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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 Kjella (173770) on Monday May 28, 2007 @10:08AM (#19300017) Homepage
    Historical trivia on how one of the most known military buildings in the world came to be, I'd say. If they thought the Pentagon was built that way to fit the enormous pentagram in the basement and that the US military is run by devil worshippers, they'd simply do so. Right up there with the flat earth society and those that believe the moon landing was a hoax. Both of which should be put on a one-way rocket to crash into the moon's surface, HHGTTG style so they'd hopefully realize their error along the way, but that's a different story.
  • by trolltalk.com (1108067) on Monday May 28, 2007 @10:45AM (#19300303) Homepage Journal
    At the risk of being way off-topic, the truth is the best flame-bait. Different people have different versions of the truth - try talking sense to anyone who believes in "Intelligent Design". Or who thinks Iraq isn't another Viet-Nam. Or who thinks Windows is the only "legal" operating system.
  • by Detritus (11846) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:06AM (#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.
  • Re:Permanent home? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by the_ed_dawg (596318) on Monday May 28, 2007 @11:20AM (#19300537) Journal
    The Zimbardo Prison Experiment [prisonexp.org] at Stanford in 1971 illustrated that normal people can become exceptionally cruel under circumstances where one group dominates another. These were just random students. By the end of it, even Professor Zimbardo had joined in. It took an outside colleague to end the experiment.

    The guards were given no specific training on how to be guards. Instead they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners.

    The guards broke into each cell, stripped the prisoners naked, took the beds out, forced the ringleaders of the prisoner rebellion into solitary confinement, and generally began to harass and intimidate the prisoners.

    The guards again escalated very noticeably their level of harassment, increasing the humiliation they made the prisoners suffer, forcing them to do menial, repetitive work such as cleaning out toilet bowls with their bare hands. The guards had prisoners do push-ups, jumping jacks, whatever the guards could think up, and they increased the length of the counts to several hours each.

    There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were "good guys" who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior. The only link between personality and prison behavior was a finding that prisoners with a high degree of authoritarianism endured our authoritarian prison environment longer than did other prisoners.

    I ended the study prematurely for two reasons. First, we had learned through videotapes that the guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no researchers were watching and the experiment was "off." Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and degrading abuse of the prisoners.

    Second, Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other's shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality. Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended.

    Like most people, I'm disgusted by the actions of those guards at Abu Ghraib. However, the suggestion that the guards at Abu Ghraib would have signed up anyway is contrary to experimental data. The prison environment converted normal Stanford undergraduates into abusive prisoners and a well-established professor into a vindictive superintendent.

  • Re:why fight it? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by honkycat (249849) on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:25PM (#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 Hamster Lover (558288) * on Monday May 28, 2007 @12:50PM (#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.
  • by INT_QRK (1043164) on Monday May 28, 2007 @01:10PM (#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.
  • WWII looming? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by telso (924323) on Monday May 28, 2007 @01:28PM (#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!
  • by KillerBob (217953) on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:06PM (#19301603)

    IIRC, after that tragedy the Canadians amended their constitution to say that only volunteers could be sent overseas.


    Canada didn't actually get a constitution until 1982. During WWI, there was talk of implementing conscription to fill the war need, and there actually was some conscription going on in Quebec and parts of the prairies, but there was a huge backlash against that. Thankfully, the war ended before any of those conscripts were sent overseas.

    After the war, we didn't update our constitution, because we didn't have a constitution to update. We did, however, pass a law that banned conscription outright.

    *sighs* I wish we'd gotten rid of income tax, too. Officially, it's a "temporary war measure", that was supposed to be repealed at the end of WWI, lol. Here we are, almost 90 years later, and they still haven't gotten rid of it.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @02:08PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:02PM (#19302017)
    Bear in mind:

    1) The French seaboard fell a lot quicker than expected, giving Germany use of Atlantic ports. This effectively extended the range of the German submarines.
    2) The British believed, with some good reason, that ASDIC had removed the submarine threat.
    3) Forming convoys is not very easy. It's expensive, the man-power required at the ports has huge spikes when convoys arrive, and the convoy can only go as fast as the slowest member.

    The British delay in introducing convoys has often been criticised, but consider other countries record:
    - When the US entered the war, they did not institute any sort of convoy system for the first few months, despite UK advice to do so. German submariners called this 'The Happy Time'.
    - The Japanese had already lost their merchant fleet before they even started to consider convoys.

  • skyline??? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by moosesocks (264553) on Monday May 28, 2007 @03:41PM (#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 @07:18PM (#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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