North American Rockwell’s neo-Babylonian ziggurat, Laguna Niguel (1971), architect William Pereira (photo by Julius Shulman, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2004)

In popular imagination, the Cold War conjures images of bunkers, missile silos, and secretive labs and military outposts. The reality of Cold War architecture, however, is more nuanced, as cutting-edge, state-of-the-art labs and think tanks transformed suburban areas with a space-age optimism imbued with the potential for nuclear destruction.

The White Tulip test tower, Institute for Robotics and Technical Cybernetics, Leningrad (1986), architects Boris Artiushin and Stanislav Savin. Still an active research facility, the complex is now part of the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University and conducts tests for the
Russian space program SPUTNIK (Alamy Stock Photo)

During the 1950s and ’60s, suburban communities of researchers and technicians sprung up around high-tech defense industries, which were fueled by the growing nuclear tensions between the US and the USSR. This was manifested most notably in the suburbs around Los Angeles and Moscow, where scientists and engineers were drawn to newly built think tanks and research facilities. Johns Hopkins University professor Stuart W. Leslie explores this phenomenon is his essay “Cold War Suburbs: Thinking About the Unthinkable in Style,” included in the book Laboratory Lifestyles: The Construction of Scientific Fictions (MIT, 2019). This Saturday, he will be adapting his essay for a Zoom talk titled “The Architecture of the Apocalypse,” sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians, Southern California Chapter (SAH/SCC).

Notable examples of these modern, defense-industry compounds in the heart of idyllic Southern California include the RAND Corporation’s “waffle building” in Santa Monica, designed by architect H. Roy Kelley. Labelled by Leslie as “perhaps the ultimate Cold War think tank,” RAND exerted a major influence on US military policy, and was satirized in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove as the Bland Corporation. Also significant is the Laguna Nigel headquarters for aerospace and defense contractor North American Rockwell, a million-square-foot, ziggurat-style structure designed by William Pereira. Although Rockwell never occupied the building, it was taken over by the General Services Administration, and the land around it became home to one of the largest planned communities in Southern California, according to Leslie.

The situation in the Soviet Union mirrored that in the US, as white collar technocrats and scientists were enticed to the defense industry’s suburban campuses with state-of-the-art scientific and military facilities and modern housing. “Whether in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, or even in Novosibirsk in far off Siberia,” Leslie writes in his essay, “Soviet Cold War communities became, like their American counterparts, privileged enclaves of work and leisure for the theory class, though with apocalyptic intent.”

RAND Corporation’s “waffle building” in Santa Monica, California, in the early 1960s, architect H. Roy Kelley (photo courtesy the RAND Corporation)

When: August 15, 1pm (PDT)
Where: Zoom (RSVP by emailing

More info at SAH/SCC

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.

One reply on “Cold War Architecture in the Heart of Idyllic Southern California”

  1. The Cold War? Is that why pop music, rock, disco, r’n’b, punk, jazz, even country music was more interesting back then? Because it could all just go away in a nuclear attack, so make the most of life now?

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