Work title: Landscapes of Risk
The human impulse to remove parts of the earth—whether extracting for human exploitation or setting apart in order to sanctify—places us in a strained relationship to the physical world. We can’t help but be attracted to landscapes that exclude us, even if we are excluded by our own abuse. Wilderness and wasteland are landscapes that are removed from circulation. Their aesthetic power (and, by extension, their economic value) comes not from extraction or sale, but from tourism and its accompanying sublime experience, which is one of distance, safety, and the management of risk. This relationship to landscape is controlled by the architecture and infrastructure that craft the terms of a visitor’s experience.
At Rocky Flats just outside Denver, the Cold War production of plutonium released highly toxic residues into the facility’s immediate surroundings. And though the land has been remediated and native grass and animal species have returned, an unknown quantity of fatal residue remains on the site. Any human occupation or disturbance of the soil has been prohibited indefinitely—plutonium’s half life is 25,000 years. Rocky Flats is a site of “new wilderness”—places where the human has recast himself as a visitor, where his self-inflicted absence offers a new sublimity. As the history of production and abuse at Rocky Flats is erased from the land, visually, the emerging spectacle is not simply a new undisturbed natural landscape, but a particular mixture of technology and landscape—its scale, its history of disaster, and its invisible and fatal aftereffects.
The counterpoint to Rocky Flats might be identified in America’s National Parks, where the visitor center and other infrastructure offers tourists the image of solitude, vista, and spectacle. Such structures collectively aim at constructing the illusion that the landscape has never been disturbed or controlled—that it is “untouched” by human presence. The present proposal uses the type of the “visitor center” at the Rocky Flats site; it proposes to transpose the National Park model—presenting the “untouched”—onto this site of new wilderness—asking visitors to consider the “untouchable.”
At Rocky Flats, architecture produces access to the site, but one’s inability to touch the ground or breathe the air complicates how and what the visitor can know about the site. The basic desire for a visible and comprehensible landscape is relentlessly mediated by infrastructure. This mediation reveals Rocky Flats as a place that contains perhaps a more troubled set of relations between man and nature, well beyond the notions of dominion or awe.
Each point of entry offers a new way of seeing Rocky Flats, categorized by risk and organized by a particular narrative in the site. For example, the “Architectural” trail exposes as ruins the buried laboratory floors slabs which have been stripped and buried, and the “Plutonium” trail takes you below the most contaminated portion of the site.
Because of the profound contamination of soil and air throughout Rocky Flats, reinforced concrete tunnels of varying diameter with air-tight inner tunnels are employed throughout the site, providing an entry through this otherwise inaccessible wasteland. The calibration between structural enclosure and hermetic enclosure, and between real topography of the contaminated soil and the constructed topography of the tunnels are deployed as clues to the environment from which you are excluded. The relationship between actual distance from the contaminated ground and one’s perception of risk defines one’s experience of the park. Additionally, light, air, sound, and touch are all recast as tools of orientation and interpretation, and provide the means to sense the insensible sublimity of the site.
Though the various paths offer a relentless and uncertain experience of the site, they each conclude in a clear and vertical relationship with the landscape. After the relative darkness of the tunnels, the slow ascent of a hydraulic elevator reveals the landscape at close range—a sudden seam of light and soil at eye-level. As you climb vertically, native grasses and animals become distinguishable. At fifty feet, the industrial occupation of the site—roads, building footprints and landfills—comes into focus. At a hundred feet, a complete view of the site is finally possible. The elevator’s glass bottom focuses your attention on ground while its modeled ceiling precludes the horizon and the picturesque view of the Rockies. The vents and skylights that provided air and light through the visitors’ preceding paths through the park’s tunnels populate the landscape and allow you to reconstruct your experience of the landscape as a space against the experience of a map-like panorama.