Secret Cities: Upcoming Exhibition Will Explore the Architecture and Planning of U.S. Nuclear Sites

Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project opens at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on May 3rd.

Secret Cities Manhattan Project exhibition
SOM’s wartime efforts in Oak Ridge extended into postwar redevelopment with permanent housing. Seen here: Postwar housing by SOM, Oak Ridge, 1948. SOM © Torkel Korling, compliments of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

If you’ve never heard of Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; or Hanford and Richland, Washington, you’re not alone. In fact, the clandestine nature of these places is by design. But the upcoming exhibition Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project, opening May 3 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., aims to reveal much of their history and built forms.

As part of the U.S. war effort in the early 1940s, the federal government built facilities for the development and testing of atomic weapons. Alongside these, it also constructed housing for the involved scientists and technicians in semi-urban communities as secretive as their work.

The housing stock of these self-contained cities was composed mainly of single-family homes, often built from semi-prefabricated kit houses made of cemesto (a cement-and-asbestos board), but also included Nissen and Quonset huts. In postwar urban development, these communities became proving grounds for planning concepts, especially regarding hastily assembled accommodations for returning soldiers.

The cities also functioned as test sites for architectural practice: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which comprised some 20-odd employees prior to the war, was commissioned to develop the master plan and select buildings for Oak Ridge. Working alongside Turner Construction—which built and managed city services in Oak Ridge— SOM laid the groundwork for what would become comprehensive corporate architecture and engineering practices after the war.

Throughout Secret Cities, the museum looks back 75 years to the formation of these instant communities—all of which continue to thrive as centers of research and development—and their contemporary implications. While the broader ethical questions behind the atomic bomb loom, curator G. Martin Moeller, Jr. concedes the issue’s contentiousness lies beyond the scope of the exhibition. Says Moeller: “We try to help people understand how that unique built environment shaped the way in which people lived.”

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