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Military Generic

"Should abandoned military installations be preserved?" I had a conversation about this and Treasure Island with a city planning student. I was at a party full of city planning students, and not being able to hold a conversation on actual city planning, I somehow managed to find a conversation topic that would leverage my love of Treasure Island and my childhood as a military brat.

Treasure Island is a manmade island that served as naval base from World War II to the early nineties. The conversation focused on whether the redevelopment of Treasure Island should try to preserve some of the military architecture and the cultural landmarks, such as the chapel where many people had been married back in the day.

voisin.small.jpg yokosuka.towers.small.jpg okinawa.towers.small.jpg

(a long, boring, rambling essay on Military Generic, ugly architecture, McDonald's, Suburbia, Le Corbusier, and the expectations of a military childhood in the extended)

We use place as a means for storing memory -- a particular tree, a certain window can be the catalyst for a long-un-remembered memory or memories. When we return to a place and find those elements gone, we are often jarred by the manipulation to our memories -- do we form a 'new' place in our memory distinct from the old (e.g. "this is not my home anymore"), or do we merge in the new details, sometimes forgetting what we there before? In the case of the husband and wife, what happens when the place of their wedding is erased into a blank canvas? A desire to maintain place, and thus memories, is an important element of culture, but it is at odds with military culture as well as the expectations I have as someone who grow up in a nomadic military family.

courtney.underpass.jpgIn Treasure Island conversation, an argument made (by neither of us) was that there is no need to maintain the military architecture because military architecture is generic. The quality this argument relies on is easy to support. One of my favorite photos I've found online is one captioned, "If you have lived on Courtney, you will know this underpass!". The Camp Courtney movie theater is also memorable.*
* (it has a large "Courtney Theater" sign across the front)

Ignoring underpasses and prominently labelled buildings, the term 'generic' seems generous when applied to military architecture. The apartment towers on two bases I lived on are the ultimate realization of Le Courbusier's brutalist Plan voison pour Paris:

voisin.small.jpg yokosuka.towers.small.jpg okinawa.towers.small.jpg
VoisonYokosukaOkinawa

It is clear that military architecture approaches the pinnacle of generic architecture. This generic quality, though, does not answer the question of preservation. People preserve and treasure baseball cards, childhood toys, and other artifacts of our commodity culture, often using them as a doorway to the past, and, if we focus on architecture, it is difficult to argue that generic architecture is inherently replaceable. American Suburbia drives homes towards uniformity. Even in Ireland it was easy to spot the new homes: just look for several identical homes in a row.

I remember stepping off the school bus ten years ago, thinking I knew which house was the one my parents had just bought. I went up to the door, and as a complete stranger answered the door, I finally realized what I had been too unobservant before to notice -- the entire block consisted of two house designs. I was lost. I've since learned to use shutter colors to distinguish the houses. But even as Suburbia transforms two- and three-story houses into commodity goods, I don't want to see my parent's generic home torn down.

The military-architecture-is-generic argument strikes me as an aesthetic argument, but if ugliness demanded destruction, the entire MIT campus would have to be razed several times over. Cambridge might cheer, but the MIT students would no longer have ugly architecture to release their pent-up anger at. In order to address the question of preservation, a more social argument is needed: military life is generic.

All military bases are familiar, which is necessary because you have to adjust quickly, though design costs probably took precedence over psychological comfort. The house you move into will be waiting for you with its white walls and champagne-colored carpets. These are not to affordances of a blank canvas for you to paint on, but of a sterile lab that you setup your equipment in. You learn over time that the Air Force bases are grander and more fun, but all you really need to know is that you buy your clothes at the Exchange/PX/BX and your food at the commissary, and when you go out for a nice dinner it's at the Officer's Club; if you're lucky your base may even have a McDonald's. If you're in need of fun and entertainment, the Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) center should be able to answer any questions as to what to do in your free time.

Military culture uses generic-ness to cover its ephemeralness. When you go to a McDonald's while visiting a foreign country, is it because McDonald's is the best food you can imagine eating, or is it because you don't have enough time to discover where the good local food joints are? The McDonald's I saw in Europe seemed to have a high concentration around the train stations.

The replicated qualities of military bases provide a continuity to a disjoint experience that involves relocating thousands of miles every two years. Even if you can eliminate your own spatial transientness it wouldn't matter, because every six months a quarter of the people you know will move away, and after two years most of your social group will have been replaced. Although the buildings may appear to stay the same or similar, things are constantly changing, and to solidify the ephemeral quality, once you move, you rarely, if ever, can go back.

I've only returned to the place I was born once. Imagine merging the memories of a three-year-old with that of fourteen-year-old. What I had remembered as a huge four-lane road was transformed into a quiet two-lane residential street. Some of the transformations were real: what had been a beautiful bay inlet with a scuba diver swimming around became a concrete landfill. I didn't reacquire any lost memories, but the old memories were validated and realigned, and my knowledge of the base was expanded. It would have been much more difficult if my mom was not present to guide and explain.

Without my mom the return would have been mostly architectural, not social, and even architectural visits become impossible as an adult: your military ID card expires by the time you graduate from college, so unless you have the itch to enlist your access is revoked. Friends and family provide the social facilitation of remembrance, but even if you could track down your military childhood friends, the reunions would be without place.

Through the Internet I can virtually return to my old bases, even finding out what the current typhoon condition is. In the past week I've been exploring the place of my memories by seeing what familiar photos and maps I can find. The Military Generic opposes my goal; I try anyway, recording what I find in this blog entry. I found this photo online on a housing page for the base I was born on. This could be the very unit where I spent my first four years, but I really can't tell, and I'm not sure my parents could either:

photo

The underpass is easier to recognize, and it reminds me of many walks I've had through it, the fields that I played in nearby on one side, my friends' homes on the other. Other online discoveries have brought unexpected new knowledge. There's now a Starbucks on one of the bases that I lived on, proving that the Military Generic can involve to include new forms of generic. I also hear that they get satellite TV now on base, so perhaps there is better programming to replace the single M.A.S.H.-filled channel that I grew up with, but they still probably have to wait until 4 in the morning to watch the Spurs win Game 7.

I've enjoyed my virtual return to place, and I would enjoy a physical return even more, even if I would lose the jigsaw-puzzle-like quality of exploration that comes in the form of fragments returned by search engines. Unlike Treasure Island, the bases I lived on are unlikely to be closed, so this will have to suffice for now. I can understand the desire of former Treasure Island residents to see their old home preserved through redevelopment, but even if everything is destroyed, nothing was lost, for that is the nature of military life. Anything that is preserved will gain permanence and access, so they have everything to gain.

Comments (2)

Anonymous:

Ah, so by connecting you to Le Corb, I connected you to your past...
- hl

gwg:

Wow...nice entry on Treasure Island.

Having lived on 14 USAF bases all over the world, it is an interesting topic.

Have you seen the documntary film "Brats Our Journey Home" yet?

http://www.bratsourjourneyhome.com

It might be interesting to you.

gwg

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