Civil Defense Architecture and a Culture of Possible Apocalypse: A Conversation with David Monteyne
I first picked up David Monteyne’s book “Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War” in Skylight Books on Vermont Street in Los Angeles. The cover art featured a cut-away of a proposed fallout shelter, and inside the people seemed to be just going about their business, blissfully unaware of the possible destruction that might be headed their way, courtesy of Mother Russia or other Cold War-era enemies of the United States.
I found the book to be eminently readable, and with an engaging narrative that traced the creation of a civil defense architecture-industrial complex throughout the 1950s to the 1980s in the United States, the narrative style was pitch perfect. I contacted David via email at the University of Calgary where he teaches in the Faculty of Environmental Design, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work.
What attracted you to this particular project?
It’s an old saw that historians (maybe all academics) are always writing autobiography. I came of age during the 1980s resurgence of Cold War sabre-rattling—the Reagan years. I watched the made-for-TV movie The Day After as a 13-year old and it made quite an impression on me. As a teenager, I remember seeking out books like Robert del Tredici’s At Work in the Fields of the Bomb to find out more about nuclearism, and seeing The Atomic Cafe, the pseudo-documentary about Cold War fear. These things fascinated me, but didn’t coalesce into a project until about ten years after high school when I started to think about a potential dissertation project in architectural history. At the time I had just read Don Delillo’s Underworld, which has many Cold War scenes. I was working at an engineering library at the University of British Columbia, discovering old reports from the 1960s on the design of underground spaces, and surrounded by 1960s “bunker-style” campus buildings. These strands came together to get me thinking about architecture and the Cold War. The subject was virtually untouched then, and it seemed to offer the chance to examine a significant and widespread approach to Modernist design, but through the lens of politics and social life. As soon as I started to research the subject during my first year of grad school, I got hooked—so many interesting sources turned up, from pop culture to professional journals, government scare films to very serious government publications about how to “design for survival.”