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Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America Hardcover – April 1, 2002

3.8 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Highlighting the Cold War era's obsession with what Vanderbilt (The Sneaker Book) calls "constant protection from an invisible threat," this is a fascinating political and cultural analysis of "cold war architecture": a vast array of structures from missile silos to small towns built to test the effectiveness of an atomic blast, presidential fallout shelters, nuclear waste dumps, monoliths like the windowless PacBell building in Los Angeles, and countless motels and diners named "Atomic." The physical structures that resulted from Cold War ideology and politics also had far deeper and extensive psychological and emotional implications and ramifications: "the domestication of doomsday." Mixing first-person narrative of his travels around the U.S. in search of Cold War sites and objects with an extensive accumulation of provocative historical facts ("the U.S. Air Force bombing raids on Tokyo exacted a higher cost in lives and property" than the later atomic bombings), Vanderbilt takes great pains to reveal the Cold War policies behind the scattered remnants he encounters. Once-ubiquitous fallout shelter signs were a result of the Kennedy administration's National Fallout Shelter Survey, undertaken by "a mobile army of atomic surveyors (many of them architecture students)." As far as blastworthiness is concerned, "the toughest job is myth control," a NORAD civil engineer tells Vanderbilt during his trip 4,400 feet underground to the North American Aerospace Defense Command Center. This book certainly does its part in debunking the "Duck, and Cover" mindset.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


". . . a genuinely engaging book, perhaps because [Vanderbilt] is skillful at conveying his own sense of engagement to the reader." -- Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2002

". . . a retracing of Dr. Strangelove as ordinary life. . ." -- Greil Marcus -- Bookforum, June 2002

". . .if this book teaches us anything, it's that a civilized society will not sacrifice aesthetics for safety." -- Architectural Record, May 2002

"...an admirable journey and an appeal for more detailed geographical studies of the Cold War and its global histories." -- Environment and Planning Journal, February 2003

"Exploring buried traces of the Cold War in America. . .[Vanderbilt finds] a vast, secret and now largely abandoned landscape." -- Architecture, May 2002

"Vanderbilt crafts a travelogue through a history that never happened." -- The Washington Post, May 15, 2002

"a genuinely engaging book...the author is so skillful at conveying his own sense of engagement to the reader." -- The Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2002

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press; 1 edition (April 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1568983050
  • ISBN-13: 978-1568983059
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,118,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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I'm usually a rather tough grader, but this is the best book I've read in quite some time. Vanderbilt takes us on a lively and diverse tour of cold war America's remaining architectural artifacts (the interstate highway system, bomb shelters, missile silos, misc. military installations - some still in use, nuclear waste sites, etc.) and weaves an analysis of same into an interesting and often surprising commentary on the historical period and the society which gave rise to these structures. For me, the novel perspective of looking at things from an architectural standpoint worked quite well at making the history and those times come alive.
The style is part documentary, part story-telling, part travelogue, part cultural anthropology, and part essay on topics in architecture (generally) which I previously would not have thought about, or thought I had any reason to think about. The approach was successful enough that I found myself frequently being simply and skillfully led to surprising and profound insights, which were a delight. I came away from the book thinking Vanderbilt was an excellent writer with many new and important ideas on the fascinating subject of nuclear weapons, the cold war, and national security generally -- subjects which can easily be made drole, heavy, boring and/or tedious. For many, the so-called atomic era seems long gone and forgotten (and slightly silly in many aspects), but Vanderbilt makes the issues faced then seem relevant to many similar problems facing us today by placing them in a context of continuity. Highly recommended to a broad audience.
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Format: Hardcover
One of the characters at the end of the movie Dr. Strangelove intones emphatically, "we must not have a mine..shaft..gap!" In Tom Vanderbilt's Survival City: Adventures Among The Ruins Of Atomic America, the reader gets to explore the actual architecture of the Cold War period. The book is a well-written combination of essay, travelogue, architecture text, and archaeology book. Even though the book is published by the Princton Architectural Press, it is well within the reach of, and should be enjoyable to, people outside the community of architects and architectural enthusiasts. Mr. Vanderbilt set out on his travels because he wanted to know what the Cold War looked like, and even though I'm not sure he found everything he was looking for, it was damn interesting to come along for the ride. My only complaint is that the book lacks an index, which I hope is remedied in later printings. If the potential reader is concerned that the postscript concerning 9/11 is gratuitous or merely an attempt to cash in on the disaster, rest assured that it is an appropriate ending to the book. The remnants of the Nike missile base nearest to where I live was recently removed for an encroaching housing development. I recommend that you read Survival City and then take a trip to look for Atomic America before it's all gone.
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Format: Hardcover
Author Tom Vanderbilt takes us around the country examining the evidences left by the Cold War, a war which did and yet didn't happen. From missile silos being destroyed to ones being turned into homes, from "proving grounds" to backyard bomb shelters, Mr. Vanderbilt uncovers sites which often sit right in front of us and simply blend into our landscape in spite of their obviously militaristic features. But he goes beyond the aging and disappearing signs indicating "fallout shelters" and discusses how the threat of nuclear annihilation shaped our cities and our thinking. Cities became the targets, and today's suburbs, often denigrated under the label of "urban sprawl," were a reaction to and a defense against the calamities which befell the densely packed cities of Germany and Japan which proved so fatal during the firebombing raids of WWII. Attempts to fortify buildings, strategies for minimizing casualties, underground cities, interstate highways, early warning systems, NORAD, massive retaliation... it all walks a fine line between critical and absurd, interesting and boring.

I can't help imagining the puzzlement the younger generation must feel at seeing some of these things. Growing up in the 70s and 80s I only saw the end of the Cold War, but the Reagan years witnessed an increase in tensions with the USSR (do younger people even know who that was or what it stood for?) and I recall some events like the local opposition which prevented the deployment of MX missiles in the Utah desert in the late 70s.
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Format: Hardcover
In 1969, shortly after the Atlas ICBM program was shut down, I was a college freshman filled with curiosity who more eagerly explored every silo location near the town where I went to school than I did the subjects in my classes. Inactive for such a short time, they were likely to be in pristine condition if only I could find one that was open. Flooded entrances, welded doors and no trespassing signs usually greeted me so how exciting it was when I finally found one that was wide open and with operating electricity! Someone appeared to live there who, probably fortunately, wasn't home. Unlike so many who followed me and vandalized these places, my policy was look but don't touch and leave everything as you found it.

It was with familiarity, then, that I read Vanderbilt's account of his own descent into an Atlas site of exactly the same design.

Like Vanderbilt, I was always fascinated with the old silos, Nike sites, weapons plants and other military detritus that spoke of great power, huge expense and top security now turned to open ruins left to rot, yet telling a story for the amateur detective to interpret. To think that these crumbling places might have meant The End and that what was now casual climbing might once have meant setting off alarms and being shot by an armed guard.

Vanderbilt's book is not a dry description of the specifications of such ruins (though he does seem to be fond of mentioning the number of inches of thickness of reinforced concrete) but a lively account that puts them in place among the ideas and technologies of the Cold War period. Unlike my often clueless speculations on visits to some of the sites, this author has educated himself and brings along others who can expand his knowledge and ours.
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