Aug '08 - Jun '10
Just got back from a stellar week in militarized West Texas. I got out to former Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, went on a tour of the US/Mexico border with homeland security, and spent a day touring one of the largest military construction sites in the world. Just to give you a sense of how militarized this corner of Texas is, when you walk out of the security checkpoint at the El Paso airport, a huge sign directs you as follows:
Banners advertising the Army on the walls paint scenes of adventure in some desert land (is it the Chihuahuan Desert or somewhere else? ). The airport also shares a large boundary with Biggs Army Air Field and Fort Bliss. Fort Bliss, measuring in at 1,700 sq miles, is the second largest military installation in the United States, right behind the nearby White Sands Missile Range (3,200 sq miles). It's a little one-two punch in the American Southwest, and together they are almost the size of Connecticut. El Paso itself would not exist as a city of over 600,000 people without the enduring presence of Fort Bliss.
Fort Bliss was founded in 1853 and moved five times before settling in its current location ,a few miles from downtown El Paso. Several times the fort was relocated due to pressure from the resilient Apache tribe. The Cavalry division stationed there helped to put down the resistance in the 1880s. One of the locations was scrapped because the South Pacific and Santa Fe railroads put their tracks straight down the middle of the parade ground. The fort was needed to protect settlers and the growing railroad economy from banditos, and to establish an American force on the frontier.
From the book Top Secret Tourism, I found out about the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) which is housed on Fort Bliss. EPIC was set up to document drug and alien traffickers and keeps a database of information on anyone who may have committed a drug-based offense. It is the "narc capital of the world." Fort Bliss is also home to Joint Task Force North (JTFN), an organization that, under the command of the president, is prepared to enforce the quarantine of a city or respond to a large-scale terrorist attack. It's a giant machine waiting to be sprung.
In some ways, then, the base has always been and still is an outpost along a foreign frontier. It's not just about proximity to Mexico. By way of its desert climate, the base simulates the arid terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan. In this way the world map is folded, and Fort Bliss becomes a threshold unto the Middle East.
Several things I experienced on my visit the other day underscore this impression of an exotic location. After passing through the checkpoint, having secured a day pass for my rental car, I drove into the main post. I almost couldn't believe what I saw next. A Japanese Garden, complete with torii gate and a miniature Himeji era castle. Various plaques around the garden designate certain elements--a garden gate, a rock garden--as symbols of cultural understanding. It appears that the garden was built by a volunteer group associated with Japan's Self Defense Force which visits Fort Bliss annually.
I saw a number of soldiers clad in a variety of camouflage: olive greens and browns, in patterns that I was unfamiliar with. Their faces were African, Asian, European. I learned that Germans use the base to test some of their aircraft, lacking the vast uninterrupted flight zones that we have. The land asset becomes a political bargaining chip.
Now something about this city that is popping up in the desert. The 2005 BRAC round made Fort Bliss one of a handful of "big winners". Most bases are looking at downsizing and closures. But here in El Paso, local businesses are drooling at the arrival of over 10,000 military jobs and another few hundred civilian jobs by 2012. An entire armored division is coming from Germany (why we still have tanks in Germany in this decade blows me away). This all means that Fort Bliss has become a major construction site. A bill is in the House right now to approve $800 million for new Fort Bliss construction.
My favorite description of this new desert city comes from a Historical Architect employed on the base: "it's deadly, just deadly what they are building out there."
You're looking at barracks for several brigades, mess halls, headquarters for the armored division, and that's still only a pie slice of the $4.6 billion desert killing machine extravaganza. Hey, still looking for a job?
The buildings must be set back 82 feet from the road as per the Anti-Terror/Force Protection code. This means that sewer, power, and water lines cost more, the parking lots must be more numerous as everyone has to drive everywhere, and a greater burden is put on landscaping to reduce heat-islands and such. Shouldn't government construction be the model of sustainable development? Astonishingly, these buildings are Silver LEED. Warrior Construction Management handled the "permanent prefabrication" described in the above link:
The option to pursue LEED certification is inherent in the permanent modular construction process. All of Warrior’s projects incorporate these green qualities. Despite sustainable advantages, Warrior Group has worked hard to overcome design misperceptions about permanent modular construction. It does not limit buildings to one-story boxes. Fort Bliss Permanent Modular Barracks in El Paso and Fort Sam Houston Military Residences located in San Antonio are two of Warrior’s projects in Texas that incorporate many green features and are built more like condominiums than dormitories.
Please blast me if I'm wrong, but it should be an automatic disqualification for any "green" standard when you are building in a desert!
My visit to Fort Bliss funny enough spans across the topics of the two other Branner Traveling Fellows.
Nicolette Mastrangelo is studying "untested" cities--cities made from scratch. She's spent a lot of time in Asia where cities are popping up in China, Korea, India, and Abu Dhabi.
Taylor Medlin is looking at remotely constructed buildings. His travels have taken him to some far off places, most recently the desolate landscape of south south South America. He is studying both prefabricated buildings and buildings constructed from the materials of the remote context. Later this year Taylor is traveling to Australia to look at some military barracks in the outback!
Why is Fort Bliss important to my research? As I look further into this massive construction project, I am thinking about the bases we are building all over the globe. What are the criteria for a military base, what are its weak points in terms of design, and where might we civilians initiate a dialogue or counter-architecture?