New uses for old bunkers #23: sky-bunkers and the vertical geographies of shelter

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau

Recently I was flicking through Muir’s (1986) The Stones of Britain and I came upon a description of the round stone towers built in Ireland in the eighth and nineth centuries by monastic settlements in the face of Viking raids. Muir interprets these towers as defensive in nature – stone silos into which the community could ascend and shelter, within the wooden framework of spiral steps and landings. Here – in the sky – they would shelter from the sea-borne raiders of the land.

As I looked at Muir’s photograph of the tower at Turlough, County Mayo, something about it struck me as familiar. Then I realised what it was – the tower reminded me of Winkelturm, the above-ground air raid shelters built across Germany during the Second World War.

These concrete or brick silos were built at factory sites, railyards and other facilities with labour forces needing quick access to local shelter. It proved considerably cheaper (and quicker) to build these shelters above ground – and up unto the sky – than it to burrow into the underground. Whilst exposed in the above ground world, these towers were tall but narrow in profile. Hard targets to hit directly. They were also well-suited to locations where geology or watertable made excavation untenable.

As with the Irish sky-bunkers, these shelters featured staircases and landings where their denizens could nervously await the end of the raid.

Attempted escape into the sky – the refuge of height – made an obvious modal sense in the case of the Irish towers, because they entailed escape from the sea and the ground occupied by the Viking raiders. But the Winkelturm warped that logic of escape, for in them shelter was being sought by ascending into the arena of the attack: the air above. The sky was the very place from which these assailants came.

Reflecting on this deadly irony got me thinking about Stuart Elden’s recent work on vertical geographies. At the 2012 RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh I attended Stuart’s keynote lecture, in which he looked at the ways in which the subterranean, surface and sky all key together in a vertical mesh of power. Stuart’s examples included offense and defence, and highlighted the importance of reading place in three dimensions – not just laterally, but also vertically.

Thinking about the direction of attack, and the ‘logical’ direction of shelter reminds us of the importance of reading the vertical – particularly in an age of gravity defying technological capability.

So, the ‘new use for old bunkers’ at work here is two fold – first something eternal (or at least recurrent) in the relationship between the monastic defence towers of the Dark Ages and the counter-intuitive Winkelturm. Second, the way in which the vertical dimension of escape and shelter can encourage us to embrace the three dimensionality of space and place.

And – thirdly – the fate of the Winkelturm once again shows us how bunkers (and there are an estimated to be over 200 Winkelturm left in Germany) are co-opted into the contemporary world, valorised by enthusiastic bunker-hunters and/or adapted to new commercial uses, as shown below.

Elden, S. (2012) ‘Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power’ Political Geography Lecture at RGS-IBG, July: a video recording (of an earlier outing of this lecture) is available at:

Muir, G. (1986) The Stones of Britain – landscapes and monuments, quarries and cathedrals, Michael Joseph: London

Image & information sources:


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 #23: sky-bunkers and the vertical geographies of shelter

  1. dianajhale says:

    Is it a female perspective but the word phallic comes to mind looking at these!

  2. Pingback: Luke Bennett on bunkers and verticality | Progressive Geographies

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