Underground Missile Silo

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"Because waste is the secret history, the underhistory, the way archaeologists dig out the history of early cultures, every sort of bone heap, and broken tool, literally from under the ground." -Don DeLillo, Underworld

“Will the underground complex, with its beautifully efficient machinery so painstakingly mounted on springs, be the Stonehenge of America?” -Joseph Gies' response to a Titan Missile Site, Wonders of the Modern World

“The main fascination of military architecture lies in its honesty” -Quentin Hughes, The Art of Defense from the Earliest Times to the Atlantic Wall

Drawing of an Underground Titan Missile Silo Complex

Background and Description

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Detailed Image of Titan Missile Silo

  • The underground missile silo is a relic from the Cold War that serves as a storage media for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), materialized defense tactic, and architecture-as-machinery. It records the actual past as a topographical legacy on one hand, on the other, prepares and testifies for an event that never took place.

Background History

  • The underground silo was one of a series of missile storage technologies that continued to evolve with changing improvements on the design and function of nuclear war missiles dating from the Atlas F missile, Titan and Minuteman missiles.
  • The missiles were originally stored above ground, but the technical and military specialists involved found it cheaper and more strategic to protect the missile from attack by digging a hole in the ground and lining it with concrete, factoring out “all but a direct hit from another ICBM” (ft Neal, 86).

Prior to the underground silo’s conception in 1957, it was not considered that it would be near impossible to gauge when the enemy would attack until it was too late. For preemptive defense, the Minuteman had a silo with a 12-ft. diameter, and required high accuracy for a direct hit (Neal, 146).

  • Tom Vanderbilt observes that the missile silos were literally taking shape around the machines: “the airforce’s policy of ‘concurrence’ dedicated that launch facilities be built simultaneously with weapons” (161). This complicated the missile construction and installation process so that even important dimensions for housing the missile 160 feet underground were undeterminable until the shape and the size of the missile was known (161).
  • There are no clear-cut precursors to the underground silo except for claiming obvious ancestry, the grain silo as storage for surplus. One may connect other military apparatuses to the silo in a transfer of roles: the submarine housed the torpedo, and fighter-plane carried the earlier missiles and bombs.
  • The last of the Minuteman III missiles was lowered into the ground in 1975 and from thereon marked the obsolescence of the underground missile silo (NPS/GOV).

Description and Layout

  • The underground missile silo, or ‘ace in the ground’, was 80 feet deep, reinforced with concrete. A metal liner was installed; then the missile lowered in. Each silo had its own underground support ring for electric generators and environmental control. The support building was an insulated metal structure atop concrete foundations within the tube. A horizontal concrete and steel sliding cover topped the silo, with concrete roadbeds for transporter-erectors to directly access the opening for rocket handling (Neal, 169).
  • An account of an abandoned Minuteman silo reveals the internal architecture resembled a ‘terrestrial submarine’, with naval infrastructure and metaphors: the hatch, the metal catwalks, the ‘lanyards’ fastened to the silo door by which men would descend into the ‘hole’ (Vanderbilt, 160). Indeed, large-scale missiles had first been launched from ships above and submarines under seas before the ICBM appeared. This delineates the tendency to remediate similar design appearances and features from a prior media or technology, perhaps in this case for familiarity or legitimacy’s sake.
  • Missile Silo location sites act as topography physically mapping out a geographic, techno-military superstructure. Roy Neal documents at Malmstrom, MT at the peak of its popularity, there were 150 missiles and 15 control centers, and each center at least six miles from the ten missiles allocated (ft Neal, 169).

The military apparatus wields a cartographic network: the ordering of silos is an exercise of maximum missile efficiency, also a series of coordinated defense tactics housed in architecture.

Semiotic Promiscuity of the Underground Missile Silo

The Underground Missile Silo and Rhetoric of Space

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Fancy Living in a Silo?
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Renovated Silo as House

In equal parts dwelling, machine and symbol, the discourse embedded in the silo falls also into rhetorics of space.

  • The twentieth-century castle:

Vanderbilt observes, “The silo as house is a sign that architecture does not discriminate”, after all, a “blast door is still [just] a door” (166). The silo as house is akin to the “old school of brutalism, with its rough concrete surfaces and shamelessly exposed ductwork”, a series of ‘twentieth-century castles’, where “instead of ramparts and bulwarks we have launch tubes and bundles of electrical conduits” (166).

  • Indeed, it seems that the silo is a utilitarian ideal of architecture, “the modernist dictum that buildings were machines”, and the missile silos, disposable—“once the missiles were fired, the structure was useless” (161). Here, the space does not only offer a place for storage or gathering but an intention of fulfilling a mechanical purpose, disposing itself once shed of both intention and item.
  • Athanasius Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit scholar and scientist, approached architecture viewed space with a similar rhetoric in mind. From his plans for eavesdropping devices and projections of sound from unseen sources, one can see that for Kircher, technology “stood for the spectrum of artificial constructions where ‘the operative force or agent was not obvious to the eye’” (Zielinski, 125). What made his approach towards space and media akin to the silo’s is visual secrecy. The mechanisms that made such inventions and architecture work were not visible to the eyes—as such, the ‘guts’ were safely concealed within other pockets of space, whereas other spaces would resonate with the promise of power.

The Silo as a Relic of the Cold War Ur-Past

  • Part of the power dormant in the silo is mythical. The silo is both pinnacle of human achievement and “the means for altering the world so dramatically that this same shining symbol of the space age would be transformed into the ruin of a lost civilization” (Vanderbilt, 172). Built under pressure, meant to respond with speed to a situation that never arose, the silos “turned into ruins that were not of a lost civilization, but were lost in civilization (172).
  • The anticipated event that we plan, dig, and draw store for has never occurred itself; it is Derrida’s non-event, the “terrifying reality of the nuclear conflict can only be the signified referent, never the real referent” (Derrida, 23).
  • The media as a promise of the void: The silo contains all the latent power that can carve man off the board and render history ‘remainderless’ and ‘a-symbolic’ (Derrida, 28). This is as close to ellipsis as we can court.

Detonating Culture: Vilém Flusser

  • A connection is made between button-pressing and digitality: “For some years, science fiction has used push-button war as a theme… for better or for worse” (Neal, 7). Here, the fingertips, as Flusser has noted, are the “organs of choice”, but the power of such decision-making reaches its limits when the power to select a ‘programmed freedom’ chooses to open the silo and releases in its stead eradication—one freedom in favor of an ultimate other (Flusser, 92-93).
  • The dialectic of the nest and cave introduced in “Carpets” represents the crux of underground missile silo—the desire to both nest and shelter the missile underground—where its origins can be traced back to the tomb, natural dwelling of the dead. ‘Buildings’ of surplus and weaponry can be followed to the original tomb, resting place and storage.

Janus-Face: Double-Pronged Inscriptive Power

Missile Silo Renovation Tunnels

Here, the inscriptive power is of “double character” (Gitelman, 10). At the “double-sided boundary” (10), the underground missile silo inscribes from its materiality, hiding the missile in its interior, a sort of ‘blotting out’ of the page, or the attempted erasure of the imprint found with Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad. It also imprints the space around it with psychological violation, the possibility of detonation. This psychological violence is a ‘second historicity’ behind the underground missile silo, enriching it with semiotic and cultural meaning beyond its technological intent (22).

The Aftermath

Pop Culture Legacy: Silo Culture

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Scene from La Jetée
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La Jetée
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La Jetée

  • Former Atlas F missile silo in Wamego, KS discovered as site of an LSD laboratory “said to supply one-third of the nation’s traffic” (Vanderbilt, 165);
  • A company called ‘20th Century Castles’ advertises a variety of former silos as ‘historic, collectible underground properties’. That “one should now seek shelter in a space whose missiles were the cause of so much shelter-building elsewhere” is rather ironic (166).
  • Silo-like life in Chris Marker’s film La Jetée, haunts “these former installations, [reverting] to a primitive, almost cavelike existence.... their myth-filled histories and subterranean mysteries have lent themselves to conspiracies—even the underworld” (164-165).


Derrida, Jacques. No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead: Seven Missiles, Seven Missives). Diacritics, 14:2 (Summer, 1984)

Flusser, Vilém. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 1999.

Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

National Park Service Website. History of Minuteman Missile Sites. National Park Service, U.S. Dept of Interior. Accessed 03/29/2010: http://www.nps.gov/archive/mimi/history/srs/history.htm

Neal, Roy. Ace in the Hole. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962.

Vanderbilt, Tom. Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Row, Wonders of the Modern World. Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. MA: MIT Press, 2006.