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On Exhibit: 80 ways to survive nuclear war

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Ronald Reagan and his officials misspoke themselves so regularly that they seemed to have a certain awkward ballsiness about them, as if they knew they could say anything and get away with it. "We begin bombing in five minutes," of course, is a favorite. And T.K. Jones, Reagan's deputy undersecretary of defense for strategic and theater nuclear forces, offered this homespun civil-defense strategy for American citizens in case of nuclear attack: "Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors, and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It's the dirt that does it."

It was not just the technical ingenuity demanded--how do you get in a hole and then cover it with dirt? What made the remark especially insensitive was the double standard involved: Reagan officials later announced a plan to build 656 fallout shelters reserved for government officials. The country might be devastated, but at least the government would remain intact.

The members of the Northern California Chapter of Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility figured they'd help the government out in this laudable goal by holding a bomb-shelter-design contest. They sent out entry forms in the fall of 1986 and eventually received 80 entries from architects and designers across the country. Oddly enough, the entrants seemed not to take the assignment seriously.

Or rather, they did take it seriously. But what they submitted, in general, were not blueprints for structures that could actually be built, but conceptual works satirizing the whole idea of planning for nuclear war. The plans are ridiculous, sobering, humorous; you look at them and laugh till you cry. The collection, which will be on display here starting next week, bears the best title of any exhibit so far this year in Chicago: "Quonset Huts on the River Styx: The Bomb Shelter Design Competition."

"We saw it as ridiculous to assume that things would survive [after a nuclear war]. As architects, we're pretty convinced that's a pipe dream," says Jack Busby, a member of ADPSR and an honorable-mention winner. His entry depicts the residents of a suburb or small town flocking to the local shelter--a hugely oversize grade-school chair, the kind with a writing desk attached. The kind American children used to huddle under during duck 'n' cover civil-defense drills. "Now we know how useless that would have really been during a real nuclear attack," says Busby.

Other entries refer to other elements of nuclear-holocaust lore. The first-prize winner, by Bill Hickey and Mike Lee, proposes a giant mechanical cockroach. "Since the cockroach will be the only surviving life form following a nuclear event, it seems only logical to emulate its special parameters when constructing a shelter," the designers wrote. This shelter has the striking advantage that any citizens who manage to survive outside it will undoubtedly feel an appropriate revulsion at seeing the government officials' new home. And before a nuclear attack, wrote Hickey and Lee, the giant roach "serves as a roadside folly. . . . This provides an amusing distraction for the general public"--which is more consideration than Reagan administration officials gave the real general public in their proposal.

Jon Cosner, figuring that any serious proposal for surviving a nuclear war involved a complete reversal of conventional logic, drafted an inverted Transamerica Pyramid, a skyscraper with its "top" 50 or so stories underground. The lobby is just below the surface; then come the work areas for entry-level employees. Farther down are middle managers, and buried deepest are the top executives. In a world where the deeper you're buried the better, downward mobility becomes desirable.

An entry by Roy Osgathorpe is explicit about what those survivors will be doing. They'll be dealing with the single most pressing postnuclear administrative problem--namely, trying to find taxpayers. They'll need the money to pay for the weapons buildup necessary to deal with the political instability of the postnuclear world. Osgathorpe's main shelter has beneath it a "suspended animation unit" to be used by "selected personnel" if radiation levels become so high that the shelter itself is unusable. Next to it is a moon rocket (also for selected personnel) in case the entire earth becomes uninhabitable.

In the midst of all these burlesques is one truly workable project. Walt Chambers proposes that the United States build a bomb shelter in the heart of Moscow; the Soviets would reciprocate in Washington, D.C. "Each country, in an attempt to prove to each other, and the world at large, that it was acting in the best of faith (and in fact, BETTER faith than the other), would build the most effective, comfortable, and elaborate shelter it could. A regular "Bomb Shelter Race' might break out."

These days there has been such an outpouring of goodwill between the two superpowers that Reagan's new cold war already seems like ancient history. But the missiles are still there, ready to fire. And these tongue-in-cheek drafts bring up a question of central importance today: how can the Bush administration possibly be this much fun?

"Quonset Huts on the River Styx: The Bomb Shelter Design Competition" will open with a lecture by Chicago architect Jack Hartray next Monday at 5:45 PM and run through September 9 at the ArchiCenter gallery, 330 S. Dearborn. The gallery is open 9:30 to 5:30 Monday through Friday and 9 to 4 Saturday. Admission is free. For more information call the Chicago Architecture Foundation at 326-1393.

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