Proposed Architectures for Nuclear Waste Disposal Sites.
This post isn’t a book review, but I pride (or should that be “delude”??) myself in assuming that anybody who reads my blog will likewise be interested in functions of language beyond the immediately literary.
So, I saw this online and I thought it was cool. It’s a shortened version of a report into the long-term storage of nuclear waste; specifically that waste which has a half-life of many millennia. Any such site of long-term waste storage would need to remain undisturbed for as many as 10,000 years – well beyond the lifespan of any thus tested human civilization. In 10,000 years’ time, maybe there will be no extant record of the English language? In 10,000 years’ time, maybe some atavistic catastrophe will have regressed human society to pre-industrial levels of technology. Who knows? The problem this report attempts to address, then, is this: how do we transmit a warning sign into the distant future? The need is for some system of communication that isn’t dependent on our own, culturally-specific frames of reference and signs. Our pictorial symbols for ‘radiation’ or ‘keep out’ might be completely meaningless to some far-future civilisations. Thus what’s needed is an easy to decode form of language that would survive tempestuous shifts in culture, society, technology and environment: we’d need to make sure that no wandering nomad (or who or whatever) stumbles upon the nuclear waste and starts digging around.
In essence the task at hand is this: to devise a system of language that will signify the concept “Danger!” without resorting to primarily textual or verbal lexical signifiers.
We obviously recommend that a very large investment be made in the overall framework of this system, in the marking of the entire site, and in a communication mode that is non-linguistic, not rooted in any particular culture, and thus not affected by the expected certain transformation of cultures. This mode uses species-wide archetypes…of meanings bound to form, such that the physical form of the site and its constructions are both message content and mode of communication. Thus, the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself.
As part of a system of message communications, we recommend substantial use of verbal texts and graphics, but with little emphasis on constructed, non-natural, non-iconic symbols. These texts and graphics act as indexes to each other, and act as indexes across message levels. We also suggest the site be marked so it is anomalous to its surroundings in its physical properties such as electrical conductivity and magnetism.
The writers identify four levels of message that would, ideally, need to be transmitted:
- Rudimentary Information: “Something man-made is here”
- Cautionary Information: “Something man-made is here and it is dangerous”
- Basic Information: Tells what, why, when, where, who, and how (in terms of information relay, not how the site was constructed)
- Complex Information: Highly detailed written records, tables, figures, graphs, maps and diagrams
The most basic solutions to these problems come primarily in the form of proposed above-ground architectures: grand-scale, durable constructions designed to function as linguistic signifiers of warning and danger. Basically: big, scary buildings that, through design alone, will encourage people to stay away from the site. Any such markers should, of course, be constructed from valueless material in order to limit potential stripping for minerals (a la the Pyramids), and they should be arranged in such a way that does “not suggest shelter, protection or habitation”.
The report contains some really fascinating detail about the linguistic potentialities of architecture, as well as some theories about pan-cultural communication. Symbols that have always been interpreted in the same way by many diverse cultures: “placement of anything at the dead-centre would suggest it is of the utmost importance, occupying the place of the greatest privilege.”
If you want to be twee about it, you could argue that the crux of the task is to discover the universal metaphors inherent in large-scale architecture:
In symbolic terms, we suggest that the largest portion of the [site] be kept left open, and few (if any) structures placed there, so that symbolically it is: uninhabited, shunned, a void, a hole, a non-place.
I won’t précis the whole thing, as I’m going to include a link at the end of this article. But the report made me think about language in unusual ways: cross-cultural, non-textual etc. etc. I’m sure architects are used to thinking about buildings in such linguistic terms, but perhaps not with such urgency and clarity as would be demanded by this project.
The report concludes with some design concepts: outlandish and intense stuff that poses a lot of questions about how buildings can “mean” but which also appeal to me on an OH MY GOD IT’S SO COOL level.
Here are some images, and below them a link to the report.