Just In Case

This text was originally published in LOBBY No. 6 "1961" Autumn/Winter 2017

accompanied with illustrations by Thomas Hedger


Shelters make us uneasy. They expose human fragility while also tangibly channeling human resilience. There’s an intrinsic antithesis between the safety of the refuge and the harm that it protects from.

However, these roles have been reversed, and shelters are regarded as dreaded enclaves of otherness—places foreign to the refuge of the mainstream where only those whose destinies have condemned them to misfortune would live. In our collective consciousness, a shelter has become synonymous with danger and harm: a temporary home for the survivors of a tower block fire in London; camps for Syrian refugees fleeing a brutal civil war; refuge for Chechen gay men seeking to survive a regime that is torturing and killing them for their sexuality. No one living a normal life considers having a shelter just in case.

But circumstances were different in 1961. With the threat of a nuclear war becoming more serious by the day, the new normal was planning for survival just in case the USSR attacked the US. On October 7, 1961, The New York Times reported that President John F. Kennedy had spoken openly for the first time about the need for every “prudent family to provide itself a shelter”, and had instructed major cities to modify local laws to encourage private shelter-building.  Historic accounts detail how the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization in Washington D.C. received a monthly average of 50,000 visitors towards the end of 1961, most of whom were asking for information about fallout preparedness. In response, the Office distributed a pamphlet that prescribed blueprints for simple do-it-yourself basement shelters, as well as three other more complex designs.

The demand for underground shelters grew exponentially. Builders started to advertise their services all around the country using imagery that portrayed characters living happily underground—unwilling to acknowledge the chaos from the outside—in scenes that, seen today, appear rather ironic. Comfortable shelters became a legitimate architectural design concern, given the possibility that the fallout from a nuclear attack could precipitate weeks of living underground.

Concerns about comfort were addressed in what could be considered the climax of the fallout shelter propaganda campaign:  an underground house, part of the New York World’s Fair exhibition in 1964. The official guide to the exhibition stated, “underground homes can provide more control over air, climate and noise than conventional houses—as well as protection from such hazards as fire and radiation fallout. The house occupies most of the area inside a concrete shell, the top of which is two and a half feet underground … Windows in the house face scenic murals placed on the walls of the shell.” This luxurious upgrade from the Civil Defense’s design included a sophisticated lighting system that could simulate the lighting qualities of sunrise, sunset and a starry night sky which could be observed in the underground exterior space. Promoting the inherently-contradictory underground exterior as its solution to the concerns of underground living, the propaganda campaign triumphed in the invention of a new architectural typology. Fortunately, Americans were never forced to experiment the livability of those spaces.

But maybe we should, just in case.