Eliyahu Keller: Space Reserved – Architecture and the Question Concerning (Nuclear) Technology

Faculty Colloquium


Beginning in 1957, the US government pursued an unimaginable enterprise. For eighteen years, the controversial ‘Plowshare Project’—part of President Eisenhower ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative—employed hundreds of scientists, engineers, and policy-makers, and facilitated 31 nuclear detonations for an outrageous goal: the use of atomic bombs for infrastructural projects, such as “excavations of new harbors, big dams, canals, [and] passes through rugged mountainous terrain.” This paper takes ‘Plowshare’ as a radical, yet strictly realist representation of the cultural conditions under which architecture was imagined in the US during the first decades of the Nuclear Age. Responding to the array of popular visions of nuclear attacks on American cities, ‘Plowshare’ was part of a larger task taken by the US administration to “transform the apocalypse into a techno-scientific project and a geopolitical paradigm.” It aimed to demonstrate that nuclear destruction—calculated, intentional and designed—can be deemed peaceful, if not necessary, when employed for the right ends. Situating Plowshare in its historical context, the paper will illustrate and problematize the project’s promises through an architectural drawing inspired by ‘Plowshare:’ an underground city built in the cavity left by an atomic explosion, proposed by architect and planner Oscar Newman, and published in Esquire Magazine in 1969. Through a constellation of politics, warfare, propaganda, and architecture, this paper will end by turning to Martin Heidegger’s foundational essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ and ask to see these instances as extreme yet paradigmatic representations of architecture’s relationship to technologies of unimaginable destruction, and of the inherent dependability between catastrophe and creation in the imagination of future worlds.

Eliyahu (Eli) Keller is an architect, and architectural historian currently pursuing a Ph.D. 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 Ariel University, and a Master in Design Studies with Distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His doctoral thesis at MIT, ‘Drawing Apocalypse: Architectural Imagination in the Nuclear Age,’ 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.

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