Hiroshima's Fateful Lessons

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A civil architect specializing in blast resistance, Lt. Robert L. Corsbie is survived by his collection of photos from Hiroshima

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Last week I visited one of my favorite museums, New York's International Center for Photography (ICP). One of the three exhibitions was moving in its own right -- Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, a cache of photographs taken by a team sent to Japan to record the structural damage of nuclear weapons at concentric circles from the blast. Part of their power is in the absence of people, or rather their ghostly presence where their bodies left shadows projected by the blast.

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Behind the survey was not only the desire to develop new American weapons, but also the anxiety that Hiroshima could happen here. One man drew his own consequences. Lt. Robert L. Corsbie was an architect who served on the team and preserved the photographs after leaving the military for civilian practice as an architect. His experience qualified him as one of the pioneers of Cold War architecture for blast resistance, which he felt civil defense authorities and the public were neglecting in their concentration on radioactive fallout risks. Corsbie became the chief architect of the Atomic Energy Commission, a designer of some of the first fallout shelters, and a pioneer of blast-proof civilian building. An AEC spokesman called him "the most expert of the experts," and his daughter recalls that among her father's private commissions was a shelter for Johnson & Johnson's herd of milking cattle.

Corsbie prospered and moved into a nine-bedroom Tudor mansion overlooking Ossining, New York, familiar to viewers of the television series Mad Men. Then in 1967 the building was engulfed in flames, apparently started by the remains of candles the Corsbies had lit for a party the previous evening. Two hundred firefighters responded but were unable to contain the blaze. The building's extra-thick construction, evidently a showpiece of Corsbie's approach to thermonuclear protection, made it impossible to channel the flames outward and upward by breaking through the roof and windows. By the time firefighters reached them, Corsbie, his wife, and their 20-year-old son had perished, overcome by smoke. Yet the photographs and other records remained largely undamaged in the basement, making the exhibition a doubly moving documentation of Cold War engineering.

(The above is based on an exhibition catalog still in press, not on the exhibition labels. I am grateful to ICP for a preview.)

Image: International Center of Photography


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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