Michael Simonian devised “24110” as an entry for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Plutonium Memorial competition. In 2001, the Bulletin solicited hypothetical proposals for a leak-proof and securable but highly visible dump for the world’s growing stockpile of plutonium. Governments own hundreds of tons of the manmade substance, left over from power plants and dismantled weapons. It is highly attractive to terrorists, stays radioactive for at least 24,110 years-hence the project’s name-and combusts if exposed to water.
Simonian won the contest by envisioning a concrete and steel tub sunk into the ground on the Washington Mall that would hold a 500-ton stash of plutonium casks. It could be easily policed there, while silently reproaching lawmakers for their shortsighted nuclear policies. Beneath a circle of peeled-up lawn and playing fields, the concrete lip of 24110 would be embossed with portraits of politicians and scientists as well as logos of nuclear-industry corporations.
A capillary layer of gravel and volcanic tuff atop the casks would theoretically expose pedestrians to just .01 REM annually. (According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the average person receives about 360 millirem of radiation per year.) Raying out from the walkway would be 241 “clock totems,” a series of flared steel tabs, one of which would be bolted to the ground every century to mark the passing of a little plutonium half-life.
“Most monuments have been very safe, passive. This is very confrontational and active,” Duane Smith said. “It’s making a strong statement, but it’s also beautifully designed-something rare in monument design.” Robert Probst added, “The location is brilliant. Obviously it’s truly a concept, but if it were built, it would be a courageous gesture. The United States, which is technologically, politically and sociologically in the leadership of the world, should provide leadership in environmental stewardship. This would be a demonstration of commitment to a global problem, showing that the leaders are aware and hopefully taking steps toward remedies.”
Eve M. Kahn
Q&A WITH MIKE SIMONIAN
Why did you decide to enter the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ competition?
It was a chance to combine my interests in both design and political activism. There aren’t that many opportunities in design in general with more than a show-car contest approach, a capitalist approach. Even in “green” design, you don’t often get beyond the idea of “eco-friendly.” Usually the best you can talk about is the physicality of your product not ending up in the trash.
How did you select the monument’s location?
I haven’t been to Washington, D.C., since I was six years old, but I did a lot of research about the layout of that part of town. The location is one of the more powerful aspects of the design. Since September 11, the patriotic attitude has silenced what I think is the more patriotic concept, which is dissent. In placing the monument there, I’m going against the trend of “you shouldn’t speak out against this great country.”
How has 24110 affected your other design work?
When I present my work, I always show 24110 now. Some clients barely pay attention; it’s so far from what they’re interested in. It resonates with others, and they want to discuss it. I consciously show it as part of what I am, and what I do.
If 24110 were built, do you think people would still play ball on that field?
Probably. But if they hit a home run, the ball might roll back into the infield.
BIO Michael Simonian, 32, grew up in Whittier, Calif., surrounded by cutting-edge design and designers: His father, William, an architect, co-founded the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Simonian studied industrial design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and in Switzerland and then worked for such firms as Fitch:Worldwide, Hauser and Krohn Design. (His Tuffet Stool, a bouncy footstool that Simonian and Lisa Krohn created in 1994, is part of MOMA’s permanent collection.) A skateboard company Simonian co-founded, Flowlab, has sold thousands of boards with pavement-hugging, curved axles, and its Ollieblocks also won an award in the Consumer Products category in this year’s Annual Design Review. He now runs a solo practice in San Francisco, where he’s developing office products for Herman Miller with astro Studios, and is the Mike in MikeAndMaaike, a partnership with his girlfriend, Dutch-born designer Maaike Evers.
DESIGN Michael Simonian, San Francisco
MATERIALS | FABRICATION Stainless steel-lined concrete tub, volcanic, tuff and coarse gravel capillary layer, cast-iron and steel plutonium casks, steel clock totems, concrete cover with landscaping
SOFTWARE Adobe Photoshop, Alias/Wavefront, Ashlar-Vellum