New uses for old bunkers #21: geocaching and memory-work in German Cold War bunkers

This short post is a signpost to Gunnar Maus’ account of his investigation of geocaching and other recreational engagements with German Cold War bunkers at:

I met Gunnar briefly at the RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh earlier this Summer and I was struck by his account of the ambiguity of these places both in terms of their future use and their disciplinary status – in the sense of them falling into no singular department of study: archaeology? anthropology? real estate? history? heritage studies? In my view, a bit of each, and more.

In his blog-essay Gunnar gives an evocative account of his first encounter with hunting bunkers through the lense of geocaching. Along the way Gunnar mentions metal theft (another of my pet projects), access/trespass (and another), concrete materialities (gosh, another) and hints at their paint balling potentiality, a possible revalorisation of these emplacements as places good for fighting in. This passing aside poses the intriguing question of how paintballing ‘fun’ in real bunkers would deal with its affective and symbolic complexities. As Gunnar puts it:

“Only half-jokingly, we concurred that this would be a cool place for paintballing. But in a moment of reflectiveness inbetween our‚ play, a somewhat terrifying thought crossed my mind: This is not for play. They meant it.”

Gunnar presents his initiatory exploration in ethnographic fashion, acknowledging an anxiety attached to both an association of physical danger with these now abandoned places, and one concerned with the propriety of access: matters of trespass and land-owner reaction in his opening paragraph thus:

‘It’s April 26th, earlier this year. I’ve been anxious all day, and even the night before. I had found a geocache called‚ abgerüstet’, that is ‚disarmed’ in English, a couple of weeks before on the geocaching dot com website. The description promised exactly what I was looking for: a cache hidden at a disused Cold War military site. According to the description, this was a former nuclear arsenal run by the US Army on a German training ground. Close to the site was a German barracks complex that housed artillery and tank troops until it closed down in 2008, the cache description goes on. They are now planning a large-scale leisure centre on the grounds and the cache owner remarks sceptically: “Goodness knows if that’s really going to happen”…[and] some of the older log postings for this cache warned of an‚ angry’ forest official apparently loose in the area. Therefore, I was quite unsure whether one might have to climb fences or otherways illegally gain access to the site, which I wasn’t really prone to do. One couldn’t really tell from google earth’

Like Gunnar I’m shocked if its the case that anglophile geographers are unaware of geocaching. Come-on people…

Anyway, Gunnar’s essay is well worth a read and I will be following his further reports with interest.


How I kicked the habit: life, Lego and everything

There is a subculture out there, an underground movement, that I got caught up with a few years ago. This, in brief, is the story of my entrapment, and my eventual escape.

For a few years, I hung around the fringes of the AFOL cult – the self-styled ‘Adult Fans of Lego’. I learnt their ways of doing, read their books, used their on-line forums and Lego-hunting resources. It was like stepping into a parallel world. There are a lot of AFOL members out there, but most keep their plastic brick obsession secret, for fear of the ridicule of the grown up world: “what, you play with Lego!?!”

Foolishly or otherwise (probably churlishly in my case) I didn’t keep my obsession secret. I mentioned it to those who (I thought) were interested, and quickly changed the subject whenever I realised that – actually – they weren’t. But, more often than not people seemed to ‘get it’. Their eyes would look skyward in reminiscence and a smile of recalled childhood play would briefly pass across their face.

AFOLs have a way of describing the re-discovery of Lego in adulthood – they portray it as an emergence from an adult darkness, as an enlightenment. The adult life before Lego is portrayed as a personal dark age in which the joy of Lego had been forgotten, lost somewhere along the path to maturity. That moment of re-discovery, is an epiphany, a step forward into the light of a contented Lego-embrace.

In my case, it was a combination of events that led me back to the joy of multi-coloured plastic building bricks. As I recall it now, looking back from a perspective that finds me (sort of) back in the darkness Lego-wise, the paths were first sown by my (then very young) kids being given small Lego sets as presents. Helping them to put these together reacquainted me with that distinctive combinatory urge that spills out whenever two or more Lego bricks are to hand. I just fall, even now post-rehab, into fidgeting with them, cycling through the available combinations, innately judging some creations as more successful than others (there is an aesthetics by which to judge even the most simple Lego assemblages).

Then, a short while later my wife and I realised that our house was drowning in pieces of toys and related plastic tat strewn by our kids. What to do?

The initial adult urge was to thrown all this stuff away and limit the kids to a handful of ‘quality’ and sturdy, single-component toys. But then it struck us, get rid of the broken tat and move towards a toy that’s meant to be broken (in the sense of having no single form). Replace this dead toy detritus with Lego…

So, we logged onto ebay and started looking for second hand Lego. That was the start of my fall headlong into endless nights of Lego hunting. A couple of kilo (yes, on ebay Lego can be bought in big amorphous piles) would have been sufficient for our needs, but this bright shiny world sucked me in, much to my wife’s increasing frustration. I scrutinized fuzzy pictures of Lego lots, trying to work out what sets might be included, fragmentised, within these heaps. I would look for rare shapes or colours sticking up out of the pile. In a spririt of ‘reverse engineering’ I could then use online resources to identify the part numbers of those pieces and, with online directories of Lego sets work out what riches these fragments might bode (each Lego piece and every set has unique serial numbers which facilitate this obsessive archaeology).

I also got hooked on hunting particular set families – I had a Japanese book, Lego Museum 1, to guide me. It was written in Japanese, which meant I couldn’t actually read it – but the pictures, the dates, the serial numbers, countries of issue and the taxonomic curation of these sets into distinct genealogies gave me everything I needed.

Suffice it to say that for a few years, my obsessive Lego hunting was problematic within our household. Yes, the kids enjoyed playing with it, but they preferred new Lego – they wanted to play with sets that they saw in the shops, sets that were themed around films they knew (a canny move by Lego in recent years). They didn’t need Lego by the kilo, and much of what arrived sat in boxes unused.

But my thrill was in the pursuit – particularly getting a set for the fraction of the price that it would have cost when ‘new’. Often it would be possible to ‘win’ sets on ebay that had been played with (or perhaps never touched by) a child 25 years before. These would arrive (with another knowing look from the postman) at our house complete and with original packaging in pristine condition. Most ‘collectors’ at that point would make the model and then put it and the packaging safely to one side. But I found my biggest thrill was actually in (a few months later) smashing up the model and surrendering its pieces into this ever growing mound of homogenised Lego bricks. It was the sheer abundance of this plastic that thrilled me most.

The attentive reader, will have noticed that I’ve said very little so far about actually building stuff with this Lego mountain. We did, and one summer I even painstakingly sorted (a fraction of) the Lego mountain by colour and shape, as a prelude to some planned factory-scale world building project. But it never happened, there was never enough time. Much like people buy books but never get around to reading them, it was the thrill of hunting and acquiring that drove me on. This for me was a warped accumulation drive, stuff for the sake of stuff. For this reason, I can’t claim to have ever fully joined the AFOL clan. Most of these people acquire their Lego in order to do something with it, and there are some amazing examples out there of Lego engineering and creativity.

During one family conversation my wife suggested that I try adjusting my ‘hobby’ to virtual-hunting, something akin to ‘fantasy football’. She suggested that I could pretend to bid on items, that I could thereby render this pursuit an abstract one in which I was not actually spending money or bringing more plastic bricks into the house. It was a good suggestion, but didn’t feel right. Actual and virtual hunting aren’t the same. In particular, virtual-hunting offered me no ‘rush’ feeling either at the moment of a winning bid or the opening of a packet to find verification of my Lego archaeology skills.

Looking back, I think this obsession just burnt itself out. Life was too busy, I was fed up with treading on Lego pieces and my well-worn attempts to justify my continued hunting weren’t even convincing me anymore. I started a new job and other distractions and channels of ferreting around opened up. Intellectually I can see the suitability of a virtual approach to such hunting, but I don’t think that would have worked out for me. Too much of my obsession was wrapped up in a desire to create a sheer accumulating of this stuff, this mountain of potentiality, a plastic monument to my hunting and research endeavours.

But I have no regrets about this period. I learnt a lot (and not just about Lego serial numbers). First, my eyes were opened to the power of on-line enthusiast communities, the ability of fans to organise and circulate bodies of knowledge and practice in a mutually-supporting manner. This interest led me on into my studies of the on-line communities of practice of tree surgeons, urban explorers and bunkerologists (and yes, I know I will get flak for likening urbex people to Lego geeks).

Secondly, it got me thinking about urban mining. There are millions of attics around the world in each of which lie kilos of abandoned Lego awaiting rediscovery. Indeed, enough pieces have already been produced by Lego for every person on the planet to have 57 bricks (clearly, in reality, Lego-capital is concentrated in far fewer hands, and my house still has far more than its fair share). But what still intrigues me is the factors that influence whether or not this attic-Lego finds its way back into circulation and use. When I was a Lego hunter I tended to find that most sets and by-the-kilo piles of Lego tended to be around 7-10 years old, suggesting that much of this stuff is returning to the secondary marketplace when the kids for whom it was originally bought leave home as young adults. Ultimately this curiosity about resource recirculation led into my work on metal theft

Thirdly, it got me thinking about the power and endurance of classification systems and specifically the way in which Lego is physically structured as a system. It is (and was designed to be) a system of infinite combination. That combinability is a function of the uniformity of the standard brick stud design incorporated in each piece. There is now an increasingly wide variety of pieces, but they all fit together because of this ‘inter-locking’ design rule adhered to by each piece.

Fourthly, it made me aware of the power of emotional investment in toys – not only their interplay with childhood memories and absence or surfeit of toys, but also the way in which I became emotionally aligned to Lego as a brand. There are other, rival, plastic construction toy manufacturers – but they always felt like a heresy. I couldn’t bring myself to contaminate the systemic unity of my Lego mountain with Mega Bloks and other ’imitations’, even if functionally they readily could fit within it. Indeed, one of the things that (I think) helped wean me off my Lego obsession was the slight change to the plastic formulation a few years ago. Lego bricks simply don’t make quite the same noise now when rummaged, the lustre is duller and the surface texture feels different. All of this is feint and may well be imagined by me, a way of underpinning my aversion.

Finally, and most importantly, re-discovering Lego helped me to realise how my generation grew up in a Lego-world, a world shaped by a move towards componentisation and interchangeability of parts. This trend appears in both the material word (e.g. containerisation of freight, international harmonisation of product standards and the rise of system building in construction) and also in the ‘intellectual’ one: for I think playing with Lego builds a particular way of thinking, it encourages manipulation of concepts and ideas as interchangeable parts that can be known, played with and assembled into an infinite array of interesting combinations.

I could go on, but will leave it here for now, the adult world beckons. Maybe one day I will write more on this.

For now, I will close with my favourite Lego animation of them all:


NB: If you enjoyed reading this piece, you might also like to read an account of my much briefer dalliance with model railway world-building:

The politics and archaeology of ‘ruin porn’ (by Paul Mullins)

The politics and archaeology of ‘ruin porn’ by Paul Mullins (fascinating)

Archaeology and Material Culture

An enormous number of artists, urbanites, and even archaeologists have begun to focus their attention on the aesthetics and materiality of ruin in a discourse commonly dubbed as “ruin porn.”  The pornography metaphor invokes the focus on a purely self-centered gaze and seeing urban and industrial ruination for sensationalistic if not purely emotional and instinctive reasons.  Some commentators are unnerved by the implication that the mostly visual documentation of ruination simultaneously shares with pornography the un-expressible and purely self-centered satisfaction of voyeuristic viewing.  Yet artist Matthew Christopher thoughtfully defends his photographic “autopsy of the American Dream” as a “sort of modern archaeology,” making a truly persuasive case for the political might of documenting urban devastation with images and archaeological analysis alike.

The story of urban America is undeniably one of dramatic post-war decline that could truly be likened to social and material apocalypse in some communities…

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Writing lines on landscape: anyone for parkour, bmx, buildering and bunkers?

[a.k.a New uses for old bunkers #20: Danny, champion of the world, rides the crumbling concrete walls of death]

“An existing space may outlive its original purpose and the reason d’etre which determines its forms, functions and structures; it may thus become vacant, and susceptible of being diverted, re-appropriated and put to a use quite different from its initial one.” (Lefebvre 1994)

This blog essay is about the 2010 short film Way Back Home in which the bmx stunt rider Danny MacAskill stages a montage of jumps of jeopardy, perilous rides and brave balancing upon a handful of metal and concrete surfaces on a journey from Edinburgh to his birthplace on the Isle of Skye.


MacAskill’s use of ‘found’ built environment courses for his bmx stunt riding aligns his performance to parkour and to urbex. It is MacAskill’s inclusion of the abandoned South Queensferry coastal naval battery, and other unidentified defensive structures, that qualifies this post for inclusion in the NUFOB series. What I want to examine here is how these bunkers are rendered so anonymous and abstract by MacAskill’s dare devil riding. For he finds yet another way to use old bunkers: purely (and very effectively) as available surfaces for movement.  Indeed, the identity of the ‘ridden-on’ venues is not mentioned in the film, and the places are inter-cut (I identified the abandoned South Queensferry coastal battery via Google Earth, the adjacent distinctive red-box matrix of the Forth (rail) Bridge as my clue). Such details are simply not relevant. It is the generic geometry and texture of these structures that matters, their ride-ability and challenge. Although, watching the film I also felt at times that an ancillary urbex aesthetic was present somewhere in the background  – the military ruins, the reservoir, and some stunning natural scenery beyond.

The film is great, every second a testimony to the tactical (as De Certeau would style it) re-appropriation of these places, and the fullness of their three dimensionality via an anti-gravity ethic, a notion captured in a free-runner quoted by Daskalaki, Stara, & Imas:

“Society looks upon what we do as a bad thing, but they built up this concrete jungle around us. Concrete, roofs, whatever.  And we’re told we can only walk in a certain way, we can only move in a certain way. Mankind has struggled for centuries to be free. The pursuit of parkour for us is a pursuit of freedom. The first big high I got from parkour was when I was sitting on a rooftop in central London. A pigeon sat with us. We were where the birds were and I suddenly felt free.” (2008: 53)

What struck me most was how the ‘stunts’ flow in the film, presenting a graceful balletic performance staged with the Romantic aesthetic of ruins (and quaint island villages) and their serene natural scenery backdrops. This film presents a celebration of the places and movement through them. Here, there is no pause, drum roll, ‘bigging up’ preamble about how hard the stunt will be. There is just the smooth execution of the movement and the onward flow to the next. In the understated achievement of such manoeuvres the truly spectacular is revealed.

Yes, there are choices of framing, camera angle, scene selection, moody (but uplifting) musical score and thus this presentation is as manufactured as any film, but I like it – and it seems very truthful to the parkour ethic of flowing through space, and in doing so seeing structural spaces differently.

This vision – this alternative (and enhanced) reading of these spaces of movement is captured well by Edwards (2012) writing in an article on Parkour website,

“Walls, railings, buildings, barriers…structures of every shape and size cease to be seen as they were intended to be seen, and become instead components of a vast, almost limitless playground that one has hitherto referred to as ‘the city’…everywhere becomes an opportunity for movement, everything a training apparatus…the focus of parkour is the development of the individual , through learning to utilise the body in an effective manner so as not to be held back or hindered by his surroundings…in fact the terrain, the space being re-appropriated, is entirely irrelevant!…”

Edwards helpfully shows us here how the built environment and its structures are read as generic surfaces, as ramps, ledges, drops and landing strips. The history and purposes of the places through which the free runner (or MacAskill) flows is not relevant (except to the extent to which – in visual genres they may be presented as interesting backdrops to action, or places of incursion).

But whilst this kinetic reading of place renders them generic in one sense (eradicating that historic or contextual local knowledge which the archaeologist or architectural enthusiast might be seeking) the recorded act of riding, jumping and balancing seems to trace out the lines and form of the structures that are travelled over. This struck me most in the reservoir section of the film. As MacAskill rides along narrow lines of concrete or metal railings my attention is draw to them, they are mapped out before my eyes by his travel. Just as walking gives a sense of direct knowledge of a place that car travel over the same ground cannot, so MacAskill’s perilous performance upon these structures (for me) manages to communicate this physical essence in some way. He traces these lines for me, and by that tracing I feel that I too know them intimately.

In some strange way I’m reminded of decorating – by painting a room you get to fully know it: because your hand has guided a brush over every square inch. By that close attention and procession across the surface, space is claimed.

MacAskill’s appropriation of the coastal battery ruins as a three dimensional performance space maps out those structures for me, via his physical ‘reading’ of the concrete surfaces of those bunkers.

N.B. My previous post on quarry climbing as writing lines on stone, explores similar issues:

Daskalaki, M., Stara, A. & Imas, M. (2008) ‘The Parkour Organisation: inhabitation of corporate spaces’, Culture & Organization, 14 (1) 49-64.

Edwards, D. (2012) ‘Parkour Visions’ article at

Lefebvre, H. (1994) The Production of Space, Blackwell: London.

New uses for old bunkers #19: Cobbett, Martello and the Tax–Eaters

“From DIMCHURCH to HYTHE you go on the sea beach, and nearly the same from Hythe to SANDGATE, from which last place you come over the hill to FOLKESTONE. But, let me look back. Here has been the squandering! Here has been the pauper-making work! Here we see some of these causes that are now sending some farmers to the workhouse and driving others to flee the country or to cut their throats!”(150)

So wrote William Cobbett, looking back along the line of Napoleonic era forts – the Martello Towers – built in a chain along England’s south eastern coast twenty years earlier to ward off the then imminent threat of invasion from France.

In a characteristically corrosive depiction, Cobbett positions these towers as a physical embodiment of the vast military spending recently foisted upon the British by the Government of William Pitt the Younger in the form of high customs duties (e.g. the Corn Laws) and new taxes. During the Napoleonic War years Income Tax, introduced in 1799 in the opening stages of the war raised £142Million from a population of less than 14 Million. But even the combined array of new taxes and customs duties could not fully meet the cost burden of the Anglo-French arms race, and Pitt’s Government created an elaborate architecture of borrowing, swelling the National Debt from £299Million in 1793 to £834Million in 1815.

As Kennedy (2001) shows, even in the mid Eighteenth century defence accounted for over 50% of state expenditure, but  the Napoleonic War saw a ten-fold increase in military spending, with all of the ensuing taxation burdens for the nation’s taxpayers and consumers. For Cobbett, these politicians and their schemes were the ‘tax-eaters’.

Cobbett was a farmer and a politician, a blend of modernising reformer and nostalgic conservative. In his early 1830s Rural Rides (2001) he toured the southern English countryside depicting the traditional rural culture that he saw under threat from the burdens of government debt and rapid economic and social change.

Standing on the brink of Folkestone, Cobbett witheringly surveyed the military landscape that he had travelled through since Hythe, recalling hills covered with barracks, a thirty mile long defensive canal, and summating that:

“All along the coast there are works of some sort or other; incessant sinks of money; walls of immense dimensions; masses of stone brought and put into piles. Then you see some of the walls and buildings falling down; some that have never been finished” (151)

For Cobbett the Martello Towers were follies, pointless money-pits with little if any defensive power; they were warts upon the land, an infection of military debt that had left the citizens “in ruin in consequence of the Debt” (151). They were for Cobbett, shameful monuments to a Government that had spent well beyond its means, burdening future generations with the cost of these questionable schemes.

In total 103 Martello Towers were built between 1805 and 1812. The need for them had been identified in the heat of the 1803 anticipation of imminent invasion. Pitt had commissioned the Tower building programme in 1804, but by 1805 (and the Battle of Trafalgar’s demonstration of British naval superiority) the risk of invasion had receded. Yet the construction of these forts (named after an equivalent French emplacement in Martella, Corsica reported up the British military lines by a Captain William Ford)  continued unabated over the following seven years, each tower consuming 450,000 bricks to create their 13 feet thick curved walls.

Unlike Cobbett, Cruickshank (2001) whilst noting that most of the towers were built after the threat of invasion had receded, and that they were widely derided as follies once built, ascribes an important deterrent effect to them, pointing to the French having named them ‘bulldogs’, stretched out at 600 yard intervals across 200 miles of the south coast.

This network of forts remains to be seen along the south eastern coast today. Some of the towers lie in ruins, some have been co-opted to other uses – cultural centres, museums, designer-homes.

Writing of one stylish conversion (pictured here) of ‘Tower Y’ in Suffolk, Glancey (2010) rhapsodises that:

“The overall effect is magical: brick fort on the outside, palatial home within. The main space, approached from the entrance lobby, is breathtaking, with the climb up the spiral stairs enjoyably spooky, and the top floor a revelation: all light, space and comfort, with little hint of ostentation. But then you don’t need decoration when you have the sea and all its moods just beyond the parapet, with ships hoving in and out of view, and sunlight playing over that lichen-encrusted brickwork throughout the day.”

Perhaps now a beauty and purpose has now been found in these bunkers, something quite different to the “desolation of abomination, standing in high places” depiction given curse-like to them by Cobbett.

Cobbett, W. (2001 [1830]) Rural Rides, Penguin: London.

Cruickshank, D. (2001) Invasion – defending Britain from attack, Boxtree: London.

Glancey, J. (2010) ‘Napoleon-proof your home: convert a Martello tower’ The Guardian

Kennedy, P. (2001) The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Penguin:  London.

New uses for old pavilions #18 – the bunker in the park (by @dianajhale)

New uses for old pavilions #18 – the bunker in the park (by @dianajhale)


This hobbit heaven in Hyde Park for the summer is the latest in the series of Serpentine Pavilion commissions. However, this one, by the Swiss architect duo Herzog and de Meuron (designers of the Beijing Olympic Stadium and Tate Modern) with Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist (working via Skype while under house arrest), has a difference in referencing all those that have gone before. There have been eleven previous pavilions on this site which have left traces in the ground.

As we dig down into the earth to reach the groundwater, we encounter a diversity of constructed realities such as telephone cables, remains of former foundations or backfills. Like a team of archaeologists we identify these physical fragments of the eleven pavilions built between 2000 and 2011…. all of these traces of former pavilions will now be revealed and reconstructed. The former foundations and footprints form a jumble of convoluted…

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New uses for old bunkers #17: ‘the vibrant green roofed cultural centre’ – thoughts on the light and dark power of earth covered buildings

Things have been getting rather dark and heavy with this NUFOB# series lately, so I was delighted to spot @liminalcity’s (Matt Barnes’) recent tweet about the tasteful conversion of a former Swiss  military bunker into a “vibrant green roofed cultural centre”.

At first, I had in mind a straight, celebratory summary of that ‘swords to ploughshares’ scheme, but the article’s ascription of a redemptive power to installation of a green roof (a symbol of everything progressive and right-minded in the current era) got me thinking. So, this piece starts nice and fluffy but then gets darker, ruminating on another instance of the green roofing and cultural augmentation of a bunker.

The green roof on the Swiss mountain bunker

The conversion of the Swiss bunker – by architects Atelier-f – is reported by Ana Lisa Alperovich on the Inhabitat website, whose subtitle is ‘design will save the world’. Let’s hope so…

The bunker was formerly a military cable car station located deep in the forest of Fläsh and its conversion, is an impressive one – the Inhabitat feature presents photos and text accounting for the design principles and stylish achievement of the new Angebauter Tarnrucksack cultural centre.

As Alperovich puts it:

“Located within the gorgeous Swiss mountains near the Rhine Valley, Angebauter Tarnrucksack was empty and unused for years. Its solid concrete structure has been transformed and now features a modern container-like addition wrapped in metal mesh that creates space for sanitary facilities and technology. On the inside, the original windows have been left as-is, offering fantastic views down the Swiss valley. The interiors have been remodeled and new furniture was made using larch wood sourced straight from the forest outside. Because these types of shelters are solid yet very damp inside, a new ventilation system was installed to get rid of the moisture in the air. The new cultural center has an auditorium, eating space, exhibition space and toilet facilities providing a great space for the local community to enjoy culture and forget the sad past.”

Here we see a rehabilitation of a bunker in the true sense of the word. Turning the bunker back into a place of living and comfort – of desirable habitation – through design and building services retrofit.

The green roof isn’t mentioned here – but it is the title fanfare with which the article opens. Through all of these design interventions, the cold, purely functional, “sad” concrete bunker is reclaimed for culture and enjoyment. And that’s great, but…

The green roof on the Berlin HQ

But, it reminded me of a couple of the glimpses we get of Nazi bunker-mania and augmentation in Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich. As Hitler’s pet architect, and Armament’s Minister, Speer was well placed to witness (and contribute to) what he called in hindsight a “blatant nouveau riche architecture of prestige” (1971: 200). Speer describes how the Nazi elite competed with each other to have the grandest residences and workplaces – and also the grandest bunkers.

Speer recalls Hitler’s obsession with re-fortification of his bunkers (requiring the diversion of massive quantities of concrete away from civilian and factory uses). As Allied bomb power increased, so layer upon layer of additional roofing was added to Hitler’s underground bunkers, each layer further separating the ailing leader from his people, and the reality of his political and military situation. By the end Hitler’s Reich Chancellery bunker’s green roof carapace was 16 feet of concrete topped with 6 feet of earth.

But it was Speer’s description of the intersection of this bunker building drive with the status-mania of the Nazi elite that made me think most about a ‘dark’ side of green roofs and their relationship to cultural augmentation.  Speer describes his design work on Goering’s Berlin residence and how he was able to augment this scheme to Goering’s delight by the addition of a 2.5 acre roof garden, by working within the grain of the fortification drive abroad in Berlin at that time by:

“alleging the need for air-raid protection, I decided to cover the roof with thirteen feet of garden soil, which meant that even large trees would have been able to strike root there” (201-2).

This roof-top eden would have featured “swimming pools, tennis courts, fountains, ponds, colonnades, pergolas and refreshment rooms” (202) and been topped off with a 240 seat summer theatre, in response to which Goering in May 1941 – according to Speer – was visibly overwhelmed and began raving about the parties that he would hold there, excitedly declaring to Speer, “I’ll illuminate the great dome with Bengal lights and provide grand fireworks for my guests” (202).

This contrasts markedly with the austere lines and decor of Goering’s Air Ministry building, in its day the largest office building in Europe with its 2,000 rooms connected by 4 miles of corridors, which Goering celebrated in his speech at the building’s 1936 topping out ceremony, as a building:

“which, without excessive glamour, presents austere lines as an expression of the stern spirit that governs us all today.” (Berliner Unterwelten, 2008: 66).

Clearly by 1941 Goering caught up in the Nazi elite’s competitive hubris favoured an augmented – cultural – bunker aesthetic for his own headquarters.

It seems the urge to jazz-up plain-old bunkers, may be nothing new.

Link to the Inhabitat article: Atelier-f Transforms Old Swill Military Bunker into a Vibrant Green-Roofed Cultural Center | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

Berliner Unterwelten (2008) Mythos Germania – shadows and traces of the Reich capital, Lehmans Media: Berlin.

Speer, A. (1971) Inside the Third Reich, Sphere Books: London

‘This house is making me walk funny’: bodily hexis, the House of Usher and the haunts of the ghosts of place

“On the stairs the furtive shadows pass of all those who were there one day.” (Perec, 1978: 81)

Bodily hexis

I think I’m turning into my mother – not in a Norman Bates way – but I’ve been here at her house in Torquay for nearly a week and I can feel her house remodelling my ways of sitting and moving.

Her house is small, and all of the passageways are short. I’m lanky (so is my mother). The ceilings are low too. And all passages here are narrow. Thick carpet, a sea of occasional tables, foot stools and mats also retard movement. No rash sudden bounds can be accommodated here. My mother walks in short bursts, never getting to full stride, decelerating almost instantaneously, having already reached the end of her journey. In her house movement becomes an understated shuffle. There is nowhere here to stride to; no indoor open-road upon which to let rip the body-motor.

So, my movements through this space have become progressively subdued. Each day I leave the house for a walk just to check that I haven’t lost my ability to move at full stride; that my legs haven’t become shuffle-webbed.

It’s a weird sensation, being aware of the effect of a house and its arrangement on my deportment – my ‘hexis’ as Bourdieu defined embodied habitus. As Acciaioli puts it:

“Habitus is in part a matter of ‘hexis’, of the body itself serving as a locus of cultural content in abbreviated and practical form…In Bourdieu’s view, the objectified schemes of a culture are incorporated as a mode of interaction learned with the body, not inculcated as a cognitive code. Enacted practices, such as the differences in gait mentioned here, are structured according to a scheme of spatial disposition.” (1981: 37).

In this house I’m currently aware of my hexis being in transition. If I stayed long enough this adjustment would be complete. I would forget that it was ever possible to walk with full strides. I might even start to think of wooden or tile floors as slippery and lacking the ‘natural’ comfort of carpet (but –  as I’m still in transition – I haven’t yet fully shrugged off the feeling that carpet – textile on the floor – is just odd).


In trying to think through this effect I’ve been reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. In his famous story, Poe presents the parallel (and intertwined) physical decline of the Usher’s manor house and that of its final inhabitant, the last of the Usher clan.

Upon arrival at this place, the narrator is struck by “a sense of insufferable gloom” which he attributes to the physical scene facing him as he gazes upon the semi-derelict mansion and its “excessive antiquity”. He then proceeds to give us a survey of that scene, with almost sufficient structural detail to get my building surveying colleagues excited, before steeling himself and stepping inside, having concluded from his gazing upon those “bleak walls”, “decayed trees” and “vacant eye-like windows” that:

“…there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us [and that]…a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.”

Upon stepping inside the mansion, the narrator is taken to see his host, his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, the last survivor of the Usher family line who the narrator then proceeds to survey in equivalent structural tone, scrupulously detailing his “cadaverousness of complexion”, thin pallid lips, “inordinate expansions above the regions of the temple” and a finely moulded chin “of a want of moral energy” (whatever that means).

The narrator is thereafter persuaded to help the remaining Usher to entomb his recently deceased sister’s body within the family vaults set deep within the main walls of this mansion (presented here by Poe as a symbolic unity of Usher as clan and as mansion). Once that is accomplished, the story moves into its final phase – Roderick Usher loses his sunken, subdued demeanour, steps out of his  hexis and adopts instead an “unceasingly agitated mind” roaming “from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step” – as the mansion crumbles towards its eventual fatalistic collapse, taking the last of Usher with it.


Poe’s story presents a striking depiction of a building as a starring character in his horror story. Perhaps one of the reasons why it is so famous is its unusual juxtaposition of the human and the built environment. It is also quintessentially gothic in its horror, and the reader is haunted at each turn by the anticipation of death of a building (its collapse), the anticipated death of the last living Usher and also the anticipation that the ghost of Roderick Usher’s sister (or some other deceased clansman) will apparate to help explain the pervading terror permeating this building and its remaining denizens.

But no ghost ever appears in the conventional sense. Instead it is the building – the place – that haunts. And this is what will link Poe and the Usher mansion back to my mother’s house and my restricted gait.

When academics write about haunting and ghosts they do so at peril of their professional reputation. What follows is in the spirit (no pun intended) of Bell (1997), Edensor (2005) and Schofield (2009) consideration of ‘ghosts of place’. To write about ‘ghosts of place’ is (just about) acceptable in (post-structural quarters) because it keeps actual ghosts (and ruling one way or the other upon their existence) at bay. Instead the focus is a phenomenological one about how places can haunt those who pass through or dwell in them  – how memory and materiality can have residual effects on humans and their perception of places.

Schofield bravely offers up an account of seeing an actual ghost – but then quickly orientates this recollection to a consideration of how a sense of memory and materiality informs his combat archaeology. Edensor writes evocatively about the ghost-like effects of emptiness and material traces within industrial ruins, whilst Bell gives a framework for theorising ghosts of place generally.

I saw a ghost once. But the ghost I saw was an apparition of someone who was still alive. So, for me the ‘ghosts of place’ idea seems more plausible (and less supernatural) than perhaps to some. I think I saw my great grandfather sat in a chair in our front room (when he was actually up the garden) because my familiarity with my home, seating arrangements and conventional use of our rooms at that time of day combined (with a few tricks of the light etc) to make me see something that I expected to be there. This was an effect of the house – a ghost of place if you like. It was an effect of the physical arrangement of the house and of my expectations for it.

As with my recent walking style, the narrator’s unease upon arrival at the Usher mansion and my mis-location of my great grandfather that day, they are all effects of (returning to Poe):

“…combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us…a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.”



Acciaioli, G. (1981) ‘Knowing what you’re doing – a review of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice’, Canberra Anthropology IV, 1, 23-51.

Bell, M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’ Theory & Society 26, 813-836

Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics & Materiality, Berg: Oxford

Perec, G. (1978) Life: A User’s Manual, Vintage: London.

Poe, E.A. (1910) ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Harper & Bros: New York

Schofield, J. (2009) ‘Afterword: Ghosts’ in Aftermath: readings in the archaeology of recent conflict, Springer: London