Architectures of Hiding

Eliyahu Keller

Hiding in Plain Sight. The White House Solarium and The Projection of History

On the evening of Friday, May 8, 1953, Robert Cutler, the National Security Advisor to President Eisenhower, entered the White House. Accompanied by several officials, Cutler climbed up to the mansion’s top floor and entered a room virtually unknown. There, in the White House Solarium, the President and his “group of fine fellows,” held a meeting of grave consequences to American policy in the Cold War. The secret gathering and the room in which it took place gave birth to the namesake Project Solarium: a month-long war-game simulation that shaped US policy toward the recently nuclearized Soviet Union.

This paper takes the moment of the gathering at the Solarium as an entry point for a discussion of the cultural images cultivated during the Cold War, and the role played by architectural space in such constructions. Both visible and hidden, the garden-like Solarium is covered under the shadows of secrecy while basking in sunlight. An ambiguous interior, serving as the First Family’s private retreat on one hand, and a space for undisclosed meetings on the other, the Solarium challenges conventional imaginations of the space of decision making, and is a spatial manifestation of Cold War politics and strategies concerned with deceit, concealment, projection and revelation; with what one could or could not see.

Situated against the geopolitical history of Cold War policies and propaganda, this paper presents the architecture and history of the Solarium as a physical and metaphorical representation of the culture of images and the politics of latency characteristic of the Cold War. On its shadowed edge one finds nuclear apocalyptic visions, hidden fallout shelters and underground bunkers; on its lit side, the public and exposed imaginations associating nuclear energy with the power of the sun. Behind the Solarium’s opaque glass curtain, and as it hides watchfully on the sovereign’s roof, architecture, politics, and propaganda coalesce in conspicuous secrecy. A space for the projection of history and its images, the Solarium’s tale reveals architecture’s role as an instrument of vision, and its participation in the making of grave decisions. As it hides in utter visibility, the Solarium comes forth as a unique and ambiguous space from which future history was constructed right under the American public’s nose.

Keywords: Cold War, architecture, politics, projection

ELIYAHU KELLER is an architect, and architectural historian currently pursuing a PhD in History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at the MIT Department of Architecture. He is the co-editor of the 46th volume of the department’s peer-reviewed journal Thresholds, published by the MIT Press. Eli holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Israel, and a Master in Design Studies with Distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His doctoral thesis at MIT is tentatively titled “Drawing Apocalypse: Architectural Imagination in the Nuclear Age,” and it investigates the relationships between the rise of nuclear weapons, apocalyptic thinking and visionary architectural production during the Cold War in the United States and the Soviet Union.