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


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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

  1. liminal city says:

    Fascinating stuff, those grand bunker dreams of Hitler were shrouded in folly, madness and arrogance. Whilst he slept in his bunker, school boys on bicycles were fighting Russian tanks above him. Incidentally someone on the south coast of England has also converted a Martello tower into a home suitable for a Bond villain

  2. dianajhale says:

    Perhaps there is no hope for escape from the dark side! Everything had to be grandiose and oversized for the Nazis of course, but the green roof element is something I didn’t know about. Of course it does tie in with the back to nature and the land part of their aesthetic. Incidentally I’m doing a post shortly on bunker aesthetic in Hyde Park.

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