UC Berkeley (Nick)



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    New Desert City

    Nick Sowers
    Jun 21, '09 4:30 PM EST

    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?


    • PandaKing

      love seeing these posts, it takes me back to my childhood and brings up memories of growing up on military bases. it is nice that these memories come up because it brings up moments that you describe now that seemed perfectly normal to me growing up and not so alien. It is good to see this through anothers lens. Keep it up, I look forward to a compilation of your work.

      Jun 21, 09 6:13 pm  · 
      it should be an automatic disqualification for any "green" standard when you are building in a desert

      I don't know much about LEED, but common sense says that when you are building something the size of a small city it almost doesn't matter where you build it. But a desert seems better than building it in a forest. If they are aiming towards LEED silver they are likely to be generating a significant amount of their own electricity. The difficulty, and what I think you are alluding to are the increased demand on potable water
      Jun 21, 09 7:58 pm  · 

      My first thought was that is a huge prison. Than you explained that they are barracks.

      Jun 21, 09 8:15 pm  · 

      Great posts. Can't wait to see what comes out of the research.

      Jun 21, 09 10:11 pm  · 

      also a fun little factoid. the military housing i lived in as a teenager was the same design as one of the housing projects in the city adjacent to the base.

      Jun 21, 09 10:18 pm  · 

      *military housing in virginia

      Jun 21, 09 10:19 pm  · 

      According to this blog from 2006, Fort Bliss will be constructing a 10 sq. mile solar farm. Maybe that's how they're getting LEED silver.

      In terms of water savings, they have already been reclaiming water from washing vehicles. I'm not sure how sustainable the potable water source is, though.

      Panda, you might also find your housing project on a base in Korea!

      Jun 22, 09 12:10 am  · 

      i too lived on several military bases, both in the states and abroad. much of the off-base housing seems to go to the public housing stockpile. the reason there are still tanks in Germany is that NATO still exists, and lets face it although Russia is no longer the cold war enemy, NATO has not let them join and NATO still has contingency plans for an overly aggressive Russia - especially if Ukraine and other countries join.

      the older bases have great old stock, especially the officer's housing and amenities.

      Jun 22, 09 1:04 pm  · 

      I believe the new version of LEED is supposed to address some of these odd loopholes -- for example, I do know that the "Homes" version will be basically making it very, very hard to build massive LEED-certified houses -- you get docked for a certain amount of SF over what is deemed appropriate (measured on a few different scales). Would be interesting to actually see the checklist for this project, though -- I suspect they are taking advantage of a LOT of the "helper" credits that were put in place to sort of get LEED off the ground and make it attractive to developers at the outset, before green design built momentum and they could tighten the requirements. If you know what I'm talking about... for example, although you have to meet baseline energy efficiency standards no matter what, they aren't currently THAT strict, and there's a lot of variability in how you actually implement them. You don't need, for example, operable windows, which was kind of a shock to me. The current version of LEED I think was purposefully flexible to help it gain ground in the marketplace.

      Anyway, fascinating. The barracks are extremely depressing-looking but in the current forecasts of future military involvement, our army will most likely be engaged in a lot of countries that look a lot like this... flat, sandy wastelands with quickly-built construction. Perhaps in a sense we are readying our troups for what kind of horrible living situation they can expect during warfare / occupation?

      Another thought that strikes me is that this is pretty much exactly what most "luxury" town developments in the Pheonix area look like, except with the addition of a fake, 3' deep "lake" and palm trees around the perimeter. You could park a few bmw's out front and hang a "Vons" sign on one of those buildings and you'd have Glendale, AZ.

      Jun 22, 09 1:52 pm  · 

      "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!"

      OK, here's a blast.

      so, if you want to disqualify a fairly significant amount of the world's land area because it is hot and dry, then let's go the whole way and also disqualify any area that needs more energy usage to make it habitable from one season to the next by a matter of 20%.

      which would mean you have to eliminate Chicago (have you actually tried to be there in February), Minneapolis, Boston, Moscow, Stockholm, Helsinki, even NYC. and there's Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Tucson.

      so basically, the only possibility of "green" living would be in very temperate zones, with lots of water, mild and insignificant seasonal changes, with moderate shifts in daytime to night-time proportions. which would be to disqualify about 70% of the built world (if not more).

      the counter to this argument, of course, is that there have been many cultures able to live in these more "extreme" climates without great uses of energy resources - they just don't happen to be currently in the USA.

      Jun 22, 09 2:44 pm  · 

      beta, so the cold war is still on.

      manta, nice observation!

      dlb, you have a good point, and you could extend the argument from temperature variation to water use--look, san francisco for all of its fancy environmental attitudes is still dependent on a water source hundreds of miles away and threatened by shrinking snow melts in the Sierra Nevadas. We aren't living in a desert but it's not far off, anyway.

      Looking deeper into the water issue in El Paso, it's worth noting a collaboration between Ft. Bliss and the city to develop the world's largest inland desalinization plant. At least that's what this website is touting. It says nothing of the energy required to run the plant, but if the collaboration is really happening, why not spread that model of collaboration around the Middle East? haha.

      But seriously. For every base we build, with its separate demand for water and energy, we should be linking our infrastructure with the community. I say this of course with caution. The key word is "linking" -- how would it be done? Is it high tech or low tech? Without compromising the security that the military requires, how could you actually do it?

      A military base could then be a real framework for stability in the region. Imagine that.

      Jun 22, 09 10:30 pm  · 

      Military bases have helped anchor communities for years -- I'm not sure what you mean. Linking -- how? Aren't they already pretty intrinsically linked, in the typical manner of a "company town"? Or do you have something else in mind?

      Jun 23, 09 6:48 pm  · 

      manta, domestic bases are well linked, as you say like company towns. San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Alameda, and Richmond in California are all great examples of WW II 'company towns'. Their economies depended on the war effort and only in the case of San Diego does a "link" persist, as it does for El Paso. As far as anchoring towns, though, that's a double-edged sword! BRAC has left a number of communities high and dry. A community needs to be independent enough of the military so that it can survive when the military leaves.

      As far as "linking", I am referring more to bases abroad, where security is more of a challenge. These bases are national borders, sitting on foreign land negotiated through treaties and, needless to say, heavily politicized. Linking is a problematic term, I admit. But I think that is the tissue of Architecture here, to dig up the various interfaces between a base and its community and propose ways to "link" or, as the case may be, amplify a non-link.

      The basic question is: If we are building these bases and spending all this money on infrastructure, why can't we simultaneously figure out a way to transition it to civilian control once the military moves on?

      Jun 23, 09 8:40 pm  · 
      vado retro

      after the base is completed, its perimeter will be lined with paydown loan cash advances stores.

      Jun 24, 09 11:13 am  · 

      Interestingly, the US Secretary of Energy Steve Chu has been going around in all his talks recently commenting on how LEED certification has very little to do with how energy efficient/environmentally friendly a building is, and some LEED certified buildings do really really badly on a proper energy audit. But that could just be his, you know, evidence-based science background talking...

      Jul 12, 09 11:48 pm  · 

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