A huge pyramid in the middle of nowhere tracking the end of the world on radar. An abstract geometric shape beneath the sky without a human being in sight. It could be the opening scene of an apocalyptic science fiction film, but it’s just the US military going about its business, building vast and other-worldly architectural structures that the civilian world only rarely sees.
The Library of Congress has an extraordinary set of images documenting the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex in Cavalier County, North Dakota, showing it in various states of construction and completion. And the photos are awesome.
Taken for the US government by photographer Benjamin Halpern, the particular images seen here show the central pyramid — pyramid, obelisk, monument, megastructure: whatever you want to call it — that served as the site’s missile control building. Like the eye of Sauron crossed with Giza, it looks in all directions, its all-seeing white circles staring endlessly at invisible airborne objects across the horizon.
The pyramid’s location is given somewhat absurdly as “Northeast of Tactical Road; southeast of Tactical Road South.” Like I said, then, it’s in the middle of nowhere.
One thing I like so much about these shots is how they remind me of the hulking Mayan ruins found at Chichén Itzá.
Check out these comparative shots, for example, where the latter image was taken by photographer Henry Sweet during a 19th-century archaeological journey led by Alfred P. Maudslay. The photo was featured as part of an exhibition at the University of North Carolina back in 2007.
There is nothing really to compare outside of their same overall geometry, of course — yet it’s striking to consider the functional, if obviously metaphoric, similarities here as well.
One structure was built as part of a kind of divine tracking system for celestial events and epic calendars, as dark constellations of gods spun across the sky; the other was a temple to mathematics built for pinging incoming missiles as they streaked horizon to horizon, a site of early warning against the apocalypse, as nuclear warheads would burst open to shine their artificial world-blinding light on the obliterated landscapes below.
Trajectories, paths, horizons: both pyramids, in a sense, were architectural monuments for navigation of different kinds. Both timeless, strange, and seemingly inhuman, spatial artifacts of a lost civilisation.
In any case, the original photos on the LOC website are heavily specked with dust and some lens artifacts, but I’ve cleaned up my favourites and posted some of them here.
But this is how modern-day pyramids are made: huge budgets and ziggurats of rebar, as tiny figures wearing hardhats scramble around amidst these Herculean forms, checking diagrams against reality and trying not to think of the nuclear war this structure was being built to track. [Library of Congress]