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How the Pentagon Got Its Shape 473

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the yay-holiday-weekends dept.
Pcol writes "The Washington Post is running a story on the design process for the Pentagon building and why it ended up with its unusual shape. In July 1941 with World War II looming, a small group of army officers met to consider a secret plan to provide a permanent home for War Department headquarters containing 4 million square feet of office space and housing 40,000 people. The building that Brig. Gen. Brehon Burke Somervell, head of the Army's Construction Division, wanted to build was too large to fit within the confines of Washington DC and would have to be located across the Potomac River in Arlington. "We want 500,000 square feet ready in six months, and the whole thing ready in a year," the general said adding that he wanted a design on his desk by Monday morning. The easiest solution, a tall building, was out because of pre-war restrictions on steel usage and the desire not to ruin Washington's skyline. The tract selected had a asymmetrical pentagon shape bound on five sides by roads or other divisions so the building was designed to conform to the tract of land. Then with objections that the new building would block views from Arlington National Cemetery, the location was moved almost one-half mile south. The building would no longer be constructed on the five-sided Arlington Farm site yet the team continued with plans for a pentagon at the new location. In the rush to complete the project, there was simply no time to change the design."
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How the Pentagon Got Its Shape

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  • by xmas2003 (739875) * on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:02AM (#19299951) Homepage
    Here is the printable version [washingtonpost.com] ... as noted at the bottom, this this is an excerpt from an upcoming book The Pentagon: a History by Stephan Vogel. Newspapers tend to do these reprints over 3-day weekends since not a lotta news happening - here's something ... uhhhhh ... exciting [watching-paint-dry.com] happening today ... ;-)
  • by TheCreeep (794716) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:03AM (#19299957)
    Ever heard of the law of fives ?
    • by Lehk228 (705449) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:06AM (#19299997) Journal
      almost 20 years before the founding of discordianism?

      impressive.
    • by boarder (41071) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:01PM (#19300411) Homepage
      That's funny... I'm reading The Illuminatus trilogy right now.
      • by fm6 (162816) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:34PM (#19300633) Homepage Journal
        Ah yes, the ultimate conspiracy theory book. Proof that your can explain anything if your just assume a big enough conspiracy. Interesting that it still finds an audience in the post-LSD era.
        • by RexRhino (769423) on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:28PM (#19301405)
          The Illuminatus Trilogy is a humorous work of fiction. It doesn't try to explain anything. It is a comedy novel, like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, except about conspiracies instead of space-travel. It finds an audience in the post-LSD era, because it is still funny.
          • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:08PM (#19301621)
            > The Illuminatus Trilogy is a humorous work of fiction. It doesn't try to explain anything. It is a comedy novel, like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, except about conspiracies instead of space-travel. It finds an audience in the post-LSD era, because it is still funny.

            The Illuminatus Trilogy is a humorous work of non-fiction. It successfully tries to explain everything. It is a comedy novel, like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, except about conspiracies instead of space-travel. It finds an audience in the post-LSD era, because it is still relevant.

            ("Both of the preceding statements are true. Both of the preceding statements are false. Both of the preceding statements are irrelevant.")

            The passages on Celine's Laws [slashdot.org] are particularly relevant today. You don't need a conspiracy to explain Gulf War II. You just need Saddam's lieutenants swearing up and down that the WMD projects are going well -- because they know they'll be shot if they tell the truth. Nor do you need a conspiracy on the American side -- you just need a bunch of paranoids listening in on the conversations between Saddam and his lieutenants.

            Saddam: "How are my nukes?"
            Lieutenant: "What nukes?"
            Saddam: *BANG*
            Lieutenant #2: "Gulp... umm, actually, they're going very well, sir!"
            Lieutenant #3: "Yes, it's going very well!"

            America: "What's Saddam up to?"
            Spies: "Well, every one of his lieutenants say his nukes are almost ready, sir!"
            America: "Launch the missiles!"

            Some folks might even find the following little snippet of dialogue to be relevant.

            "Their grip on Washington is still pretty precarious. They've been able to socialize the economy. But if they showed their hand now and went totalitarian all the way, there would be a revolution. Middle-readers would rise up with right-wingers, and left-libertarians, and the Illuminati aren't powerful enough to withstand that kind of massive revolution. But they can rule by fraud, and by fraud eventually acquire access to the tools they need to finish the job of killing off the Constitution."

            "What sort of tools?"

            "More stringent security measures. Universal electronic surveillance. No-knock laws. Stop and frisk laws. Government inspection of first-class mail. Automatic fingerprinting, photographing, blood tests, and urinalysis of any person arrested before he is charged with a crime. A law making it unlawful to resist even unlawful arrest. Laws establishing detention camps for potential subversives. Gun control laws. Restrictions on travel. The assassinations, you see, establish the need for such laws in the public mind. Instead of realizing that there is a conspiracy, conducted by a handful of men, the people reason--or are manipulated into reasoning--that the entire populace must have its freedom restricted in order to protect the leaders. The people agree that they themselves can't be trusted."

            Not bad for the 1970s.

            It's not true unless it makes you laugh.

            But then, to bring us back on topic, my first thought on 9/11 was to wonder if he got out of the Pentagon. Unfortunately, it looks like he did.

          • by fm6 (162816) on Monday May 28, 2007 @07:50PM (#19303479) Homepage Journal
            Bullshit. Shea and Wilson were completely serious. If you look through the conspiracy literature of the 60s and 70s you'll find every single idea propounded in this trilogy. Flying saucers. Who killed JFK? Magic numbers. Various LSD-induced visions propounded as serious philosophies. And a lot of this crap was written by Shea and Wilson.

            Back around 1975, I read an interview with those two drug-addled bozos. They'd propound some lame conspiracy theory. The interviewer would point out some obvious flaw in their theory. They'd say "Yeah, I guess you're right, but isn't it interesting that..." and proceed with something equally lame. They weren't interested in thinking about any flaws in theirs ideas. They just wanted to propound them faster than sceptics could shoot them down. Which has always been SOP for the Secret Truth crowd.

            Nowadays, idiots who are in love with their own ideas and can't be bothered defending them have replaced "but isn't it interesting that" with "lighten up!" It's still a cop out.

    • by Goaway (82658) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:17PM (#19300511) Homepage
      The numerology of Discordianism was the most annoyingly inappropriate part of the Illuminatus books. A religion that worships chaos uses the numerology, the ultimate victory of the human tendency to force patterns and order onto chaos over sense?
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:04AM (#19299971) Homepage Journal
    That's a pretty good cover story. Really they had to radiation-shield the pentagram that locks down the devil at its center, with lots of authoritarian human bodies to absorb the extremely high frequencies that scorch souls.
  • by SpaghettiPattern (609814) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:08AM (#19300019)
    How the Pentagon Got Its Shape... (It's pentagonal.)
    This vividly reminds me of "the time when the milkman was 47 minutes late" [wikipedia.org]
  • by jimijon (608416) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:14AM (#19300081) Homepage
    At least they were honest back then. Now it is called the "Defense Department"?! HA!
    • by AchilleTalon (540925) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:25PM (#19300573) Homepage
      Knowing the best defense is attack, they are in fact still honest.
    • by INT_QRK (1043164) on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:10PM (#19301265)
      Cute and pithy notwithstanding, the pre-1947 "War Department" referred to what is now the Department of the Army. The other "military" Department prior to 1947 was the Department of the Navy (same name as now) which governed, and still governs the U.S. Navy and U.S Marine Corps. The National Security Act of 1947 "unified" the services under a new Department of Defense (DoD), governed by a new Secretary of Defense cabinet level official. The Act also founded the Department of the Air Force as a separate service from the Army (was the Army Air Corp). So, the three military Departments under DoD now are the Department of the Army (USA), Department of the Navy (USN & USMC), and Department of the Air Force (USAF), their Secretaries demoted (War and Navy Secretaries anyway) from cabinet level positions.
  • by iONiUM (530420) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:15AM (#19300093) Homepage Journal
    I kind of expected the definition of the origin of the math pentagon: "After 4 sides, a square, became so useful we had to think for years about how to top it.. and then it came to us: FIVE sides".
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:16AM (#19300103)
    ..."Rectangle", "Quadrilateral", and "Square", tested poorly in focus groups.
  • What!? (Score:4, Funny)

    by lawpoop (604919) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:18AM (#19300117) Homepage Journal
    You mean all those conspiracy web sites that claim that the shape of the pentagon and capitol hill are giant satanic drawings are bullshit!?
  • by suzerain (245705) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:24AM (#19300175) Homepage
    Pretty much everything we do just conforms to the limitations of our environment. It's all we can really do, after all. That the Pentagon's shape happened because of an artificial "environment" (the shape of a plot of land) is irrelevant. And then, the shape wasn't changed when it was moved because of a lack of time...well, this is also pretty common, I think.

    I'm not trying to pooh-pooh the article, but it's just kind of...well...you know, my shoe is shaped kind of oblong and rounded because, well, that's how feet are shaped. Isn't that amazing?

    I guess what I'm getting at is...erm...why is this interesting? I guess the only news here is the bit about how it was shaped to fit one site, then moved. Riveting stuff, that.
    • Re:why fight it? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by honkycat (249849) on Monday May 28, 2007 @01:25PM (#19300971) Homepage Journal
      I dunno, non-rectangular buildings are rare. Given the high profile nature of this one, and the fact that its shape became its name, the fact that it has a really mundane reason behind its unique design is interesting to me. You can imagine all sorts of strategic or philosophical reasons why they might have singled out a pentagonal ring shape for the building. But, it's none of those... it's just a quirk of history, and the explanation of that quirk was newsworthy to me. It's also interesting as a window into bureaucratic decision making.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:30AM (#19300209)
    WW2 was a special time in the history of the public service. Projects were approved and built at a pace that embarrasses us today. Sure, the military had a bureaucracy but there was a war to be won. Everyone focused on being effective. Petty bureaucrats with petty bureaucratic concerns were swept aside.

    The lessons were learned in WW1. When that war started, the British officer corps was incompetent. They were in charge of the empire's troops and there were massacres of Canadian, Australian, Newfoundland etc. troops. The colonies weren't about to put up with that. In fact there is a story that the Canadian prime minister hauled the British prime minister out of his chair by his lapels and made it very clear that, if there was another such massacre, the Canadians were going home. The incompetent British officers were replaced by competent colonials. By the time the Americans arrived, they had some very good models of military efficiency to copy. (You could also make the argument that they weren't that stupid in the first place.) In any event, when WW2 came along, the lessons learned in WW1 were still living memory.

    Sadly, given enough peace time, the fat bloated bureaucracy rears its ugly head again. The meritocracy is suppressed. If we had to build another Pentagon today, it would cost too much and take too long, and some company close to certain politicians would get rich. In fact, looking at the corruption and waste of money in Iraq, I'm feeling very depressed.
    • by Detritus (11846) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:06PM (#19300449) Homepage
      One area where the Brits and Americans had to relearn the lessons of World War I was anti-submarine warfare. Only after many ships were sunk, and lives lost, did they reinstitute the convoy system that had proved so successful in the previous war. It was if the allied navies had suffered a collective attack of memory loss and were determined to repeat all of their previous mistakes. In contrast, the Germans had developed and practiced new tactics to make more effective use of their modernized submarine fleet. The damage to the allies was only limited by the relatively small size of the German submarine fleet and design deficiencies in their torpedoes.
    • by Brandybuck (704397) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:49PM (#19300725) Homepage Journal
      The "bureaucracy" worked only because everyone was cowed into uniformity of purpose. That is too high a price to pay. The WWII era was not a free society.
    • by dcollins (135727) on Monday May 28, 2007 @06:00PM (#19302801) Homepage

      There was definitely corruption and inefficiency on the part of the U.S. during WWII (as in any war I know of). However, there were people in government dedicated to finding such corruption, exposing it, and resolving it. That's specifically how Harry Truman came to public fame. If only our current administration allowed such a thing!

      He gained fame and respect when his preparedness committee (popularly known as the "Truman Committee") investigated the scandal of military wastefulness by exposing fraud and mismanagement. His advocacy of common-sense cost-saving measures for the military attracted much attention. Although some feared the Committee would hurt war morale, it was considered a success and is reported to have saved at least $11 billion. In 1943, his work as chairman earned Truman his first appearance on the cover of Time Magazine. (He would eventually appear on nine Time covers and be named the magazine's Man of the Year for the years 1945 and 1948.[30])



      Truman's diligent, fair-minded, and notably nonpartisan work on the Senate committee that came to bear his name turned him into a national figure. It is unlikely that Roosevelt would have considered him for the vice-presidential spot in 1944 had the former "Senator from Pendergast" not earned a new reputation in the Senate -- one for probity, hard work, and a willingness to ask powerful people tough questions.




      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_S._Truman#Defen se_policy_and_the_Truman_Committee [wikipedia.org]
  • by the_tsi (19767) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:33AM (#19300233)
  • They're using this fictional history as a way to cover up that Yog-Sothoth is imprisoned in the center. Certainly the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was an attempt to free Yog-Sothoth [necronomi.com] (see the "Elder Sign" section).
  • by $RANDOMLUSER (804576) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:02PM (#19300417)

    In the rush to complete the project, there was simply no time to change the design."
    I know I've heard something like this before. Where could it have been? Where could it have been?
    Ah, never mind, I'm sure they'll get it right in rev 2.
  • by mfriedma (945835) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:58PM (#19300785)
    I thought everyone knew this, but I guess not...

    A pentagon is a very traditional shape for fortifications. Reason is very simple. If you have a pentagon shaped fort then each side of the fort can provide supporting fire to its two adjacent sides.

    A sides on a square fort cannot provide supporting fire at all. Sides on a hexagonal fort can but with a hexagonal fort you can only get 50% of the defenders firing against an attack on a side. With a pentagonal fort you can get 60%. This basic fact makes a pentagon the most effective shape for a fortification, assuming no terrain features to change the situation.

    It would be an amazing coincidence if The Pentagon was pentagonal for any reason but this.
    • by ScentCone (795499) on Monday May 28, 2007 @01:14PM (#19300901)
      It would be an amazing coincidence if The Pentagon was pentagonal for any reason but this.

      Um... other than the fact that the Pentagon is NOT a fortified facility, and that fortifications of pretty much anything bigger than a bunker were already old news by the time the building was designed. It could be a bit of an homage to the old fort designs, but in the middle of WWII, they weren't feeling particularly arty at the time. Occam's Razor goes to the story in the article: the very rushed designs were drafted around a roughly pentagonal plot of land in Arlington, and construction was quickly moved a bit at the last minute, without time or inclination to redesign it. It's hard for people today to even begin to know what it felt like to be truly wrapped up in a period like WWII... we know nothing (as civilians) of that degree of nationwide effort and expense aimed at combatting forces intent on our subjugation/destruction and how much that tends to dimish things like architectural squabbles and design life cycles.
      • by Headw1nd (829599) on Tuesday May 29, 2007 @12:12PM (#19310235)
        I'd say the important point of the grandparent poster is that military architects would have been familiar with what would have been to them a traditional five sided design. And while the pentagon is not a fortress, per se, I think it would be remiss to overlook its very fortress-like qualities. We are talking about a building that was hit by what was essentially a gigantic cruise missle hold a massive fuel air payload, that resulted in fewer than 200 total casualties in the facility. Analysis made in The Pentagon Building Performance Report shows that even before recent improvements, the pentagon was a very resilient structure. I feel it's important to consider that while there were no bombs falling on Washington in 1941, the possibility hung in the air that there soon would be.
    • by Hamster Lover (558288) * on Monday May 28, 2007 @01:50PM (#19301127) Journal
      The article details that Army officials noted with pleasure how the pentagonal shape recalled the era of pentagonal shaped fortifications.

      Anyway, if you read at least the first page of the article you would have learned that the Pentagon was originally sited close to Arlington National Cemetery on an oddly shaped tract of land bounded on five sides, thus necessitating the five-sided nature of the building. When members of Congress and other officials protested that the monolithic design would obscure the view of Washington from L'Enfant's tomb, the building was moved to its current location.

      When I was about nine years old, my father and I were discussing the shape of the Pentagon and the reasons for the unique shape of the building. I concluded that perhaps the shape recalled the branches of the military of government that occupied the various wings of the building; Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Joint Chiefs/Secretary of Defense. That's what I thought, at least.
  • The real reason was that certain other countries had a building with FOUR sides and the people who built the pentagon were thinking, fuck it all, we're going to FIVE BLADES..errr SIDES!!!

    TLF
  • by antiaktiv (848995) on Monday May 28, 2007 @01:02PM (#19300817)
    Screw the pentagon, i want to know how this [google.com] military building got its shape.
  • WWII looming? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by telso (924323) on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:28PM (#19301407)

    In July 1941 with World War II looming....
    WWII was already in full blown force by July 1941: the Battle of Britain had already finished 8 months earlier (2 months if you talk to German historians), Germany had just invaded the Soviet Union, with occupied territories spanning France to Greece, North Africa to Norway, and the Holocaust was already moving along frighteningly quickly, with ten of thousands already killed and hundreds of thousands already rounded up into camps. Japan had already invaded much of eastern China, some of French Indo-China and had Korea for years.

    Can we please get rid of the attitude that WWII started on 7 December 1941. I always find it interesting that the British (and even the occupied Dutch) declared war on Japan the same day the Americans did, but not only did the Americans take two years to declare war on Germany, they didn't even declare war on Germany first--Germany declared war on the US [wikipedia.org]! Looming indeed!
    • Re:WWII looming? (Score:4, Informative)

      by jim_deane (63059) on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:18PM (#19301687) Journal

      In the United States, World War II was looming in July 1941. Many countries were involved, Germany was on the move, the Pacific was looking to heat up, and here in the U.S. there was much debate between isolationists and non-isolationists about our potential involvement.

      We weren't directly involved yet, so for us it did still LOOM in 1941. I expect someone in Russia would describe it much differently, with different dates. Similarly, Russians call it something like the "Great Patriotic War" rather than "World War II".

      It's the old "three blind men describe an elephant" problem.
    • by multipartmixed (163409) on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:26PM (#19301743) Homepage
      You know, America's lateness in WW-II used to always bother me.

      Then I realized -- the new "pro-active" America bothers me a LOT MORE.
  • July 1941?! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nagora (177841) on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:43PM (#19301493)
    Er.. WWII started in 1939 (with pre-war practice in China starting in 1931-37). By 1941 it was well under way.
    • Re:July 1941?! (Score:4, Informative)

      by bagsc (254194) on Monday May 28, 2007 @09:45PM (#19304135) Journal
      "Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives: yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

      The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

      It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

      The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

      Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.

      Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

      Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

      Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

      Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

      And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

      Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

      As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

      But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

      I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

      Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

      With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounded determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God.

      I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."
  • skyline??? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by moosesocks (264553) on Monday May 28, 2007 @04:41PM (#19302267) Homepage

    The easiest solution, a tall building, was out because of pre-war restrictions on steel usage and the desire not to ruin Washington's skyline.


    Hold up... skyline!! What skyline? DC has laws stating that no buildings may be over 20 feet taller than the width of the street they face. What DC has is a profound lack/i> of skyline!

    Poor urban planning and laws like this have, of course, caused many of the city's problems. The sprawl around DC is absolutely unbelievable.
  • by wikinerd (809585) on Monday May 28, 2007 @08:18PM (#19303627) Journal
    I actually think that the Pentagon is beautiful. However, I think its shape is too distinct, and is prone to aerial attack. A pilot would easily find it even without a map. Shouldn't such an important building have an ordinary shape, be camouflaged, or lie completely underground?

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