Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ordnance Landscapes

The uncanny landscape of the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in central Oklahoma.
A rafter of wild turkeys crosses a nearly deserted rural road.  The only other movement is a small forklift with a load of what appear to be extra-large, sea foam green, Easter eggs.  The forklift pulls into and out of evenly spaced, seemingly hollow landforms.  The grassy landforms march along with large heavy metal doors on concrete faces.

These apparitions in the landscape are more formally known as Earth Covered Magazines, or less formally as Igloos. (Igloo referring to their dome like shape, and an old obsolete style of magazine).  The content of these magazines are ammunition, explosives and chemicals being stored for the US Military.  The brightly colored Easter Eggs, often complete with red strips, are artillery rounds.  Sea foam green is the coded color for white phosphorus, or "Willie Pete", a compound that burns at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit when exposed to air.  This Ordnance Landscape is one of many located across the country, usually outside of mid-size rural communities that supply civilian workforces.  More specifically this landscape is McCalister Army Ammunition Plant, a joint production and storage facility in central Oklahoma. 
Seemingly organically organized, roads and rail connect dispersed magazines at McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
The construction and planning of ordnance depots is not one of design as much as it is the result of a bureaucratic process that navigates hundreds of pages of Army Regulations (AR),Field Manuals (FM), and Department of the Army Pamphlets (DA Pam).  Removed from the world of building codes or zoning, these spaces formalize under the influence of Blast Radii, Explosive Clear Zones, Hazard Zones.  All measured in Emergency Withdrawal Distances, Explosive Safety Quantity Distances, and Net Explosive Weight.

These unique constraints produce a graphic and formal language familiar yet enigmatic.   The sensitivity of these landscapes and their high security means they are rarely experienced from the ground by anyone outside of the military or those civilians that work in them.  Their locations are rarely Secret, and if one knows what they are looking for, they can be found on Google Maps.  It is from this privileged aerial view and, perhaps the more privileged view from the ground, that these landscapes can be understood for their graphic and formal qualities.

Earth Covered Igloo.
Graphic Landscapes
A defining characteristic the ordnance landscape is its immense scale.  The amount of space needed is related to the distances required between storage areas.  Far surpassing the scale of normal warehouse storage, explosive storage often stretches over hundreds or thousands of acres of land.  In the case of the Blue Grass Army Ammunition Depot, the land used exceeds the area of the town of Richmond KY, population 31,000, which houses most of the workforce of the depot.  Like the towns they often dwarf, these depots expand with time, adding new areas of storage, creating a grain or patchwork reminiscent of agricultural landscapes or even some urban conditions.  This grain is produced by the soft shadows of the sloped magazines and the interweaving road and rail systems that service them.  The grains character is defined by the organizing constraints used to insure safety of workers and reducing the risk of explosive propagation, the chain reaction of explosives setting off other explosives.  Not always as simple as an evenly spaced grid, the patterning of an ordnance landscape is as unique is finger print (which they sometimes resemble). 

Regularly spaced magazines are given their own cul-de-sacs producing a suburban form, or perhaps a line of cartoon characters
Other patterns resemble suburban neighborhoods.  Perhaps an analogue can be found between explosive distances and suburban vanity.  Perhaps not.  Much like evenly spaced McMansions, the magazines are often serviced by branching roads ending in neat cul-de-sacs.  Others our found in long street-like rows.  Still more seem to be organically grown patterns resembling coral.  On closer inspection, one finds this is caused by the restrictive turning ability of trains, that roll directly up to individual magazines.  Others may recognize the patterning as that of ostrich leather, with its distinct bumps.  One cannot deny that the cartoonish figures that seem to be in certain configurations.  In all cases, these sometimes-fantastic patterns are the simple manifestation of regulatory planning, dictated by attempts of ultimate efficiency and safety.

Igloo Spacing

Spacing Pattern

Minimum Explosive Distance

 Formal Landscapes
The story on the surface of the Ordnance Landscape is the same as from above, but told in a very different way.  No longer can one sense the grain of the vast tracts of land.  Yet, at the same time the patterning, or perhaps more appropriately the cadence, of the landscape is often more pronounced.  Long, quite, roads are strung with man-made “earthworks”, each with their own suburban style driveway.  The landscape is nearly unbroken, save for slits where heavy steel doors lead into the earth and the occasional bald magazine is crowned with concrete instead of grass. 
DA PAM 385-64 Diagram of different Earth Covered Magazines
Safely storing explosives presents a paradox, which is solved in a unique way.  The safest place to store explosives is in the earth, underground.  This presents a problem though.  Outside of the simple cost of digging storage space, moving explosives, which are often extremely heavy and sometimes volatile, vertically can be extremely dangerous (Depot landscapes are usually extremely flat partially for this reason).  In a compromise, the explosives are kept at grade, and the earth, with the help of steel and concrete, is blanketed over.  The result are free standing caves, or blisters in the land.  Once again, the functional safety concerns produce an effect perhaps found nowhere else.  A surreal landscape, seemingly endless when experienced.  Other aspects add to the effect of this thickened surface.  Though much of the unused land between the neighborhoods of magazines is often forested, the areas directly around them is always manicured.  This procedure is a fire precaution, producing something of a grassy savanna.  Each magazine is distinctly read emerging from the ground.   When workers draw explosives, the heavy wide doors of the magazines are pulled open reveling the (sub)terranean pocket.  Not unlike ants, forklifts move from the shade-less surface into the cool earth carrying precious cargo.  In the case of older storage areas this effect is even more pronounced.  The older Igloos, only having smaller vault-like doors, force workers to carry their loads in and out by hand.

An explosive will spend the majority of its existence in one of these ordnance landscapes.  This seems appropriate, as these places are built for the sole purpose of providing a home for such unwanted neighbors.  Unfortunately, these are not the only landscapes that are defined by their relation to explosives, but they may be the most unique.  They have the sensibility of a State Park, with lush green forests, and fields filled with animals, safe from highway traffic.  Yet, they can be experienced as a limbo between earth and surface.  Their function is clear and simple.  Yet, they present geometries that are anything but bland.