Architectures of Hiding

Brian M. Kelly

Modes of Hiding: Leaving in Plain Site and Burying

The perception of the midwestern prairie has stereotypically emerged as one which is calm and docile. Critics including Rem Koolhaas and James Corner have theorized the rural and agrarian condition, but these offerings have been largely situated above the soil while the story below might be much more controversial.

In 1961, the United States was awakened to the threat of another world war via President Kennedy’s address regarding escalating relations in Berlin. Warfare changed considerably after WWII and the security of the continental United States, offered through distance, had vanished. With its active military bases and sparse population, the interior of the US became the front line of a seemingly imminent war as new forms of defense ushered in the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Air Force responded quickly in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s by arming the central plains with the most recent technology in global warfare—the Atlas missile. Several underground vertical missile silos were built in the open fields of the midwestern prairie yet were largely unknown to most residents living in adjacent communities. Once completed, the 9’ thick concrete cap with 15-ton blast doors installed flush with the agricultural fields were only visible from above to those who knew what they were looking for.

This is where the Atlas ICBM story begins and then ends rather quickly. After significant investment and four years of operation, the US military decommissioned the Atlas-F underground missile silos in 1965 as newer technology and solid fuel rockets rendered them obsolete. The vertical silo configuration of hardened concrete and steel reinforcing, measuring 175’ deep, was abandoned under the agricultural and grazing fields of the Midwest. The roughly 5-acre sites were sold back to the public and the history of the silos was left to folklore. Although some were back filled, many remain today in a state of ruins as Cold War relics.

This submission will unpack the complex history and risky construction of the underground silos to demonstrate their importance as military detritus, as well as connect their legacy to 20th century contemporaries including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelsohn, Reyner Banham, and Paul Virilio.

Keywords: military, underground, silo, ruins.

BRIAN M. KELLY, AIA, is an NCARB-certified, licensed architect in the State of Nebraska and an associate professor in the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska. Brian teaches studios at all levels of the curriculum ranging from design thinking in the introductory core to design research studios in the Master’s program and his teaching focus is in the areas of beginning design, design thinking, and architectural representation theory. His previous teaching experience includes Drury University’s Hammons School of Architecture in Springfield, MO and the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. His students’ work has been featured in academic journals, exhibited in galleries, and honored in international competitions. Brian’s research focus is broadly investigating the agency of authorship in the design process, specifically interrogating copyright and appropriation within software applications. In 2009, he co-founded ATOM as a design research collaborative focusing on small-scale investigations.