Review: Survival City


At the very moment it had arrived to present an “image of the city” … the aerial view had revealed the grim truth that visualization of a city in its entirety was a visualization of a city that could be destroyed; a city that had become … a target.

Tom Vanderbilt’s Survival City is an archaeological survey of a forty year war that never happened. Sifting through the modern ruins of Cold War America, Vanderbilt’s haunting travelog takes the reader into defunct Altas II and Minuteman missile silos, past cyclopedean radar stations and along the broken desert lands of weapons proving grounds. The Cold War was an invisible conflict that most of us somehow learned to live with. However, the Cold War had a visceral reality for those technicians that watched the radar screens for the “hand of God,” the massive missile attack expected from the Soviets that would appear like a skeletal hand reaching down from the North Pole towards North America. Mid-twentith century architects weren’t wondering if a nuclear attack would occur but when. Fallout shelters and bunkers were integrated into some public and corporate buildings, but for the most part, urban and military planners had written off cities as undefendable. This, in part, explains the growth of suburbia — the last defense against decapitation attacks.

Vanderbilt’s writing is crisp with the right amount of horror and moral shock at appropriate times. A short read with lots of pictures, Survival City charts the emergence of the city as war machine, its subsequent elevation to
a military target in World War II and the effect weapons of mass-destruction have had on urban architecture. This book is a great read that even includes a postscript written on Sep. 17, 2001 that eerily reinforces the message of the book.

Good stuff.

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