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 Defence from the Earliest Times to the Atlantic Wall

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Drawing of an Underground Titan Missile Silo Complex

That Which Lingers

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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

  • One of a series of missile storage technologies, the underground missile silo evolved with changing improvements on the design and function of nuclear war missiles dating from the Atlas F missile (fourth and the last of the series), Titan and Minuteman missiles.
  • The missiles were originally stored above ground, but the technical and military specialists involved in missile installation design found it cheaper and more strategic to protect the missile from attack by digging a hole in the ground and lining it with concrete. This would factor out “all but a direct hit from another ICBM” (Neal, 86).
  • Around its conception in 1957, the underground missile silo was a relatively new concept in missile work. The earlier big missiles “had been designed for reaction time fast enough to get them off the ground before an incoming enemy attack could knock them out” (Neal, 86). Once it was realized that such rapid reaction was very hard to achieve—it would be near impossible to gauge when the enemy would attack until it was too late to retaliate—the idea of underground ‘hardened bases’ to withstand attack came into favor. The smallest of the missiles in the line, the Minuteman, was encased in a silo with a 12-ft. diameter, and would require high accuracy for a direct hit (Neal, 146).
  • In Tom Vanderbilt’s Survival City, he 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 such an important element as the dimension for housing the missile 160 feet underground could not finally be determined 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 from transfer of roles and functions: 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, also known as the ‘ace in the ground’, is 80 feet deep, made of reinforced concrete. A metal liner is installed; then the missile is lowered in. Each silo has its own underground support ring for electric generators and environmental control. The support building is a prefabricated, insulated metal structure atop concrete foundations within the tube. A horizontal concrete and steel sliding cover tops the silo. There are concrete roadbeds to allow transporter-erectors to drive directly to the opening to handle the rockets (Neal, 169).

An account of an abandoned Minuteman silo reveals that the internal architecture resembled a “terrestrial submarine, with its naval infrastructure and metaphors: the hatch, the metal catwalks the preponderance of battleship gray, 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 the backs of ships above seas and submarines underseas before the introduction of the ICBM; delineating the tendency to remediate similar design appearances and features from a prior media or technology into the newest model or update; perhaps in this case to bestow a sense of familiarity or legitimacy.

  • Missile Silo location sites act as topography physically mapping out a geographic, technomilitary superstructure. In Roy Neal’s Ace in the Hole, he examines the topographical evolution that reinforces the technological developments riding on missile installation design. At Malmstrom, MT, there were at the peak of its popularity, 150 missiles and 15 centers to control them, requiring 3,000 miles of dispersal space. Each control center is at least six miles from the ten missiles under its control and the missile holes are dispersed from one another by at least the same distance (Neal, 169).

Here, the military apparatus wields a cartographical network: the ordering of silos works as an exercise of maximum missile efficiency as well as 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

The underground missile silo is filled with architectural allusions adjacent to its techno-militaristic functionality. In equal parts dwelling, machine and symbol, the discourse embedded in the silo falls also into a rhetoric 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). To Vanderbilt, the silo as house is “something approaching 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 an architectural manifestation of the utilitarian ideal where “the ultimate incarnation of the modernist dictum that buildings were machines; the missile silos, in their earliest incarnation, were disposable—once the missiles were fired, the structure was useless” (161). Here, the space does not only offer a place for storage or gathering (both missiles and people), but an intention of fulfilling a mechanical purpose beyond its material form, efficiently disposing of itself once the stored item is dispatched.
  • Athanasius Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit scholar and scientist, approached architecture viewed space with a similar rhetoric in mind. His Museo Kircherianum included many plans for eavesdropping devices, and projections of sound from unseen sources. (Zielinski, 129). For Kircher, “[technology] stood for the spectrum of artifical constructions where ‘the operative force or agent was not obvious to the eye’” (125). What made his unique approach towards buildings and inventions akin to the underground missile silo’s in a rhetoric of space was not dominantly visual in its latent power. 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 (or threat) of power.

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

  • Part of the latent power dormant within the silo is mythical. Vanderbilt expounds that the silo at the time “represented the pinnacle of human capacity for technological innovation… also [as] 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” (172). Built under pressure, meant to respond with speed to a situation that never arose, “the missiles were not launched, the sites were deactivated, and turned into ruins that were not of a lost civilization, but were lost in civilization (Vanderbilt, 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 us off the board, wipe the canvas blank, and render history ‘remainderless’ and ‘a-symbolic’ (Derrida, 28). This is as close to ellipsis as we can court.

Detonating Culture: Vilém Flusser

  • Connection between button-pressing, digits and science fiction: “For some years, science fiction has used push-button war as a theme. Minuteman gives us a very similar capability, 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).
  • Recorded is the continuous plan of evolving missile silo shapes towards miniaturization, where the Minuteman silo would come to represent one-fifth of the previous Atlas F’s mass (Vanderbilt, 161). Flusser speaks of such things to evolve by contracting, to be at once ‘at hand’—ephemeral yet eternal, memorable (91). This, combined with the dialectic of the nest and cave introduced in “Carpets” represents at once 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 traced back to the original tomb, resting place and storage in Flusser’s dialectic.

Janus-Face: Double-Pronged Inscriptive Power

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Missile Silo Renovation Tunnels
  • The inscriptive power of the underground missile silo was negated, hence, the inscription leaked out as odd relics from a time hinted to come, but not yet: “The sites, unveiled as technological marvels, had in the course of several decades become nearly undecipherable traces on the landscape” (Vanderbilt, 172).
  • Here, the inscriptive power has “double character” (Gitelman, 10). At the “double-sided boundary” where representing “is both verb and adjective” (10), the underground missile silo inscribes first in its material encasing, hiding the missile in its interior, a sort of ‘blotting out’ of the page, or the attempted erasure of the imprint as found in Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad. It also serves to imprint the space around it with psychological violation through the possibility of detonation. This psychological violence serves as the ‘second historicity’ behind the underground missile silo, enriching it with semiotic and cultural meaning beyond its technological intent (Gitelman, 22).

The Aftermath

Pop Culture Legacy

  • Former Atlas F missile silo in Wamego, Kansas discovered as the site of an LSD laboratory so productive “it was said to supply one-third of the nation’s traffic” (Vanderbilt, 165);
  • Near Roswell, N.M., the adaptive reuse of an Atlas F missile silo turned into “Terraform”, a future construction site and joint venture between Jon Farhat, a Hollywood special effects artist and Bob Lazar, a one-time Los Alamos physicist who “gained renown in UFO circles after claiming to have seen aliens while working on a top-secret project in Area 51” (Vanderbilt, 165).
  • Other silos, however, have assumed more benign functions, as communities have found in their raw, virtually indestructible spaces the foundation for new beginnings. A school in Holton, Kansas occupies a former Atlas E complex (purchased for $1 from the government in 1968), while a company called ‘20th Century Castles’ advertises a variety of former silos as ‘historic, collectible underground properties’… passing comment on the irony that one should now seek shelter in a space whose missiles were the cause of so much shelter-building elsewhere” (Vanderbilt,166).
  • Silo-like life in Chris Marker’s film La Jetéepays homage to the defunct relics in a way that makes Vanderbilt's words ring true: “Stripped of military equipment and function, these former installations revert to a primitive, almost cavelike existence" (164). They are "veiled in secrecy, never venerated in the landscape, today they are barely legible... Not surprisingly, their myth-filled histories and subterranean mysteries have lent themselves to conspiracies—even the underworld itself” (Vanderbilt, 164-165).

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Scene from La Jetée


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.

Quentin Hughes, The Art of Defence from the Earliest Times to the Atlantic Wall. London: Beaufort, 1991

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.