New uses for old bunkers #36: Ondergronds Arnhem – Atoombunker Willemsplein

“Real estate property is linked, directly or indirectly ,

to the faculty of its penetration and,

just as something changes in value

in being taken from one region into another,

a place changes in quality according to

the facility with which it can be crossed.” (19)

Paul Virilio (1994) Bunker Archeology 

arnhem cross section

During the summer a young Dutch architect, Arno Geesink contacted me to tell me about the new uses he, Maarten Verweij and their other enthusiastic collaborators were planning for some abandoned Cold War and WWII bunkers in Arnhem. Arno kindly responded to some interview questions that I subsequently sent him and provided me with a wealth of information about his group’s hopes for the subterranean structures that they had taken under their wing.

The Q & A is presented below. Arno’s comments represent an interesting cross over between preservationist motivations and the creative ideas for re-purposing developed by a group of young architects. Arno’s attentiveness to the need to work within the constraints of bunker space and the constriction of movement within them is notable, and the second video embedded below shows the subway configuration of the Arhem Atoombunker and the group’s concept designs for a wide variety of re-uses that might work in that space.

The idea of an abandoned city beneath the everyday street haunts his narrative, but also I think there’s also a strange tension between the urbex frisson of discovery and material encounter with the enclosed and abandoned (shown in the groups exploration films), and a projection of re-purposing onto these now found spaces (in their design work). This seems an implicit acceptance of the view that we should strive to bring ‘dead’ space back to life when and where-ever found. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of wasteland recently, and the long standing dominant view that dereliction and emptiness is a social and economic evil: that property needs to be kept in use.

It all leaves me wondering, what are the demons that un– or under – use brings forth?

The life of this subterranean structure – its flipping in and out of active use and attention is also touched on by Arno, that this chamber space was first a passageway built to keep pedestrians safely separated from the traffic circulating on the roads above, that it was then closed as ‘socially unsafe’ before being repurposed as a nuclear shelter in the early 1970s, by the appropriation of some blast doors from a nearby abandoned WWII bunker. Bricolage indeed…

1) How did you find your bunkers?

When I came to Arnhem to work at an architects office I wanted to create a project for myself to have full creative freedom, as opposed to the office work. I have always been highly interested in history, with a slight preference for military history, so bunkers and other remnants entice me. While I was looking up some old photo’s of the Arnhem city centre I noticed some entrances leading down from a traffic square in the centre of Arnhem.

Soon I found out it used to be a pedestrian tunnel, built in the 50’s and closed in the 70’s. I was first told by the municipality that it was filled up or destroyed, but one employee there told me it was still there, completely intact. Me and a friend then lifted a sewer lid above the supposed location and we found a time capsule, as the bunker was left there in its original state and was untouched for nearly forty years.

The bunker was first built as a pedestrian subway, which was closed because it was socially unsafe, after which it was converted in the early 70’s into an atomic shelter. The bunker doors – taken from nearby WWII-era German bunkers – were installed along with a lot of other adaptations. So in the end it is a pedestrian walkway with bunker-like properties….

But the bunker-feel of the space surely makes the space much more interesting and exciting.

2) Have many bunkers been restored or re-purposed in your area?

As Arnhem was a garrison town for centuries and was part of the IJssellinie in the Cold War period, there are lot of bunkers in its vicinity.

  • The bunker Diogenes at Schaarsbergen, the former Luftwaffe command center for Western Europe (specifically for directing nightfighters) has been used as an archive, but this is now being replaced. The bunker is in need of a new use.
  • An old bunker of the Civilian nuclear protection organisation is now in use as an archive as well.
  • A bunker underneath a playground is still prepared to be used as a communication bunker for the government in case of disaster.

There’s many more bunkers, which we are indexing at the moment, but most of them don’t have a real use right now. There haven’t been any really creative new uses, but we are hoping to change that. As most bunkers used to be part of a different network as the urban network of the present, their location can make it hard to find a new commercial use. We have a map (here) where we pinpoint these structures.

3)  What special problems are faced in designing re-use for those places?

arnhem planThe space is very confined, so we have to be very creative in making the most of the space provided. Safety, ventilation, plumbing are all aspects that we have to take care of, to make the space functional. As the street profiles have changed over the past forty years, the old entrances at the end of the tunnel are now located underneath the streets, so we can only use a central entrance. The entrance will now be located in the middle of a green lawn in the boulevard of the city, which imposes strict rules about its size and look. The fun part of our project is that is located right in the centre of town, where everything is filled in and regulated. But because we found this underground leftover space, we can inject the centre with a new function, as we see fit. This would be impossible otherwise.

4) What designs, buildings and ideas have influenced your approach most?

As bunkers are built to resist external force, it’s pretty costly to adapt them to new uses. You mostly have to use them as they come, so apparently they end up as archive space due to their robust nature and constant climate. Because of this I haven’t seen that many new uses, but I love the bunker 599 project by Ronald Rietveld, as it shows the workings of a bunker sensationally, with a very simple gesture (which wasn’t that simple in reality). As our bunker used to be a tunnel, it is narrow and long, and we have been looking at similar spaces, instead of focussing on the bunker aspect.


5) How important is preserving a sense of the past of these places?

The Cold War is an under-exposed period in Dutch history, although loads of physical remnants are in plain sight, their historicial connotation is not apparent. By opening up this space to the public, we do want them to know what it’s purpose used to be, and that nuclear war was a real threat in the past. We call our project Atoombunker (nuclear bunker), which will make this clear. The essence of the bunker, it’s thick walls, steel doors and confined spaces will induce the visitor with the old function of the building.

The text part of our REcall-project proposal discusses the intrinsic value of bunkers as non-museal storytellers, which need to be preserved in my opinion.

[NB: Arno is referring in particular here to his award winning work on the Diogenes WWII bunker , I will do a future NUFOB on that project soon].


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

One Response to New uses for old bunkers #36: Ondergronds Arnhem – Atoombunker Willemsplein

  1. dobraszczyk says:

    Luke, there’s a nice section on ruins and waste in the new film about Zizek (The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology). Enjoyed this post…

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