In 1942, less than a year after the United States was pulled into World War II, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers quickly and quietly began acquiring large parcels of land in remote areas in three states. Soon after, thousands of young designers, engineers, planners, scientists, and their families, began arriving at these sites that were heavily shielded from public view. Workers there constructed hundreds of buildings including houses, industrial structures, research labs, and testing facilities at unprecedented speed and scale.
Over the course of three years, more than 125,000 people were residing in these cities that seemed to have popped up almost overnight. These cities appeared on no maps, and government officials refused to acknowledge their existence. It seemed as if people were going in, but no one was coming out, creating a sense of curiosity as to what was happening behind the guarded walls.
The mystery that shrouded these secretive sites, dubbed the Manhattan Project due to its project management being based in the Army Corps’s Manhattan Engineer District, was revealed when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. President Harry Truman announced that these towns, now known as Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington were built for one purpose- to produce a weapon of mass destruction at a scale that had never been done before. While there is no question that the ethics of nuclear war are still under heavy scrutiny and debate, these “secret cities” represented one of the most significant technological and scientific advancements ever made.
The success of the Manhattan project was largely due to the architecture, engineering, and urban planning strategies that developed three entirely new cities in a very short span of time. These cities reflected cutting-edge ideas about spatial design, mass housing, civil engineering, and modular construction techniques. Because of that, their urban principals and construction methods would later act as a major driving force behind the way that towns all across America would alter the physical and cultural landscape in the post-war era.
The scale and speed of their construction alone acted as a major turning point in the realm of design. Unlike traditional methods of earlier planning, these cities had to be entirely contained- meaning that they were almost forced to be completely self-reliant in every way so that the outside world would never know about the nature of the work being produced there. Even large, prominent design firms at the time had their hand in creating these cities. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was responsible for the design of Oak Ridge, which would eventually be home to almost 100,000 residents by the end of the war.
In addition to being planned in secrecy, the breakneck speed at which these cities were constructed was aided by advancements in prefabricated and modular design. Homes at Oak Ridge were constructed using Cemestro boards, a product made of compressed cement and asbestos fibers, and were built in an assembly line technique so that one home could be turned over to the U.S. government every thirty minutes. Given the astounding speed of the construction, one of the critical aspects of the design was the ample green space and pedestrian-friendly walkways. Despite the intensity and pace of the research being done at these sites, there was a degree of normalcy and environmental preservation to the cities, which also raises questions about modern-day urban planning methods. If the planners of these guarded communities were able to carefully plan green spaces and protect natural features on the site, why is it difficult to do the same today?
However, it wasn’t all considered great work- were also darker aspects to these cities as well. Land for the developments was seized from existing residents, forcing them out of their homes and out of their jobs. In Washington, the land was taken from the Wanapum people, a Native American group whose identity was heavily died to the region and the nearby Columbia River. Given the era, race also played a major part in the development of these cities. Segregation was designed into the plan in Oak Ridge, forcing Black residents to live in small huts that were separated from the main part of the city, and even further segregated by gender- dividing up families and adding further insult to injury, being forced to live in substandard housing.
Despite its questionable history, the legacy of the Manhattan project provided modern-day design with the emergence of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) firm. By the end of the war, and once these cities became public knowledge, the attention was focused on how to replicate more of them, or take the lessons learned and apply them to the expansion of other cities in the country who were rapidly growing, and sought ways to create a successful urban sprawl movement.
SOM, for their heavy hand in the Manhattan Project, had quickly grown in size to over 600 employees, and would eventually become the single most influential corporate architecture firm in the post-war era. They would be one of the firms to lead the way in construction methods and build bigger, taller, and faster- in a way that had never been done before. Their work also completely redefined the role of an architect to include engineering and planning responsibilities that still carry large influence into modern-day architectural practice.