The Mythology of a Fraught Architecture

Published on: December 10th, 2013

Some ways down an unnamed offshoot of Highway 413 in the small surf village of Rincón, Puerto Rico is a surprising structure, the decommissioned Boiling Nuclear Superheater Reactor—colloquially known by its friendly acronym, BONUS. I first encountered the building—a hulking, futuristic dome with a tarnished mid-century-aqua façade—while vacationing a few years ago on the recommendations of some surfer friends. They gave the town high marks, if not for the waves than for the accessibility of Rincón’s other tropical offerings—cheap bungalows, roadside burrito stands, a lack of paved roads—that make the town seem far more exotic than the two-hour plane hour plane ride suggests. The landscape did not disappoint; all the visible signifiers of casual, unencumbered beach town were there: shanty motel compounds, oceanfront villas-for-rent, barefoot, sunburned surfers milling on the corners. Until I took off along the beach away from town, not an aesthetic detail had contradicted my preconceived notions of the place, and certainly none pointed to a nuclear history.

The downtrodden nuclear reactor sits about ten minutes from the center of town on foot. It’s a path many take, as the now rusting hemisphere stands teasingly close to the shores that have made Rincón a global surf destination (the closest beach shows a rare instance of local ownership of the reactor—it’s called ‘Domes’). Like most buildings housing nuclear projects, BONUS speaks to a vernacular of ideological—not regional—aptness: a silent swell removed from its buoyant surroundings by a full-enclosure fence, the structure is an undeniable outlier, despite its ocean-blue siding. The site is a confirmed non-threat, having been emptied and decontaminated only eight years after its original 1960 construction, when budget constraints and recurrent structural issues forced the shutdown of the Atomic Energy Commission’s ambitious superheating testing program housed inside. Yet, despite museum proposals by zealous science advocates, the site stands vacant and ostracized, an icon of a remote cultural and historical circumstance.

The reactor’s aberrancy is not merely a product of an aesthetic variance from its environment; rather, the sense of place nurtured by Rincón’s landscape—one of ease, of timelessness—is disturbed in BONUS’s midst. Superimposed upon the cultivated benignancy of a town whose livelihood is surf competitions and road-side taco stands are the sentiments—national anxiety, governmental secrecy, general distrust—that gave birth to the fraught architecture five decades ago. Isolated and anachronistic? Yes. Technically harmless? Also yes. Yet visitors to the area still question its hand in a conjectured frequency of cancer in the Rincón vicinity, and all signs point to the failure of attempts to convert its grounds into a cultural attraction. Perhaps this is because, as the dome comes into focus at the end of the road, the shape’s mnemonic capability is plain—it recalls history like the crackle of a gramophone recording.

Rincón locals are proud stewards of their terrain, thus the reactor’s untouched, unloved adulthood suggests a residual anxiety and a collective grudge yet to be pardoned—but not one exclusive to BONUS. Reflecting the phobias of modern life distilled in the twentieth century, nuclear architecture’s mythology saturates efforts to bring its signature design into the present. BONUS’s failure to escape the implications of its own geometry speaks to this resonant power of architecture, of its ability to transpose the past onto the present by doing nothing more than standing still.

– Rachel Smith

(This is a modified version of a piece originally published in CLOG : Unpublished, Fall 2013)


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