Doomsday Architecture: Shelter for Your Deepest Fears

The city council of Menifee in Riverside County, after initial reluctance, has approved an ordinance allowing residents to build a survival shelter in their backyard. Builders will be issued permits, and city inspections will ensure that the bunkers of Menifee will be up to code.

Unlike the shelters of the Cold War, which were commendably Spartan, the current era of survival aims at relative comfort. As the Los Angeles Times reported recently, one Menifee resident plans to excavate a shelter with space to house 20 people, enough for his extended family and perhaps a friend or two.

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A company called Vivos offers more -- the equivalent of a bunker condominium complex for 5,000 residents and with all the conveniences of a spa. It's unclear what happens should the condo board begin voting owners in arrears out the bunker's blast-proof doors. There's a mega-mansion in Rolling Hills that has five floors of underground luxury, but it's unclear how well the house would withstand a zombie apocalypse.

Something homier is available from Atlas Survival Shelters, based in Montebello. ASS assembles 32-by-10-foot corrugated steel tubes that are designed to be buried 20 feet underground. According to the company's sales pitch, the shelters are supposed to withstand nuclear, chemical, and biological attack. They can accommodate three or four people. There's storage space for a year's worth of provisions.

A year in a steel tube? If that seems like your idea of hell, you might consider bidding on the house at 3970 Spencer Street in Las Vegas. The one above ground won't interest you -- too easily overrun by biker gangs/plague infected looters/UN troops. It's the house below the house you'll want to see. It's a fantasy of late 1960s terror and control.

Under 25 feet of Las Vegas sand and gravel is two-bedroom, three-bath house with a putting green, a swimming pool, two Jacuzzis, a sauna, a dance floor with a small stage, a bar, a barbecue, fake trees, elevators, and light switches that are marked Sunset, Day, Dusk and Night. The Night setting turns on the stars in the ceiling, which is painted blue with white clouds.

The bank foreclosed on the house last summer. The owner fell behind on the $2 million mortgage. As a bunker, it wasn't much shelter from economic collapse.

Shelters -- even fragile ones -- serve a purpose. Fears have to be housed as much as hopes. And there are so many new fears now, from Mayan calendars to asteroid impacts.

But the questions asked at the shelter door before it clangs shut are the same old ones.

We'll have to decide who to let in and who to keep out. Survival means above all your survival, and that means, as the literature of apocalypse pointed out, killing anyone who wanted your water, food, women, and weapons. The Rev. Billy Graham counseled otherwise during the Cold War, but he said that he understood it would be difficult to pass judgment on what a man did -- down there in the shelter -- to protect his family. The list of those who are expendable always begins with our next-door neighbors.

My parents never considered buying or building a fallout shelter, nor did any of our neighbors. A shelter dealer in Downey, across the street from the Rockwell plant, sold prefabricated, fiberglass pods for burial in suburban backyards in 1961.

No one I knew bought one.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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