Unraveling the urban planning mysteries behind the Manhattan Project

Unraveling the urban planning mysteries behind the Manhattan Project

In 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II, the United States Army Corps of Engineers quickly and quietly began acquiring large tracts of land in remote areas of three states. . Soon after, thousands of young designers, engineers, planners, scientists and their families began arriving at these sites which were heavily shielded from public view. Workers constructed hundreds of buildings there, including homes, industrial structures, research labs and testing facilities at unprecedented speed and scale.

Entrance sign to Los Alamos.  Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records AdministrationAMIE (Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy) prototype, 2015. Image courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLPAerial view of the K-25 factory, Oak Ridge, 1945. Image courtesy National Archives and Records AdministrationFlat-roofed house, Oak Ridge, 1944. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration+ 6

Within three years, more than 125,000 people resided in these towns that seemed to have sprung up almost overnight. These towns did not appear on any map and government officials refused to acknowledge their existence. It seemed like people were coming in, but no one was coming out, creating a sense of curiosity as to what was going on behind the guarded walls.

Entrance sign to Los Alamos.  Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Entrance sign to Los Alamos. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The mystery shrouding these secret sites, dubbed the Manhattan Project because of its project management based in Manhattan’s Engineering District, was revealed when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. President Harry Truman announced that these towns, now known as Los AlamosNew Mexico; Ridge Oak, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington were built for one purpose: to produce a weapon of mass destruction on a scale that had never been done before. While there is no doubt that the ethics of nuclear warfare are still the subject of intense scrutiny and debate, these “secret cities” represented one of the most significant technological and scientific advances ever carried out.


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AMIE (Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy) prototype, 2015. Image courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
AMIE (Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy) prototype, 2015. Image courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

The success of the Manhattan Project was largely due to architectural, engineering, and urban planning strategies that developed three entirely new cities in a very short time. These cities reflected cutting-edge ideas about spatial design, mass housing, civil engineering, and modular building techniques. For this reason, their urban principles and building methods would later act as a major driving force behind how cities across America would alter the post-war physical and cultural landscape.

Aerial view of the K-25 factory, Oak Ridge, 1945. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Aerial view of the K-25 factory, Oak Ridge, 1945. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

The scale and speed of their construction alone was a major turning point in the field of design. Unlike earlier traditional methods of planning, these cities had to be entirely contained, meaning they were almost forced to be completely self-sufficient in all respects so that the outside world would never know the nature of the work being produced there. Even large leading design companies at the time were involved in the creation of these cities. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was responsible for the design of Oak Ridge, which would eventually be home to nearly 100,000 residents by the end of the war.

Flat-roofed house, Oak Ridge, 1944. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Flat-roofed house, Oak Ridge, 1944. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

In addition to being planned in secrecy, the breakneck speed at which these cities were built was aided by advances in prefabricated and modular design. Oak Ridge homes were built using Cemestro panels, a product made of compressed cement and asbestos fibers, and were built using an assembly line technique so that a home could be handed over to the US government every thirty minutes. Given the astonishing speed of construction, one of the critical aspects of the design was the extensive green space and walkways. Despite the intensity and pace of research conducted at these sites, there was a degree of normalcy and environmental preservation in the cities, which also raises questions about modern urban planning methods. If the planners of these gated communities were able to carefully plan green spaces and protect the natural features of the site, why is it difficult to do the same today?

However, not everything was considered great work – there were also darker sides to these cities. Land for the developments was seized from existing residents, forcing them out of their homes and quitting their jobs. In Washington, the land was taken from the Wanapum people, a Native American group whose identity had strongly died out in the area and the nearby Columbia River. Considering the times, race also played a major role in the development of these cities. Segregation was engineered into the Oak Ridge plan, forcing black residents to live in small huts separated from the main part of town, and further separated by dividing families by gender and adding further insult to the injury, being forced to live in substandard housing.

Trailer with decorative trellis, Oak Ridge, 1944. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Trailer with decorative trellis, Oak Ridge, 1944. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Despite its dubious history, the legacy of the Manhattan Project provided modern design with the emergence of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) corporation. At the end of the war, and once these cities went public, attention focused on how to replicate more of them, or take the lessons learned and apply them to the expansion of other rapidly growing cities across the country, and sought ways to create a successful sprawl movement.

SOM, for its heavy hand in the Manhattan Project, had rapidly grown to over 600 employees and would eventually become the most influential corporate architecture firm of the post-war period. They would be one of the companies 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 have a strong influence on modern architectural practice.