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The Begich Towers: A Real Life Arcology

The word “arcology” conjures up images of high-tech, densely-populated skyscrapers, but real-world examples show that this isn’t often the case. In the tiny town of Whittier, Alaska, nearly the entire population lives in an abandoned Cold War Era ex-Army building. But they don’t just live there. They work there. They go to the hospital there. They live their entire lives without ever needing to leave. Today, we’re going to talk about this strange arcology project, Begich Towers.

Origins

At the start of 1941, the town of Whittier didn’t exist. America was preparing for a potential World War, and the US Army was looking for a new port town with access to the Pacific. They needed a new military harbor and logistics center that could work in conjunction with their base in Seward, Alaska. The Army considered locations throughout the massive state and settled on a previously uninhabited area about 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Anchorage (the state’s largest city).

passage canal
Passage Canal .By Enrico Blasutto, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

They named the base Camp Sullivan, but before sending troops there, they needed to complete a railroad to connect the area to the rest of Alaska. The railroad required its own megaproject, as the passage to civilization was blocked by the massive Maynard Mountain. The result was the longest tunnel in America, coming in at 4,050 meters (13,300 feet) long, and granting access to Camp Sullivan via the Alaska Railroad.

Despite its remoteness, the location provided a few advantages. Firstly, though it allowed access to the Prince William Sound, it was located on a smaller body of water called the Passage Canal. This meant the water was calmer, creating more favorable conditions for a harbor. Second, the Passage Canal was a deep-water and ice-free harbor, which is not common in Alaska. Third, the area had notoriously cloudy weather, meaning it was safer from potential attacks by airplanes.

While WW2 caused a delay in Camp Sullivan’s development, the plan became even more critical with the Cold War’s emergence. Alaska’s strategic location near Russia made the harbor even more important for shipping in troops for war with the USSR. So, in 1953, the Army put together a plan for a ten-building complex. The area would serve as a harbor and launching point and as a headquarters for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Construction began a few years later. However, instead of following through with the original ten-building plan, they decided to stop after just two buildings. Those two buildings, called the Hodge and the Buckner, were hailed as “the largest, most modern inhabited structures built by the Corps of Engineers since the Pentagon.” 

buckner building 1953
Buckner Building 1953.By Gabor Eszes, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Then, on March 27th of 1964, tragedy struck. The Good Friday Earthquake rocked Alaska from an epicenter just 60 miles away from Camp Sullivan, leading to tsunamis and landslides throughout the region. The quake was registered at magnitude 9.2, making it the second-largest earthquake ever recorded. One hundred twenty people were killed, including thirteen stationed at Camp Sullivan. However, as a testament to the Hodge’s and Buckner’s quality, neither building sustained any severe damage. By the end of the year, the Army turned over the Hodge Building to the public and condensed its operations to the Buckner Building. 

The Army continued to house over 1,000 troops in the Buckner for the next two years, earning itself the nickname “the town under one roof.” However, the Army abandoned it in 1966, and the building was passed from uncaring owner to uncaring owner, leading to its eventual demise. Instead, the Hodge building became the roof under which the entire town lived. 

The Town Under One Roof 

The late 60s marked Camp Sullivan’s transition from a military base to a town with private citizens, capped off by incorporating as a town called Whittier in 1969. The Hodge Building immediately became the city’s focal point, serving as office space for various public services. In 1972 the town voted to rename the building Begich Towers after a beloved Alaska congressman who died in a plane crash that year. By 1974 much of the building was converted into apartment-style housing. 

The new Begich Towers includes 196 units, enough to house the entire town. The structure stands 14 stories high with a rectangular plan and a flat roof. The complex consists of three connected modules that make up the main structure and two separate modules connected via tunnels. Inside, long hallways and elevators allow residents access to all areas of the complex. 

Though the building has never been full, it quickly became a popular home for locals. Most of the apartments were converted from offices, though one notorious unit was originally a jail. The renovators determined to leave the original bars on the bedroom doors and steel bunks hanging from the walls. Not to worry, though, as there is supposedly a beautiful view of the water through the barred window.

Of course, merely converting much of the building into housing wouldn’t qualify it as arcology. The building earned that rare designation by including all the necessary services to sustain human life without ever needing to leave the building. Amenities include the local grocery store, doctor’s offices, a laundromat, the police station, and a multi-faith church. The town’s mayor and city council operate from offices within the building, and the tower connects to the local public school by an underground tunnel. Recreation areas include an indoor swimming pool and playground, both vital for wearing out children who can’t play outdoors during the town’s two-hours of sunlight in the winter.

Of course, while it’s quite convenient to carry out all of your daily errands without ever leaving the building you live in, there are few downsides to having so much of the cities economy tied up in one structure. For example, the building is supplied by two water boilers, one of which was out of service for many years. Reports from 2015 show that the single working boiler experienced almost daily malfunctions in the wintertime, as pipes regularly froze over and limited access to hot water for most of the city.

In 2016, the local government applied for a grant from the US Department of Agriculture to renovate and update the building. The funding was approved, giving them $3 million for upgrades to the mechanical system and the facade. The most visible change was a new pastel paint job for the building’s exterior, though residents probably prefer the updated water heater that works year-round.

Life In The Towers

Until 2000, Whittier was not only a town under one roof but also one of the least accessible cities in America. For the first half-century of its existence, the area could only be reached by boat, plane, or train. However, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel opened at the turn of the millennium, giving Whittierites the ability to drive in and out of their town through the claustrophobic one-lane tunnel.

The tunnel connects Whittier to Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, opening up opportunities for the town’s inhabitants. Some residents now make the hour-long commute to Anchorage for work each day, but the increased access also led to more jobs within the tiny town itself. Whittier’s highly accessible port has made it a surprisingly popular disembarkation point for cruise ships sailing along the Alaskan and Canadian coast. Of course, these ships sail exclusively in the summer months, when temperatures soar up to a toasty 10 degrees Celsius (fifty Fahrenheit), meaning the local economy and population fluctuate dramatically with the seasons.

begich tower
Whittier, Alaska, Begich Towers.By sf-dvs, is licensed under CC-BY

At its height, the population is just over 200 people, most of whom live in Begich Towers. Neighbors are understandably close with one another, often hosting school lessons or city council meetings in their homes while cooking lunch. Many inhabitants attempt to create mental separation between work and home by refusing to return to their apartments during the day. However, it’s hard to ignore the convenience of living just an elevator ride from your workplace. Speaking of elevators, the towers’ lifts tend to get backed up during the morning and evening “rush hour,” though the stairs are always an option.

Getting out of the towers has become increasingly popular with the towns more prominent citizens, seeking solitude from nosy neighbors who are always just down the hall. Of course, there is only one other option for housing in Whittier besides the towers, so alternatives are slim. It seems impossible to truly escape your neighbors in such a small town, whether they live down the hall or across the street.

Residents take advantage of the summer months by getting outside to enjoy the 22-hour sunshine, but winter months often include days with more than three meters (ten feet) of snow. Those are the days when living in the tower pays off, but they also reveal a strange irony of existence in Begich Towers. Despite sharing an apartment building with most of the town, tenants are closed off from the rest of the world. As a result, social claustrophobia is just as common as immense loneliness.

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