Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Secret Cities": A Look at Nuclear History

Architecture and the Manhattan Project 

I recently visited an exhibit on the Manhattan Project at the Building Museum in Washington, DC.  The exhibit has been open since early May, so perhaps some people reading this blog will have seen it already.  But if you haven't, and if you live in the DC area or have a chance to visit, I highly recommend the exhibit.  It is open until March 3, 2019, so I hope a lot of people will have the opportunity to view it.

Called "Secret Cities," the exhibit focuses on the extraordinary requirements for housing generated by the opening of Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford laboratories during World War II, and how they were met.  This is appropriate, of course, since this is a museum about buildings and architecture, but by doing so, it focuses attention on something many of us don't think about--the fact that thousands of people had to be brought to these sites and housed, fed, and entertained, all under a shroud of secrecy.  

The exhibit puts the housing issue in context--it discusses other attempts at the time to turn out modularized housing, it includes examples of the work of some of the famous architects of the day and how their innovations influenced the designs, and it even illustrates some of the post-war housing construction that built, at least in part, upon the experiences of the Manhattan Project. 

While the exhibit focuses on the housing, it also does a good job of covering a number of other aspects of the 3 laboratories and the communities that lived there.  It includes displays that show some of the major facilities built to conduct the research and production at the laboratories, and gives brief explanations of the scientific principles that were explored and exploited.  It discusses the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and controversy surrounding the decision to drop the bombs.  It talks about life on these remote, secret sites, and shows examples of the signs, the badges, and the announcements of social events.  And it is frank about the poor treatment of African-Americans working on the sites--the segregation and inferior housing.

The exhibit even includes a couple of pieces of Vaseline glass (also called uranium glass) and Fiestaware.  My most amusing moment in the exhibit came as I was reading that display and overheard someone behind me opining to no one in particular that it must be dangerous to eat from those dishes.  I couldn't help myself.  I turned to him and said, "Only if you eat the plate."

While a lot of the history and science covered in the exhibit will be familiar to people in the nuclear community, for me, the focus on the design and construction of the housing and on some of the memorabilia from life there at the time provided an added dimension to what I already knew.  I think others will also find that the exhibit provides a unique focus on some aspects of the Manhattan Project we too often take for granted.