New Uses for Old Bunkers #43: un-used and de-valued citadels

“Now these survivals from the Cold War are, in their turn, disappearing fast, like medieval monasteries and bastioned forts before them – only with more limited scope for regeneration and reuse. In such circumstances it is clearly part of the remit of English Heritage to understand and record the scope and diversity of this body of material, to assess its cultural value, and to make the results of our work widely known.”

Sir Neil Cussons, Chairman, English Heritage, 2003 (in foreword to Cocroft & Thomas (2003) Cold War: Building for Confrontation. English Heritage: Swindon.)

It is the brute, stubborn nature of a nuclear bunker than it does not – in fact – ‘disappear fast’. As a copious amalgam of concrete, steel and earth these modern day tumulus take quite a bit of effort to make-disappear. Their very reason-for-being is to resist the ultimate forces that could be unleashed upon them (Thermonuclear weapons). But brutal persistence of these human-made hills is not quite the same as an assured continuation of habitability. To dwell in these unnatural, subterranean places depended upon atmospheric engineering – mechanical ventilation and de-watering. In short, these structures, following abandonment, experienced a quick onset of internal ruination: they rotted from the inside, becoming uninhabitable through water ingress, toxic mold blooms and corrosion.

Last week I spoke an online conference on the re-use of former military sites organised by the Universita luav di Venezia, which drew together urbanists from across Europe (largely) reporting success stories of the conversion of docks, forts and barracks into 21st century post-military, civilian uses. My paper countered this optimism with a comparative account of the post Cold War fate of four bunkers built in the late 1980s at considerable cost to provide a new generation of UK Government citadels from which a post-nuclear attack civil recovery would be organised.

My paper on the four bunkers will be published in due course as part of the conference proceedings, it looks at the fate of these four bunkers as a follow on to my article (Bennett & Kokoszka, 2020) examining the stilted progression of the Greenham Common cruise missile complex (known as ‘GAMA’) following its sale to a private owner in 2003. In that article I’d suggested that the heritage designation imposed upon that site (also in 2003) had resulted in the site being trapped in limbo, neither able to move on entirely unfettered into a post-military use, nor sufficiently directive to deliver a monumentalisation of the site. So, noting that the four Regional Government Head Quarters (RGHQ) bunkers did not appear to have been given heritage protection (although I subsequently discovered that – like GAMA – Ballymena had (in 2016) been scheduled by the Northern Ireland Government immediately prior to its marketing for sale) I wondered what the fate of these sites had been. In my presentation I explored the reasons why these structures remained extant (that stubborn materiality point mentioned above), how they have each experienced interior ruination (leading to loss of habitability / useability) and the mundane improvisational uses to which each site has fallen, thus:

  • Cultybraggan (Scotland) – acquired as a data bunker
  • Chilmark (England) – scene of a £6million cannabis farm, raided in 2017
  • Crowborough (England) – used as stores and offices by Sussex Police
  • Ballymena (Northern Ireland) – unused, attempts to sell it in 2016-17 having been unsuccessful

But here I just want to explore my final slide, and its implications for studies of contemporary ruins. Here is the slide:

The build costs are estimate gathered across various commentaries. The sale prices are more reliable, taken from seller press releases and/or HM Land Registry data. What strikes me here is another aspect of ruination – the way in which ascribed value dissipates. A thing is only worth what a community of potential bidders think it is worth. And for all the titillating talk in newspapers (the Daily Mail in particular) getting rather excited each time a bunker comes up for sale, the reality is that even if sold (and Ballymena – even though, unlike the others, it had been maintained in operable and habitable condition by the Northern Ireland Government until 2016 – failed to find a buyer), the monetary value ascribed to the site is but a tiny fraction of the original construction cost. These multi-million pound doomsday creations sell for around the average price of a house. And then the buyers are likely to find (as has been shown in the case of these four sites) that it is hard to work out what the viable after-use for these places actually is (with or without heritage protective designations) and they can’t be regarded as simply land plots for new – clean slate – development because of the cost and difficulty of demolishing them and returning the land to a clean slate condition.

So, as regards Cold War Nuclear Bunkers at least, Neil Cussons was half right: they indeed only have limited scope for reuse or regeneration. But he was wrong regarding their ‘disappearing fast’ – there exterior stubborn forms will likely endure for quite some time, and they quietly decay from the inside out.

References

Bennett, L & Kokoszka, P. (2020) ‘Profaning GAMA: exploring the entanglement of demilitarization, heritage and real estate in the ruins of Greenham Common’s cruise missile complex’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 13(1) 97-118.

Images:

Ballymena RGHQ, Northern Ireland (2016) – from Lambert Smith Hampton sales particulars, used by permission.

Cultybraggan RGHQ, Scotland (2014) – photo used by permission of Martin Briscow.

About lukebennett13
Associate Professor & 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: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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