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I took a sculpture class once devoted to scale, and one of our assignments was to build a model of a monument. The monument I designed, and built out of wire and mud, was the wreckage of a twentieth-century power plant half interred in a barren mesa; it was supposed to be a wordless warning to future civilizations to avoid the environmental hubris of our civilization. It was also an excuse to work with mud, one of my favorite mediums. I was partly inspired by this image, although it did not actually function as a warning in the film; I assume the apes were impervious to the pathos of the scene.

The appeal of ruins is a subject that has been fully appreciated and explored elsewhere, but their ability to communicate highly specific messages, rather than just the inevitable downfall of decadence and the eroding effects of the sands of time, deserves further investigation. Most ruins provide a picturesque memento mori, a reminder that something went terribly wrong, but using ruins to determine what the ancient disaster entailed is more complex.

Of course, our society uses archaeology to determine the details of ancient occurrences, but we have no way of knowing how future civilizations will approach the ruins we bequeath them. Given that much of what we leave behind will no doubt be hazardous or toxic, our ruins must send a clear warning signal to future occupiers. This brings me to the Yucca Mountain Project, which cloaks our civilization's horrifying legacy in a diverting design challenge. In 2002, Congress approved President Bush's proposal to create of a massive underground storage facility for nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, a volcanic ridge 80 miles outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. After widespread outcry from environmentalists, the Obama administration stated that the site was no longer an option. The facility is being examined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and whether or not it is eventually built will depend on the next administration's political bent.

Diagram of the facility

Regardless of whether the waste is dumped at Yucca Mountain, it will have to be contained somewhere. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stated: "Yucca was supposed to be everything to everybody, and I think, knowing what we know today, there's going to have to be several regional areas." When the Yucca Mountain Project was still on the table, the Department of Energy decided to design a monument to be placed over the facility to scare away any future explorers, and the need for such monuments grows more pressing as we produce more waste. Their hope is to find a design so freaky that no alien visitor or future humanoid would even approach it. Human curiosity has proved itself a powerful force, and we must assume that any other Nevadan explorers will be just as curious, so the task is incredibly daunting. The potential for miscommunication is staggering when one factors in different languages and cultures, let alone species and life forms. And the waste will remain toxic for 100,000 years, so the DOE has to account for many evolutionary--or interplanetary--developments.

This monument needs to achieve what I was going for in my wire and mud sculpture: something so desolate and forbidding that no one would even approach it, for fear of suffering the same fate as whoever built it. It must at once convey the rise and fall of a civilization, eliciting admiration and pity for its creators. Most of all, it must be clear enough to make further investigation unnecessary.

In order to meet this challenge, the DOE asked a group engineers, archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists to design an structure, using known archaeological sites as precedents. Their design consists of a 33 foot tall berm filled with salt (??), 48 Stonehenge-like granite monoliths, each inscribed with cautionary messages in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Navajo, as well as images (presumably alarming). An underground information center will detail the the contents of the storage facility. Thousands of small inscribed warning markers buried around the site, will frighten off unambitious excavators. 

This design suffers from lack of imagination as well as general weirdness. Why would a bland monument vaguely in the style of other more ancient monuments scare anyone away? So far, enigmatic arrangements of stones have only stoked the flames of curiosity. And the warning messages seem a bit optimistic as to humanity's role in the future (especially Navajo speaking humanity!). Thanks to President Obama, the monument will not be built for a while, if ever. Perhaps the DOE should use this time to commission Lebbeus Woods to design something suitably horrifying.

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Lebbeus Woods