri was not

willing to imagine, as captured in this New York Times description of his 1969 Corcoran show:

 

"Lucite models of polyhedral cybernetic cities scaled higher than two Empire State Buildings;

intricate representations of structures resembling jet engines, only 2,000 times their size, and

accommodating as many people as San Francisco; plaster casts of graceful, sculptured bridge spans;

plans for floating cities, space cities, cities within bridges, megastructures so huge that their

inhabitants would be able to build houses within their frameworks."

 

 

In retrospect, the year 1970 hardly seems a propitious one for building a hyper-urbanized

megalopolis. America's cities were seething with crime and social unrest, suburban outmigration

was in full blossom, and LBJ's "Model Cities" program—which rebuilt blighted urban areas—had

been abolished by Nixon the year before, its resources channeled into the Vietnam War.

Undaunted, Soleri broke ground on Arcosanti on a basaltic mesa overlooking the Agua Fria river,

some 60 miles from Phoenix. The Times described it as "less an apartment building than a

2,500-inhabitant megastructure with a volume roughly equivalent to that of St. Peter's in Rome

...an alien body on the land, it will be an almost self-contained space colony, and its chief purpose

will be to test whether man can build environments that have only a minimal effect on

the ecology of his planet." Newsweek, commenting in 1976 that "a magnificent, inspiring

and domed city is rising out of the Arizona desert," concluded that "as urban architecture,

Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime."

 

Today, Arcosanti houses roughly 100 inhabitants, and only an estimated 4 percent of the original

plan has been built. In a cruel irony, the city will likely be lost in the malarial spread of urban

sprawl from nearby Phoenix before it is finished. Another epitaph for Soleri's dream appears as I

exit I-17 and head toward Arcosanti, past a cluster of gas stations. As the road turns to gravel,

I see a sign for "Arcosanti: An Experimental Community." To the right, however, I see another

form of experimental living: a group of "manufactured housing" units for sale. The trailer

is the desert's most ubiquitous living form, its prefab mobility attractive to those likely to pull up

stakes when fortune or water runs dry; the trailer succeeds where only a madman would install a

permanent house. Where Soleri's utopia envisions communal living in densely clustered, rationally

planned superstructures, the trailer, for all its lack of architectural merit, more faithfully evokes the

sense of margin-dwelling and mobility by which Americans have sought their fortune in the desert.

Arcosanti surges into view only after you drive down a rutted and twisting road (a car company

once offered to pave it in exchange for sponsorship; the offer was turned down), and

suddenly the view is filled with a kaleidoscope of soaring blocks of poured concrete, earth-colored

apses, circular windows, and metal sculptures—as well as looming cranes and other detritus of

construction. The scene startles for its sheer visual novelty, but then one's mind begins to play back

all the old images of dream architecture and future civilizations. Suddenly, Arcosanti, with its

vaults and creeping vegetation and amphitheater-like steps descending in a semicircle

around one apse, seems almost a ruin, like something derived from the iconography of

science fiction, specifically that variant of science fiction concerned with dystopic visions of the

future. A dream civilization arising out of the imagined ashes of a nuclear catastrophe, Arcosanti

could be the city in Planet of the Apes, or the refuge on the hill in The Omega Man, or the

self-contained dome-world of Logan's Run.

 

For decades, Soleri's workforce has been idealistic youth, an impression reinforced on this visit. From

one apse comes the honk of an avant-garde saxophone. "They're practicing for Burning Man," a

guide tells me. Burning Man, that Archigram-like "Instant City" on the desert at Black Rock, is

actually a useful referent for evaluating Soleri's utopia. Arcosanti has a very small full-time

population; the bulk of its residents carry out short-term internships. With its perpetually

recharging constituency of like-minded people, living and working under the eye of the

benevolent dictator, it works quite well. Like Burning Man, though, it is a temporary

fantasyland, a respite from the mainstream environment; one wonders what would happen if

Arcosanti were ever to incorporate a large and varied population or any of the other elements of a

real city.

 

With its ecologically minded architecture and anticonsumerist rhetoric (even if it survives by

selling its iconic bells and ceramics), Arcosanti hardly resembles a Cold War landscape, but

Soleri's grandiose visions, with their redemptive faith in technology, can't be considered in isolation

from the time in which they were spawned. As George Collins writes in his book Visionary

Drawings of Planning and Architecture, "Following World War II, the visionary revived, ostensibly

simulated by reconstruction programs and the desire to invent structures that would keep people

safe from atomic attack, leading in the latter instance to radical decentralization plans and even

underground living schemes."

 

From Kiyonori Kikutake's underwater Marine City to Hans Hollein's Airplane Carrier City—which

proposed mounting the U.S.S. Enterprise on a hillside and turning it into a series of

residences—the Cold War's twin axes of technological hope and doom prompted visionary

architects to respond with plans for cities that would use technology to survive on a

planet—"Spaceship Earth," as the suggestive phrase went—that was itself no longer habitable.

Ironically, many of the schemes were influenced by the Cold War's architecture itself (e.g.,

Archigram cited NASA's Cape Canaveral as an influence, while Buckminster Fuller's domes and

hyperboloid housing towers resembled radomes and nuclear reactors, respectively). Like Fuller,

Soleri was a technological optimist, with early plans calling for "Cosmodomes" that featured

self-contained environments and artificial suns; his theories bristled with unintended Cold War

phraseology like "complex systems" or "miniaturization," as in cities that would

miniaturize their inhabitants. Arcosanti was a survivalist project, a shelter from a society that

would kill itself in one great bomb flash or in the slow strangle of resource-consuming sprawl.

 

Where most visionary architects' projects existed only in theory ("The Radiant City is on paper," Le

Corbusier had written. "When a technical work is drawn up [in] figures and proofs, it exists."),

Soleri had found his drawing board in the desert. The metaphorical spaceship that Soleri proposed

took literal form in Biosphere 2, which lies some three hours away, north of Tucson. What began as

a fringe idea (i.e., Martian colonization) in the cultist confines of Synergia Ranch, a 1960s

commune in New Mexico, was famously transformed with an infusion of oil scion Ed Bass'

money into the extraterrestrial habitation simulation complex that was a media spectacle in

the 1980s before the project collapsed due to problems ranging from the well-being of the

bionauts to the integrity of the scientific research being conducted. Now billed as a "wellness center"

and still sporting its Bucky Fuller geodesic dome, the Santa Fe-based Synergia Ranch survives,

albeit under a different guise. That some of its more outlandish original ideas should have been

blown up to Biospherian proportions is a metaphor in itself for the kinds of research that found

funding during the Cold War.

 

Appropriately, the Biosphere resembles some kind of alien landing craft, a massively hulled vessel of

glass and concrete surrounded by an array of attendant domes and service buildings. The site is

now managed by Columbia University, which employs it to quietly conduct research on global

warming and other respectable topics. With a handful of other visitors, I register for an "Under

the Glass" tour, which means that we don hard hats and pass through the airlock to view the

former living and working quarters of the biospherians. While scientists still scuttle around

the various passageways, it is clear, standing in one of the now-deflated dome-covered "lungs"

that once served as the internal air source, that the originally envisioned Biosphere is dead,

reincarnated as a rather extravagant greenhouse. The interior is no longer self-sufficient, and the

decontamination procedures that occur at the airlock are intended to prevent bringing germs

outside—not the other way around. As we sit on a concrete ledge watching the water of the "Ocean

Biome" lap against the manufactured shore, the air warm and dank, we see hundreds of ants

working their way along the concrete floors and walls. The proverbial cockroaches after a nuclear

war, the ants are a symbol of the problems that plagued Biosphere: no one seems to know how

they arrived, but once they began to proliferate no one knew exactly how to get rid of them, or the

consequences to the ecosystem if they did.

 

The Biosphere was designed by architect Philip Hawes, who, like Soleri, had made a pilgrimage to

Taliesin West. Hawes cited Egyptian and Mayan influences and, like Soleri, was concerned with

creating environmentally sensitive architecture. But in its lavish funding, scientific trappings, and

belief that humans could replicate their environment through technology, the Biosphere

cannot be detached from Cold War thought. The airlocks and decontamination chambers, as well as

the self-contained air and energy systems, are of a piece with the headquarters of the North American

Aerospace Defense Command, that city within a mountain in Colorado Springs whose 10-ton blast

doors and blast intake valves will, upon a nuclear explosion, "button up," ensuring its residents'

safety for at least 30 days. The notion of extraterrestrial colonization that Biosphere posits

was given its first major impetus by the military, with early Air Force studies noting that a "lunar

base possesses strategic value . . . by providing a site where future military deterrent forces could be

located."

 

I find deterrent forces of a more earthbound variety an hour south of Tucson, at the former Air

Force launch complex 571-7, once operated by the Strategic Air Command. It is the only place in the

country where a tourist can view a fully preserved ICBM silo, once the home of a 33,000-pound Titan

II missile (the largest the U.S. ever built) with a range of 9000 miles and able to carry a

nine-megaton warhead. With its coterie of polite elderly women volunteers, the site might easily be

mistaken for a provincial historical society museum (Dr. Strangelove slept here!), were it not

entirely underground. It is the last tour of the day, and one lone man and I accompany our guide, a

lanky, long-haired "missile nut" (his phrase), down a hatch. A nearby sign warns of rattlesnakes.

 

With its echoing metal tunnels, banks of gray metal computers, closetfulls of white

rocket-fuel-handler suits, and submarine-like vault doors, the Titan site is a steely mausoleum of

America's nuclear past, as well as a fantastic vision of an alternate future in which not only

defense installations are located underground, but factories and housing as well. The thermonuclear

strategist Herman Kahn proposed a kind of evacuation nation, a permanent civil defense

footing in which it was "perfectly conceivable . . . that the U.S. might have to evacuate two or three

times every decade."

 

Yet, in spite of its ominous atmosphere and connotation, the Titan is arguably inseparable

from the technological optimism that characterizes utopian projects like Arcosanti. If Soleri's New Age

space city in the desert is inspired in part by the ideal city schemes of Le Corbusier, so too is the

 

Titan an expression of Le Corbusier's modernism, the factories and power stations he so respected.

The Titan's subterranean Launch Control Centers are domes, a form favored by Buckminster Fuller

that saw use both in Fuller's ultramodern "Dymaxion" housing and in blast shelters by the

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who learned at places like the Aberdeen Proving Grounds that the

dome was the form most structurally resistant to blast effects. There is nothing superfluous to the

Titan site: the "hard space" only covers those functions essential to launching the missile (the

site itself exists simply to launch the missile once); everything outside the 6000-pound blast

doors one reaches via a series of catwalks and staircases is "soft space." If forts were once

constructed to house armaments, there is no distinguishing, here, between the weapon and the

system constructed to house it: the architecture is the gun, the missile the bullet.

 

Sitting in one of the jet-fighter chairs once reserved for the flight-suited Launch Control

Officers, listening to the klaxon sound, watching the warning lights flash, and staring ahead, into

the imaginary airspace charted on the radar screens, the future as once imagined looks

terrifying to me, its grandiose geopolitical rhetoric lost in the cold array of the flickering console, the

rotary-dial phones, and the safe that once contained the Emergency War Orders. If Arcosanti

and Biosphere 2 represent different forms of folly, varying visions of a better world, the Titan may be

the maddest scheme of them all: a series of Underground Cities that actually got built, in

places where no one was likely to pay much attention.

 

To find the single largest collection of relics of futures past, I drove east, to the White Sands

Missile Range, an arid territory in New Mexico's Tularosa Basin so large it could swallow up

Delaware and Rhode Island. For more than half a century, the secret landscapes of White Sands

have witnessed the testing of prototype weaponry, ranging from the V-2 rocket to the atomic bomb to

the Boeing 747-mounted airborne laser.

 

I rattle across its back roads, sending the occasional startled Oryx—a Kalahari antelope

introduced decades ago by the state's wildlife agency—bounding out of the mesquite brush.

Squat, dun-colored bunkers and shiny radar towers shimmer briefly on the horizon, only to

vanish in a mirage-like haze, as if jammed by the radar of the sun. Markers announce cryptic fields

of activity: "Zurf Site," or "Phenomenology Test Bed."

 

White Sands bills itself as a "multi-service test range," which these days means the grounds are

open to anything from automakers testing car paints to a solar furnace that can focus a

5,000-degree beam on objects. Its tenants include everyone from the U.S. Army Research

Laboratory's Information and Electronic Protection Division to NASA to the Directorate for Applied

Technology, Test and Simulation, which boasts "the most complete assembly of nuclear weapons

environment simulators in the Department of Defense." Another tenant, the Army Research

Lab's Battlefield Environment Division, has the mission of "owning the weather," which includes

the Biospherian task of re-creating various global environments to test weapons systems. As public

affairs officer Jim Eccles and I drive past one of these "climatic chambers," he notes, "if we want it

to be like Alaska in the middle of winter we can put a shroud over the launcher and cool it down to

20 below zero, or we can heat the item to re-create Middle East conditions—about the only

thing we can't re-create is snow."

 

For every active facility, however, there seem to be three abandoned buildings. We pass a peaked

concrete blockhouse, a foreboding Inca temple with the logo "Army" stenciled on its side, which

sits opposite a rocket gantry several hundred yards in the distance. "Launch Complex 33" is its

formal name; in September 1945, the humble building had the distinction of ushering in

America's rocket age. Fogged window slits face the gantry. One story has Werner von Braun and a

group of rocket scientists scrambling out of the bunker following a V-2 launch. "So they go out the

door in the backside and look up at this big empty sky," Eccles says. "It only goes up four miles,

[then] they terminate the flight because it's erratic. So it starts back down and looks as if it's

headed right toward them. They're all trying to get back into the blockhouse, while other people are

still trying to get in or out." The rocket crashed a mile away.

 

White Sands was a place where the future itself was tested, where scientists and soldiers sent

machine and man up against the barriers of nature, confident that engineering would win the

day. Here, "bunker busters" were tested for their effectiveness at penetrating enemy fortifications;

here, Col. John Stapp—the "Fastest Man Alive"—rode the rocket sled "Sonic Wind" to 632

miles per hour and then was stopped in 1.6 seconds as he experienced 42gs of pressure.

(Stapp survived this pressure—more than 40 times his body weight—intact, with some bruising

and temporary eye damage, and in another case of Cold War technology transfer the research was

used to help develop car-seat restraints.) White Sands was the imaginary battleground of the

American Cold War psyche, with exotic weapons fighting unfought wars. Everywhere there are

ruins and relics of simulations and tests. On one playa rests what Eccles calls the "only landlocked

ship in the U.S. navy," a "desert ship" brought here to practice naval missile launching; in

another area is the "Large Blast Thermal Simulator," which as Eccles notes is the "world's

largest shock tube." By transforming liquid nitrogen into a gas, the tube is able to create

simulated "blast waves" of up to 1250 psi. "You can have it flow down the tunnel of the shock tube

and strike the item so you get a shock wave similar to the blast of a nuclear explosion," says

Eccles. Built in the 1990s, the shock tube is now vacant. "There's not much demand for that

anymore," he notes, with dry regret.

 

The final stop, appropriately, is the place where it all began: Ground Zero. A basalt obelisk marks

the precise spot, while a nearby wooden structure covers what is one of the last intact sheets of

trinitite, the glassy material that was formed on the desert floor in the heat of the bomb's

explosion. "A lot of people selling Trinitite on Ebay will advertise it as not radioactive," Eccles offers.

"Real trinitite will emit radiation. It's not hazardous—the only way it would pose any danger

is if it were ground up and eaten."

 

Archaeologists of futures past, we've arrived at a nuclear tomorrow entombed beneath the desert

floor. I am reminded of J. G. Ballard's story "The Terminal Beach," about a man marooned on a

Bikini-like atomic test island. "The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and

the pseudo-geological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration, of

thermonuclear time. Typically, the island inverted the geologist's maxim, 'The key to the past lies in

the present.' Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future,

its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of

armor and the exoskeleton." At White Sands and the other fossil tomorrows adrift in the American

desert, we see portents of how the future was going to be. Whether dystopic or Edenic, these

visions summoned America's ultimate faith in technology, as well as a more primitive desire to

bring human meaning to a natural landscape.

 

 

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