The Radford Army Ammunitions Plant

[the radford army ammunitions plant- RAAP- and the New River]

Obsolete military installations rightly receive a good deal of attention from designers these days, and this trend has only increased in the last year with all of the focus on national parks and their role in making the territory.  On a recent episode of the terragrams Casey Brown makes a compelling argument for landscape designers turning their sites toward functioning militarized landscapes.  Today we’d like to imagine a Marxist turn to this speculative trend, and propose that a further emphasis on modes of production might enable a more varied and nuanced response to the militarization of the landscape and acts of territorialization.

In the years leading up to World War II the United States was woefully underprepared for major combat operations.  One of the primary responses to this situation was the proliferation of Army Ammunitions Plants across the American landscape.  With the fall of France in 1940 congress appropriate defense funds and over 60 ammunitions factories were constructed across the nation in a three year span.  The first batch of three were constructed as models for similar installations where many of the concepts and demands of a modern ammunitions plant were tested.  One of these original test plants is located outside of the town of Radford in southwestern Virginia. 

Built under the auspices of the Department of Army Matereial Development and Readiness Command (DARCOM), the Radford plant produced the single-base smokeless powder that was the primary propellant for American military ammunition in WWII.  Reading through the bewildering treasure trove that is the Historic American Landscapes Survey we can learn that site selection was governed by seven criteria:
1) a southern location to ensure easy access to cotton (a basic raw material for smokeless powder production.
2) access to coal suitable for steam production
3) a mid-continental location as a defense against enemy bombardment
4) proximity to two main railroad lines
5) availability of an ample water supply for processing purposes
6) a relatively level site to avoid excessive grading
7) availability of suitable labor.

The tiny mountain town of Radford was built on the banks of the New River which is the only river that flows west through the Appalachains to become part of the Ohio River Valley.  As such, it served as a gateway to the west and was a logical nexus in the railroad network as it expanded west in the 1850’s.  It’s proximity to the coal areas of West Virginia and the base flow of the New River and flat floodplain afforded the opportunity for easy building required by the military in war time.
[the worker housing at the Radford Army Ammunitions plant was definitely not blast proof; the architecture seems to fit nicely between the shitty company town of pre-WWI and post-WWII ticky-tack suburban housing]

One requirement seems problematic, however.  Given what the military had learned of the difficulties encountered when inculcating southern labor to the demands of military culture with the Harpers Ferry debacle, why would they ever choose to locate another arsenal in deep western Virginia?  We have a theory:  it probably had to do with the massive polytechnic land grant university just 8 miles up the road that was literally created in the name of cranking out engineers, technicians, and farmers well-versed in the rigors of technological labor (for a short insight into this idea check out JB Jackson’s “Looking into Automobiles”, or for a much longer exigesis, David Noble’s America by Design).

Reading further in the historic survey we read the explanation for the particular and fascinating spatial patterns and objects within the arsenal landscape: 
Buildings used in the first stage of the process, where the material handled is highly flammable but not explosive, are grouped together in a section known as the “cotton area.”  Those used in the second stage, where the material handled is highly explosive, are widely spaced and form what is called the “powder line.”  Material is conveyed from one building to another first by flumes, then by motor trucks, and finally- when the highly explosive stage is reached- by small hand carts.

… From here on a unique type of construction, adapted to handling explosive materials, is required.  All of the buildings in the powder line make use of “blow out” construction designed to control the direction of an explosion through one or more extremely light screens which will “blow-out” with a minimum increase in the air pressure within the building.

A second method of limiting the effects of explosions… is used in the solvent recovery buildings and those in the finishing area, which are spaced from all other buildings and from each other and surrounded by barricades.  Spacing varies according to the maximum amount of explosive which is to be processed or stored in the building at any one time. 

Barricades are constructed of heavy timbers with a plank face on each side and a screened dirt fill, making a solid wall with an average of approximately 5-foot thickness to absorb the shock of any possible explosion.  Their height roughly corresponds to the height of the buildings they surround.

These dueling axes of design- the internal genetic logic versus the environmentally determined- offer a compelling and seemingly complete theory of arsenal landscapes, a notion that is advanced Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition.  Unfortunately, this does not account for the agency of the landscape itself, but rather assumes it is merely the result of the friction created between internal logic and external relations, like a town that springs up at the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.  Levi Bryant says it better:  “missing in Deleuze’s mapping of developmental relations, however, is a role for the agent itself in its own construction.” 

At the RAAP this can be seen in the post-war history of the place, and the recent developments on the site.  In its WWII heyday the arsenal employed over 20,000 workers and the facilities still contain 2,754 buildings, 132 roadway miles, 26 railroad miles, 21 miles of security fence, and 60 miles of piping.  The workforce has been reduced to 2,000 and the site is now operated by ATK as the sole producers of TNT for the US Army.  TNT, trinitrotoluene, was historically produced at the site with a process that created a toxic residue called “redwater” which then had to be disposed of.  This process, as well as the constant blast testing, coal fired power plant, and other propellant manufacturing processes resulted in the arsenal being included in the EPA’s superfund program in 2000

[if the rail tracks are the internal logics and the road is the environmental forces, is that a landscape we see materializing there in the middle ground?  or a dodge stratus?]

In 2007 a new process of TNT manufacture was developed at the plant which eliminates the redwater waste stream for a compound called isotrioil.  According to the USAEC’s website the new process reduced greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of ten, and the isotrioil waste product is useful as a component of dynamite, which is coming in handy in the DOT project to widen Interstate 81 just down the road.  Many of the arsenal’s old buildings and facilities are vacant and there is evidence in the aerials that the vegetation of the flood plain is reclaiming some of the old buildings, despite the presence of acid drainage pools and heavy metals.

In some ways the project is exciting- it is a real example of what Pierre Belanger describes as the “latent reciprocity between industry, waste, and urbanism,” and suggests that the re-integration and activation of our soiled industrial sites need not be limited to park-making.  More than that, though, we are interested in the topologicalaspect of these landscapes, and the agency of the places themselves, set in a sort of duel with its own genetic makeup and the forces acting on it.  There is something about a landscape that has the capacity to endure even when the internal logics fail or the external relations are disrupted. 

And now, please enjoy a short google earth tour of some other ammunitions plants.  They are the very essence of the phrase difference and repetition and are our twisted, god-forsaken heritage; let’s not blanket them all with a 19th century historical landscape typology.

[the lake city ammunitions plant in buckner, missouri]

[the army ammuntions depot in hawthorne, nevada; covering 147,000 acres it is the largest storage facility in the world]

[red river ammunitions depot, in texarcana, TX]

[the massive and now obsolete army ammunitions plant in Charlestown, Indiana]

[the obsolete Joliet ammunitions plant in Wilmington, Illinois]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s