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An Architecture of Peril:

Design for a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, New Mexico

Michael Brill

The late Michael Brill was an architect and professor of design at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was president of BOSTI--Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation, an architectural firm that does research-based analysis and design innovation to better serve people's need.

In the next several years, the United States Depart­ment of Energy (DOE) will bury some 500,000 barrels of radioactive waste a third of a mile be­neath New Mexico's shifting sand desert, in a geophysical-inert thick salt formation. The waste will remain dangerous for 10,000 years.

    DOE wants to make a permanent warning at this burial site of its dangers, to help prevent inadvertent release of radioactivity into our descendant's food chain, water supply, and air. The warning must endure, be found and un­der­stood.

    In such a future, none of today's languages may be read­able except by schol­ars. Many succes­sive cul­tures may exist at the site, some perhaps primi­tive. There is no guaran­tee of U.S. gov­ernmen­tal control 100 years past intern­ment. No built plac­es have lasted for 10,000 years.

    In 1991 through San­dia National Labora­tory, DOE com­mis­sioned a team of six exp­erts‑-an archi­tect, an­thro­polo­gist, materials scien­tist, lin­guist, and archaeo­lo­gist‑-to propose a solution. The archi­tect, this author, suggest­ed place design as a way to bypass linguistic and cultural commu­nica­tions prob­lems. This idea is rooted in the enduring human propensity to experi­ence meanings in physi­cal form, including through places. Meaning comes to us through a "natural language" of form, called "natural" because we may be born knowing it.

    The team's proposal is that the entire site and all the structures on it be designed as a multi-modal communication system, using this universal "natural language" in additional to other expressions of signifi­cance that include co-located inscriptions in seven languages; astronomical diagrams; and a periodic table identifying the buried elements.

    In the summary report presented here, I first review several of the underlying principles guiding design of the waste site; second, I summarize the seven resulting test designs.

Below: "Spike Field" Design


    A great deal of very good research was commis­sioned by DOE about probable institutional, clima­tic, geo-ther­mal and hydrologic changes at the burial site. On the basis of this re­search, we first established a set of broad design guide­lines for the site and all its elements.

    These guidelines are largely performance-b­ased ‑-that is, they describe how the design must per­form, rather than what it must be made of or look like. Here I describe sever­al of the most impor­tant guide­lines.

• The site must definitely be marked.

• Site interventions must last for 10,000 years. Nothing with moving parts will endure.  Metal  will always be scavenged for other uses. Nothing that requires atten­tion can be sure to receive it, beyond 100 years after clo­sure. The instal­lation must all last on its own.

• The whole design must be a major source of mean­ings that include: "This place is a mes­sage...pay attention to it!" "Sending this message was impor­tant to us." "We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture." "This place is not a place of honor...no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here...nothing valued is here." "What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us." "This message is a warning about danger." "The danger is in a particular location...and has a particular size and shape, and is below us." "The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours." "The danger is to your body, and it can kill." "The form of the danger is an emana­tion of energy." "The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically." "This place is best shunned and left uninhabited."

• Powerfully distinguish this place from all other places. The future must pay attention to this site and be motivated to decode its message thoroughly. Rarity is an historic motivator to decoding. To help achieve rarity, an enormous volume of human effort must be used to mark this place, emphasizing its extraordinary importance to our time.

• Redundancy is very important to total message survivability, since some messages will not sur­vive. For example, written in­scrip­tions will ex­press the same text in the six official lan­guages of the UN and the area's oldest spoken tongue, Mes- calero Apache. Also, other "natu­ral sym­bols" will be used‑-e.g., bas-reliefs of two generic human faces, one express­ing hor­ror, the other sick­ness.

• There is no physical barrier we can devise now that some future technology cannot breach. Thus, any "barrier" can only be purely symbolic, not a boundary that actually inhibits trespass.

• Maintain approach and access to the place. Permit and welcome access while suggesting the possibili­ty of danger. Information about the danger should be available before one enters the intern­ment area.

• The place should have no center, no position of privilege. Marking this place at all makes it differ­ent from the surrounding desert, makes a "center" in the desert. From human beginnings, making and marking a center is the first act of making order out of chaos, and says "we are here." All further meanings of "center" derive from this original positive valence, with the center often a highly valued place or a gathering place, a focus of group life. We invert this sym­bolic meaning, establishing a sense of centerless­ness to suggest there is no place of value or privilege‑-that this is a devalued place to be shunned‑-a void, a hole, a non-place.

• Forms should avoid "perfection." Historically, cultures have used the perfect or "ideal" geomet­ric forms in places that embody their highest aspira­tions and ideals. Our designs seek irregu­larity and broken geometries.

• Craftsmanship should be of low quality. Histori­cally, cultures lavish find craftsmanship to sym­bolize the value of place. Our structures cover the entire burial area and are made of crude materials that minimize workmanship (e.g., rubble, earth­works, or large slabs). Yet the enormous size of the enterprise and of the struc­tures demonstrates an enormous invest­ment of labor. This coupling of great effort with materials of low value suggests the place is im­portant but dishonored.

• Other locations of importance should be keyed to this site: The site-marking system should also locate other sites of importance, for example, identify the site in relation to local centers of popu­lation and to other disposal sites of our time.


    These design guidelines provided a base for gener­ating seven test designs all arising from archetypal images related to the theme of "perils-in-place." These archetypal images included: wound­ing of the body through dangerous emana­tions; keeping some­thing buried that must not escape; and dead, poi­soned, destroyed land.

    Our seven alternative test designs embody these images. Each design becomes a direct, visceral form of communication rather than design as a "con­tainer" for a program. This approach blurs the catego­ries of architecture and landscape architec­ture. Each of the designs cover entirely the mile-square interment area that we call "the Keep."

1. Landscape of Thorns

A random forest of concrete thorns or oddly shaped claws, 50 feet high, the shapes of which suggest punctures, wounding of the body. These thorns all rise up from below and reach out like an uncon­trolled growth of something dangerous‑-perhaps mutations.

2. Menacing Earthworks

Immense lightning-shaped earthworks radiating from an open-centered Keep‑-emanations of danger seen best from the air, or from vantage points on top of the highest, 70-feet earthworks. At ground level, these massive earthworks crowd in, cutting off the horizon and making a loss of place. The square sandy Keep is vast and desolate, except for a walk-on map locating the many other radioactive waste sites in the world.

3. Black Hole

A dark masonry slab, evoking an enormous "black hole;" an immense no-thing; a void; land removed from use; worthless. Uninhabitable, and often ex­ceedingly hot because its blackness absorbs the sun's heat and re-radiates it. The slab's many joints have an irregular pattern, like the cracks in parched land.

4. Spikes Bursting Through Grid

A regular grid, about house-sized, inlaid in a ma­sonry slab that covers the Keep. The heavy, order­ing lid cannot stop the wounding energy from burst­ing up from below. The spikes/teeth/barbs first ripple in the Keep's cover, then deform it, then puncture it; finally, the gird's reliable and hu­man-imposed order is de­stroyed by a more power­ful force‑-chaos.

5. Rubble Landscape

Under the sand is a layer of stone. Its square outer rim is dynamited into boulders and bulldozed into a crude pile over the Keep, a cover different in height, material and vegeta­tion from the surround­ing desert. This rubble is an effort to keep some­thing dangerous in its lair‑-an inhospita­ble place that feels destroyed rather than created.

6. Forbidding Blocks

The stone under the sand is dyna­mit­ed and cast into black, house-sized, con­crete-and-stone blocks set in a deliberately irregular square grid, with a five-foot-wide "street" run­ning both ways. These streets go nowhere and are hot, omi­nous, and too nar­row to live or meet in. The scheme is a mas­sive effort to deny use. The land­scape is crudely or­dered, forbidding and uninhabit­able.

7. Spike Field

Stone spikes pierce the sand, pro­jecting from the Keep, uncon­trolled and cha­otic. The area is walled, with the spikes imprisoned and the outside safe.


    To transform our design guid­e­lines into these seven test schemes, we faced the unique problem of a sender and receiv­er living in ep­ochs so separated by time that we know little of what the political, eco­nomic, sym­bolic, linguis­tic, social and techno­logical realms of probable future cultures will be.

    Our central premise for both guidelines and designs was to cancel the time-borne cultural "dis­tance" be­tween sender and receiver by concentrating on endur­ing phenomena shared by all human beings‑-things that are species-wide now, probably always have been, and will continue to be. Such phenomena are "archetypal" in the sense that they are already mean­ingful before the emergence of language and culture and because they are uni­versal to human existence even with linguistic and cultural differences.

This focus on archetypal forms-bonded-to-mean­ings assumes the survival of content against events that leave our species biologi­cally unchanged. The focus is on meaning and feeling that is already in the mind and body before language and, therefore, is not dependent on it.