David Monteyne remembers watching the 1983 TV-movie The Day After as an impressionable teenager. The raw footage of Hiroshima depicted the terror of nuclear destruction. Years later when he set out to pursue his PhD in the history of architecture, Don Delillo’s novel Underworld reintroduced Monteyne to 1950s atomic culture and he started thinking about the architectural implications of that period’s paranoia.
The rising fear of nuclear destruction resulted in widespread development of basement bomb shelters, which continue to exist today as modern day “panic rooms.” In his new book, Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War, the environmental design professor traces the partnership developed between architects and civil defence authorities during the 1950s and 1960s.
“This is an unusual book in architectural history,” says Monteyne, “because for the most part it’s not about famous architects or famous buildings. It’s about everyday architects and the everyday spaces we use which, at a time, were trusted with measures of national security.”
Prior to 1960, the American government expected citizens to protect themselves against a nuclear attack by building their own protective shelters. When few did, President John Kennedy instituted a national public fallout shelter program that relied on architects to demonstrate the importance of fallout shelters, while surveying existing buildings and designing new ones that offered fallout protection.
“This partnership helped guide professional design practice and influenced the perception and use of urban and suburban spaces, argues Monteyne. “It represents the United States’ most sustained and extensive development of civil defence.”
Brutalist architecture, the style of architecture that flourished during this time, is characterized by heavy concrete structures. “They aren’t very inviting buildings,” says Monteyne. “This is one of the reasons heritage groups will be in for a big fight if they want to preserve them.” In Calgary, the Centennial Planetarium and the Catholic School Board are remnants of this period, but there are no fallout shelters. “Preservationists will need to advocate for the cultural importance of these buildings to have them protected.”