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Pyramids of waste

“What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? Will America’s pyramids be pyramids of waste?”

–Giles Slade, Made to Break (2006)

I think that Giles Slade meant for this comment to be ironic, not taken literally. In the opening of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Slade compares the landfills of modern America with the pyramids of ancient Egypt. As Slade would have it, it is an indication of our societal decadence that the great mounds that we raise are not tombs for our god-kings but final resting places for our junked PCs, outmoded cell phones, and plastic pop bottles.

Of course, ordinary domestic landfills don’t really look like pyramids. Sometimes they have rectangular ground-plans; often they don’t. But there is at least one waste-containment mound that actually resembles a pyramid. It is in Missouri. And I’ve been there.

Weldon Spring Site is 30 miles west of St. Louis. During World War II, it was home to a munitions plant, which was converted to a uranium-processing facility in the Cold War. Like so many other Cold War industrial sites, Weldon Spring had plenty of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste lying around when it was abandoned in the 1960s. The Department of Energy took over the site twenty years later and began cleaning it up. All the untreatable chemical and radioactive waste from the site was entombed in an enormous mound. With its sloping sides and flat top, the mound looks a bit like a Mesoamerican pyramid, not so much an Egyptian one. (It is also a little reminiscent of the Cahokia Mounds nearby in Illinois, built by the Mississippian mound-builders.)

I should hope that some of modern America’s more inspiring monuments prove as durable as our pyramids of waste. At least what the Weldon Spring pyramid says about us is that we cared enough to clean up the mess we created (albeit twenty years late).

The Weldon Spring waste mound from across the visitor center parking lot.

The Weldon Spring waste mound viewed from the visitor center parking lot.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotiuhuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotihuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

View of Vienna from Stephansdom.

From fortress to boulevard

The most picturesque part of Vienna, a city known for its beauty, is Ringstrasse, the Ring Road that encircles the oldest part of the city. The broad, attractive road wraps around three sides of the historic city center, with the Danube River closing the loop to the north. Many of the city’s most important cultural and civic buildings line Ringstrasse, including the opera house, Rathaus (town hall), the Austrian parliament, and an assortment of museums and libraries.

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Ringstrasse is a legacy of the Austrian Empire, when Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire eight times the size of Austria today. Emperor Franz Josef, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, spearheaded the development and beautification of his capital city early in his reign. In 1857, he authorized the most dramatic change to the city: demolishing the old defensive works to make room for Ringstrasse and the buildings alongside it.

But what were these defensive works that made way for Ringstrasse? When I first learned about Ringstrasse on a wonderful but brief visit to Vienna eleven years ago, I had the impression that they were medieval walls, made of stone. This didn’t really make sense to me, though, because medieval walls, such as those that still stand in Rothenburg, do not take up much space—not nearly as much as Ringstrasse and the neighboring buildings. In fact, Vienna had been defended by early-modern fortifications. The city’s medieval walls had been torn down and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to defend against the Ottoman Turks. A large open area in front of the defensive works, known as the glacis, was kept clear to offer a clear field of fire. The buildings of Ringstrasse were constructed on the land that had been kept open for the glacis.

Early-modern defensive works had a low profile and a large footprint. Consisting mostly of large earthen berms, the fortifications were designed to defend against the offensive weapon of the age: the smooth-bore cannon. The earthworks absorbed the impact of cannonballs, which could easily shatter stone defenses. These early-modern defenses were in vogue until the introduction of rifled-bore artillery, which made its debut in the American Civil War.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Many (but not all) early modern-fortifications had triangular projections at regular intervals along the berms or walls—the origin of the nickname “star fort.” The projections allowed soldiers standing on them to shoot at attackers from either side, trapping them in enfilading fire. An 1858 map of Vienna, drawn before the old defenses were demolished, shows triangular projections at regular intervals along the wall.

Another city that once had early-modern fortifications, but does no longer, is Frankfurt. The German city’s approach to using the land freed up by the demolition of the defenses was different from Vienna’s. The land once occupied by Frankfurt’s defenses is now taken up by a park that wraps around the historic city center. Even some of the triangular star-fort projections have been converted into parkland. They are visible on modern maps of the city—a telltale sign that this park was once an early-modern fortification.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

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An Ode to Concrete

“This is Bombay, my friend, Bombay. Here the buildings are made of cement, and people’s hearts are made of stone.”

-The Beggar, Shree 420 (1955)

David Edgerton explains in his book The Shock of the Old that concrete, asbestos-cement, and corrugated metal are examples of creole technologies—technologies that originated in one place but took on new uses and meanings elsewhere. These materials in their modern forms were western inventions, but they have been particularly significant in the development of the poor world.1

It would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to imagine modern India without concrete. The material can be produced cheaply and worked easily by either labor-intensive or capital-intensive methods. As such, it is the foundation—both literally as well as metaphorically—for much of India’s infrastructure.

The following gallery illustrates the complex and varied uses of concrete in contemporary India.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42-3. []

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