Filling the void – two trips into the ruins of London’s underground

banner 1

banner 2

“As three-dimensional public objects [urban ruins] still serve useful purposes and act as concrete, tangible catalysts for storytelling.”

Mélanie van der Hoorn (2012) Indispensable Eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: Oxford (p.8)

Nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere more so than in the crowded, densely developed space of central London. So where might we look to find underoccupied ruins in such a highly utilised terrain? The answer it seems is below our feet. I report here on recent trips into two of the city’s uncharacteristically empty spaces. By comparing these two seemingly very different sites I seek to draw out how they are both ultimately preoccupied with the question of how to fill these uncommon voids.

The cult of information meets the cult of the misty bull

In the heart of the City, in the bowels of the new corporate HQ for information giant Bloomberg, lie the remains of a small Roman temple. Built around AD 240, this temple was the site at which the all-male worshippers of the Mithras cult met to enact their rituals in celebration of their bull slaying god.

Abandoned in the 5th century with the retreat of Rome, the temple fell into ruin and sank beneath the surface of the city (in the standard way that archaeology does). Then along came post war clearance of the site (now a bomb-site from the Blitz), the ruins of the temple were uncovered, and thousands of people flocked to the excavation, trample its mud and to gaze (and stand) upon its stones and their silent-but-tactile revelation of a time very-long-ago. In the subsequent redevelopment of the site, the ruin was transplanted in 1962 to the top of a nearby car park where – over the years – it received a few visitors. But now, as a condition of the £1 Billion re-redevelopment of the site the ruin has been re-placed, back upon its original site and now sits as a tourist attraction in the bowels of the Bloomberg building.

Entry is free (via a booking system at https://www.londonmithraeum.com/), through a small, bright gallery space called Bloomberg Space, currently displaying the vibrant, citrus hewed art of Isabel Nolan. Here very friendly guides welcome the visitor, as they step into this exception space to the fare of plush eateries and swish offices dominating the surrounding streetscape.

“Is this the right place for the Roman ruins?” I ask. “Indeed it is”, comes the bright reply and an eager arm thrusts a rather expensive looking tablet in my direction. This, I’m told, will help me to interpret the array of excavated artefacts comprising a tall vertical display on one wall of the gallery. “We have over 14,000 artefacts in total, these are just a sample here – you can experience the rest using the tablet” says the attendant, urging me with every gesture to engage with its pleading screen. Here the whole set up yearns to emphasise both the abundance and its orderly mastery by Bloomberg’s blending of physical and virtual modes of encounter.

There is something very proficient and mission-affirming about this curation – it didn’t strike me as cynical and the guides genuinely seem very proud of their ruin attraction – but the manner of staging this encounter with the past screams out that Bloomberg are in the information business and that they can collate and relay anything, not just business performance data.

A black staircase then guides us below ground and into a chamber where Joanna Lumley and academic friends tell us (on rotation, every 15 minutes) what is known about the Cult of Mithras and its rituals. We sit in the gloom, instructed by images projected Plato-like onto the (cave) wall. A silhouette of a cloaked figure shimmers, by turns looking like a bull or a man. This references the Mithras ritual’s own simulation of the sacrifice of a bull (and whilst information is scarce about the rituals, we are confidently assured that space was simply too small to enable an actual bull killing here).

shadow

Suitably primed (and in turn acting out our own modern tourist ritual) we process into a dark room and are invited to spread out around the edge of this space in order to best “enjoy the experience”. Here we experience a soundtrack of Mithras worshippers assembling, a hubbub of voice chatting excitedly in Latin. We, the 21st century audience, stand at the periphery of the room and we can hear the 4th century denizens who have also assembled here for their ritual, but cannot see them. Then comes the sound of an ancient horn, which ushers in an attentive quiet (from both audiences) and then ritual chanting (from the 4th century participants). This interplay between the reaction of the two audiences is suitably atmospheric. Mist then starts to spray into the room and fine lines of lights shining down through the damp air mark out the walls of the temple, as the chanting continues.

mithraem

Then after a few moments of this strange empty-presence the house lights come on and we are invited to inspect the ruins. We are back in the 21st century and alone with our thoughts and interpretations. The end of the sound- and light-show leaves us within a room that has some runs of nondescript, and rather clean looking, stone – wall stumps – laid out upon the floor. Once the room is fully revealed there is actually very little to see here. The materiality of the stones themselves can’t match the vibrancy of the sound and light show. And the ruins occupy little of the volume of the space and this is why the walls written in mist and light are so effective. But their side effect is that, once they have gone, they emphasise that a ruin is always (at least in part) an absence of structure and matter. A ruin always has missing mass and lost surfaces, for it is void space in which a former building partly lingers.

The presentation of the London Mithraeum is both powerful and an anti-climax, because it is an attempt to reanimate a void; to temporarily fill it with action, structure and intimations of mass. The power comes from the active curation of the experience of this ruin-encounter, and inevitably (perhaps) this entails the active use of our own processes of myth-making and storytelling in order to animate this space. The sound and light show creates a sense of the Mithras ritual, but it also creates its own ritual performance of heritage-spectacle (and/or ruin-gazing).

There is no reason to suggest that this is the final staging of the London Mithraeum. Perhaps in the year 2500 there will be a London Bloomberg experience that creates a ritual in which our further evolved selves can have the titillating retro experience of an IT-enabled sound and light show activating the conjoined ghosts of a late-Capitalist corporate headquarters and/or a Roman heritage attraction and of the ruin-voids they have each left behind beneath the active surfaces of The Greater Anglia Conurbation.

The Minotaur’s lair and the infinite tunnels to nowhere

Artist Naomi Avsec talks me through the chain of events that led to her taking up a six month residency deep beneath Clapham, South London in an abandoned air raid complex of tunnels: “When I saw the advert, I just couldn’t resist. Studio space here in London is so cramped and expensive, and you end up with a bland, tiny room. Here was a chance to work in a strange, exciting and voluminous place quite different to the standard studio offering. In short, here was a wonderful opportunity-space”.

We met above ground in a local café and then took the rickety elevator down, over 100 feet into her lair. Here the tunnels went on and on, their emptiness punctuated only by the occasional variegation in the cement cast hemispherical panels: a hatch here, a sign there, and a light screed of dust everywhere.

At times Naomi strode off into the dark, announcing that when alone she likes to go for walks along her tunnels without any lights on, for they are almost straight and predictable enough for such drifting.

After wending our way along, up, across and down a few turns of tunnel (for our indulgence, safely guided by torchlight) we reached Naomi’s studio, an arbitrarily selected station point. Her territory was marked out by a desk, piles of material and laid-out work-in-progress. And yet the tunnel still seemed so empty. “That’s the real challenge here” Naomi told me, “how to make a mark upon this emptiness. I find things in my forays to the surface and drag it back down here. Up there these items feel big, and I struggle to drag them and cram them into the lift. But as soon as I get them here they shrink to insignificance. I’m approaching half-way through my residency now and I’m still trying to work out how I can make my area feel populated”.

big tunnel

Built as one of London’s deep shelters in the aftermath of the Blitz, these tunnels saw little use in the war. Back in those days the now-empty space of this labyrinth would have been full, floor to ceiling – with bunk beds, and in design intention at least would have been full of bodies, the anxious flesh of huddled families.

Naomi’s creative work here is bringing some bodies into the tunnels, but not in the sense portrayed by Henry Moore in his sketches of slumbering human figures in London’s air raid shelters during the war. Naomi works across a number of media and styles. Collage is to the fore in her creative practice at the moment, summoning strange/uncanny inhabitants into the tunnel.

creatures

Perhaps due to the absence of an anthropomorphic stimulus in the solitude of this place, Naomi’s work seems instead to be tending towards the more atavistic. She has also assembled a variety of surreal three dimensional sculptures made with those found materials that she has laboriously dragged back into her lair, like an ant with its payload waving precariously in the breeze, its bounty far larger than its body.

Maybe it’s inevitable that time spent alone in stygian gloom summons thoughts and impressions of shadow creatures that have been glimpsed in the underworld across the generations. There is a dreamy, playful tone to the uncanny beings that Naomi has summoned into being.

“I get carried away down here. There are no distractions and that’s such a luxury. This really is such a great opportunity. Some days, after a while, I eventually notice the cold creeping up from the concrete through my feet. When that strikes I go back to the surface and nip into the local supermarket, both to use the loo and to top up on sunlight and a sense of connection with the surface-world. I also take Vitamin D as a precaution against the lack of exposure to daylight. But it’s still a thrilling and really stimulating experience.”

Naomi’s opportunity to be here comes courtesy of a residency programme called GROUNDED offered by Battersea Art Centre and Growing Underground (http://growing-underground.com/), the owners of this subterranean complex who are steadily expanding their own operations into the presently unoccupied portions of the labyrinth. Growing Underground grow fresh micro-greens and salad leaves in a bright, white, pest-free, highly controlled environment using the latest hydroponic systems and LED lighting. At the moment their operation inhabits some, but not all of the tunnels. Naomi’s is one of three current artist residencies within the as-yet-to-be converted tunnels. Human access into the growing areas is strictly controlled and my visit was only to the currently spare tunnels. Growing Underground’s ongoing expansion of production will see more of the empty tunnels transformed into vibrant, ultra-clean growing spaces, though the insertion of sealed units into the tunnel – creating tunnels within the tunnels and a lingering voidspace between the doubled ceilings, sides and floors. Naomi therefore is free to leave her mark upon her tunnel-space’s cast concrete walls if she wishes, but if she does so then the chance is that few if any will ever see her creations. “That creates a strange challenge. It’s almost like being invited to create some invisible art; something that only the artist knows about.” Perhaps the early cave painters felt this way and/or that they saw the audience for their art as not of-this-earth. Again, we return to the atavisitic elements that seem recurrent in the work inspired by Naomi’s lone dwelling in these man-made caves, the drift towards her production of sigils, invoking or inviting a communication with inner and outer demons as she wrestles with the abundance of this empty, blank, worm-like subterranean space.

minotaur

Image credits: Blurry photographs by Luke Bennett, better ones by Naomi Avsec, www.naomiavsec.co.uk.

Advertisements

A field, a bunker, a field again: The fate of place and the prosaics of place-making and unmaking.

Markyate Montage

“On top of the hill… I met an insurance agent and a radio salesman, wearing badges and armlets. Their oldest clothes and huge smiles. Theirs is a job that would drive schoolboys mad with envy. Any healthy-minded lad would give all his pocket-money to take a turn in this observation post, with its sandbagged watching place, its dug-out and camouflaged hut. Here is sentry work of a new and exciting kind.”

                J.B. Priestley, News Chronicle 17 Oct 1939

This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for an academic journal special issue on ‘Cold War Places’. I wanted to foreground the rise and fall of a prosaic wartime place-type, the aerial observation post and chose to stitch together a semi-fictionalised account of one site’s passage through time. This seemed the best way to give life to the fragments of stories that I had found for a variety of such posts in the National Archives. My aim was to show the ebb and flow of a place-formation, and how it is an unstable local-national constellation of people, environment, paperwork and policy. But in the end the editors didn’t feel my unconventional approach suitable for their history journal. So, rather than leave it in a drawer I’m presenting it here…

2017

We are at the verge of a country lane in the Hertfordshire countryside just outside the village of Wasnott, 30 miles north of London. Beyond a gap in the hedge a field gently rises to its brow on the horizon. Other than the stubble of an arable crop this field is empty; there is nothing to see here.

1979

We are at the same location, looking into the same field. A man wearing a dark beret and blue serge uniform is crouched over a portable petrol-electric generator trying to get it started. Around him stand three other men. One wearing a blue trench coat, another standing by a raised concrete hatch, into which the third man is about to descend. Two of the men are smiling, caught in the act of playfully chiding the generator attendant for his ineffective motor-starting technique. The men have brought with them an assortment of other bags and cases. The men and the concrete structures are surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire, forming a compound within which a sign stands, declaring:

“Royal Observer Post

7/P2

Wasnott”

The men are ROC volunteers getting ready for a weekend exercise that will see them stationed within their post’s underground bunker. Here they will open a succession of manila envelopes at allotted times and act upon the simulated detonation and fallout readings contained within, reporting that data through to their ROC Group HQ.

1933

Four men are standing in the field: the head of the Observer Corps, the Clerk of the Parish Council, Wasnott’s police constable and an engineer from the General Post Office (GPO). The Clerk is present because the field is managed by the Parish Council, the western part of it having recently been turned into a recreation ground. The constable is here because his Chief Constable has been instructed via a “confidential” standard form letter issued by the Home Office to arrange recruitment of local men as special constables to man an observation post to be established at this spot for the purpose of detecting, plotting and reporting aircraft movements as part of the air defence system. The procurement of both men and physical sites for the Observer Corps has become standardised through experience and repetition since the Corps was established as a volunteer force in 1924 in Kent and Sussex, and then slowly expanded across the counties of Southern England. This field has been identified as suited to a post because it affords a good clear view towards London. However, the GPO Engineer is in attendance because this location is only feasible if a telephone connection can be run to it. The men agree a suitable position and a stake is driven into the ground.

As the Home Office’s letter assures the Council, this stake is the post’s only enduring physical element, for:

“as the [observation] equipment is portable, nothing remains on the site when not in use, nor is there anything to be seen, except, in some cases, a peg driven in flush with the ground to mark the exact site, e.g. in a field… A telephone pole may be erected close to the site, if no convenient pole already exists … no damage of any sort occurs, and it may perhaps be mentioned that the men manning the post are always local men, known probably to you, and that in the quite large number of posts already established, no difficulties with Landlords or Tenants have been found to occur”.

Accordingly, the Home Office’s letter offers no rental payment for the post’s use of the site, which it states will be used for annual exercises not exceeding seven days (or nights) per year.

1942

The Chief Observer is hauling a bundle of advertising hoardings from his delivery van and taking them into the post hut. For the first five years of the Wasnott post’s existence the observers continued to bring all of their equipment to the site for each exercise. Experience of bitter winds on this hillside encouraged them to also bring thick clothing and canvas windbreaks. However the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1938 changed things. For two weeks at the height of the crisis the observers manned the post permanently and it became clear that for continuous operation these posts would need to provide sheltered facilities to enable observers to cook, rest and simply get warm. Deciding upon the suitability of having each post served by a wooden shed, the Air Ministry issued designs for “Standard Pattern Huts” and provided £5 for materials by which shelter and welfare facilities could be locally sourced and erected. But in the face of rationing of building materials the roll-out of this solution was slow to bear fruit. In the meantime at Wasnott the Chief Observer scrounged around and improvised with sandbags “quite a good little fort around the spotting position”. But that proved unsatisfactory as a long-term shelter as after a hard winter the “bags gradually rotted and the sand swirled about in the breeze and got into eyes, cups of tea and everything”. As interim measures a tent and then a caravan were placed at the site and then at the height of the Battle of Britain, amidst fears of imminent invasion, two members of the Home Guard camped out near the post in an old car they had dragged onto the site.

At Wasnott the Chief Observer kept pressing for tools to do the job – and a wooden hut was eventually created, replete with a “cubby hole” featuring stove, small desk and shelves adjacent to open platform with removable glass windshields. But winter chill penetrated even that shelter, prompting the Chief Observer to now bring cardboard display adverts from a local tailor’s shop, to line his hut’s walls.

1946

The scavenger wrenches the corrugated steel shutter from Wasnott post’s now-abandoned observation platform and drags it to his van parked at the edge of the site.

By the end of the war the ROC had 40,000 observers, 40 reporting centres, and approx. 1,500 posts spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain. But within a couple of weeks of the end of the European campaign in May 1945, the ROC was stood down and its posts quickly abandoned. Already in a tired condition by the cessation of hostilities, posts’ physical structures quickly fell into dereliction – a process accelerated by the post-war steel shortage and its ensuing scrap hunting. Some posts also became improvised homes for squatters: citizens or demobilised military personnel, adding further to their “eyesore” reputation.

However, in the Autumn of 1946, in the face of deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union it was decided that the ROC should be reactivated, and in December of that year, the Air Ministry wrote to Wasnott Parish Council proposing a year to year tenancy to formalise its resumption of occupation of the site. In the face of some resistance by the Council to the standard lease presented to them (but which the Air Ministry asserted had been accepted without amendment by many landowners), the Air Ministry eventually agreed a 15/- rent and to providing a more particularised definition of the post’s 3 yards by 3 yards plot.

But the revival of individual posts didn’t automatically revive the observation network for the wartime ROC reporting centres had closed, the radar system was barely operable and few fighter squadrons remained. Plans were put in hand to address this, but this investment would not see fruit until 1953 (by which time the evolution of military technology had rendered both the new reporting centres and the new ROTOR’ radar bunkers obsolete). Derek Wood, recalling his own experience of starting out as an ROC member in 1947, portrays the parlous conditions faced by the post-war observer, stood on site contemplating the emergent Cold War tensions in:

“their ill-fitting uniforms [which] were soaked through, post structure and hut were non-existent and the rickety wooden tripod legs of the instrument often fell to pieces, depositing the heavy metal table on the luckless observer’s feet. Telephones had a habit of emitting loud screams and crackling noises, or they cut out altogether. Where lines had not been laid on the observers solemnly wrote the [aircraft] plots down and put them in the mail the next day.”

1954

The pre-formed concrete panels are unloaded from the lorry and carried across to the site. The Council had anticipated this moment back in 1951 when they agreed to increase the site plot to 7 yards by 7 yards, and to increase the annual rent to 40/-. The Air Ministry’s plans to improve the physical condition of its observer posts had seen Orlit Ltd commissioned in 1952 to supply 400 sites with prefabricated concrete lookout posts in two variants: on-ground (Type A) or raised on stilts (Type B). But Wasnott’s new observation platform is of doubtful merit, for jets have now started to supersede human plotting capability. In recent Air Ministry trials it was acknowledged that the days of the ROC’s aircraft spotting role are numbered. Wasnott’s Orlit platform will indeed soon lie derelict, aircraft observation supplanted by the ROC’s new role inspired by the Hydrogen Bomb and the new type of accommodation required for it.

1956

The Chief Observer is sitting in his car, writing a letter to the Council thanking the councillors for their permission to bring cars onto the recreation ground for the duration of the one week summer exercise. The Chief Observer’s letter assures the Council that the rest of year’s training will be held in the function room of a local pub, The Lucky Duck.

Following the previous year’s exercise a spat had ensued between the Air Ministry and the Council. The Council had notified the Air Ministry of new bylaws prohibiting vehicles from the recreation ground and in turn the Chief Observer had alerted the Air Ministry to the prospect that this restriction could “considerably dampened the enthusiasm of our Post Instructor and Observers” adding that “it is no wonder that the ROC is struggling to attract volunteers”. After further correspondence a temporary concession was granted to permit the ROC volunteers to park their cars upon the site during their summer exercise.

The subject matter of the post’s training activity will soon change (although, out of these volunteers’ choice, aircraft spotting will remain a staple of the crew’s gatherings in The Lucky Duck for many years to come). In June of 1955 the Home Secretary had announced to the House of Commons that steps were being taken for the ROC – given its network of observation sites spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain – to give warning of and to measure radioactivity in the event of air attacks in a future war. Henceforth, instead of plotting aircraft the ROC would be plotting nuclear explosions and fallout. At Wasnott there were some resignations when the post’s new duties had been announced. These volunteers had joined the ROC because they wanted to be aircraft spotters and they enjoyed being outdoors, sky watching. They did not want to hide underground like moles.

Results from US and UK testing in the mid 1950s had emphasised the importance of shelter in the face of not only blast, but also the ensuing fallout. Accordingly, in support of the ROC’s new role the Government had authorised funding for the ROC Posts to receive subterranean “protected accommodation”. The first designs for this had been settled in July 1955, and the resulting underground bunkers would be built by local contractors using “cut and cover” techniques to form in poured reinforced concrete a 19ft x 8ft 6in x 7ft 6in buried concrete box, its roof slab overlain by three feet of earth. Accessed via a hatch, a ladder leading down 15ft into the bunker gave access to its main room with desk, two sets of bunk beds and small anteroom with an Eltex chemical toilet. Ventilation was provided by two wooden or steel louvred ventilation shafts. Each post cost around the price of a modest terrace house, but inside the conditions were far from homely: the bulk of that expense being absorbed in the cost of excavating and building below ground. The ROC’s bunkers featured no heating and only dim lighting from a single 12V battery pack. Home Office habitation trials in 1956 found the subterranean posts fit for purpose, but their design and dwelling circumstances continued the ROC’s experience of abjection, with Wood recalling that “despite the monitoring room temperature of 60oF the insidious cold of the concrete floor crept through flesh and bone.”

1960

The local contractors are clearing the site, packing away the wooden shuttering planks used to form the Wasnott bunker’s poured concrete walls. The shuttering will be used again at the next site. As they drive out of the field they are keen to do so quickly, before the tenant farmer reappears. There has been recent correspondence between all parties about the mud churned up by the contractor’s to-ing and fro-ing, one more instalment in a long line of correspondence associated with this post’s latest phase of rudimentary development.

Completed in early 1960, the building of Wasnott post’s protected accommodation was the culmination of a protracted legal process that rather belies the urgencies of the first Cold War. Back in 1954 the Air Ministry had asked the Council to sell it the existing plot, but the Council had declined. After that, the Air Ministry has reconciled itself to meeting its needs by taking a 21 year lease of the site. Thereafter from early 1955 until March 1959 a succession of correspondence teased out mundane conveyancing matters concerning the nature of the Council’s ownership interest in the site variously under the Wasnott Inclosure Act 1842, the need for Ministry of Education authorisation due to the recreation ground’s educational endowment, negotiation of rent and fencing arrangements and steps to clarify the first names of all required signatories to the lease. Eventually, the lease was completed, regularising the Ministry’s occupation of the site (now increased to 136 square yards) for 21 years at an annual rental of £5 and, at the Air Ministry’s insistence, imposing a 50 foot radius safeguarded area ringing the protected accommodation within which the landlord agreed not to build any obstructions.

1962

The Chief Observer, visiting the site to tidy up after a recent fallout plotting exercise, finds that the entrance has been blocked by the tenant farmer who grazes cattle on the pasture adjacent to the recreation ground. With some difficulty, she manoeuvres herself around the obstacle and approaches the hatch, descending thereafter into the bunker. There she attempts with some difficulty to fit a piece of equipment, in the course of which she falls onto the post’s table causing a “splintering crash that reverberated round the walls, just as we are told the nuclear blast will do”. Gathering herself together she climbs back to the surface and once out of the hatch notices a bull amongst the herd of docile jersey cows. The bull starts towards her and she runs at full pelt towards the blocked exit. To her relief she manages to squeeze her way back to the safety of the lane and emphatically concludes: “to me a bull with a ring in his nose, is far more of a potential hazard than a nuclear bomb. This is a case of the evil that we know being ‘worse’ than that which we do not”.

With such naivety or bravado, Wasnott’s crew were slowly coming to terms with their new role, a process aided by their involvement in blast and fallout monitoring exercises, like the recent Fallex 62 national fallout plotting exercise. Such exercises could be monotonous however.  Fallex 62 had featured only a single simulated strike, meaning that only the eastern part of the country was substantively affected. Accordingly, Wasnott crew’s participation had been “limited to ‘monotonous’ fall out readings or ‘no reading’ for hours on end”, accompanied by the constant “blip – blip” chirping of the post’s Carrier Warning Receiver, a soundtrack relieved only by occasional chatter with the crews of the other posts in Wasnott’s cluster.

1980

The new recruit is being introduced to the post. In the face of rising tensions between the superpowers over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan recruitment to the ROC has doubled over the last year. The Chief Observer tells the recruit that his prospects for a long and enjoyable role in the ROC are buoyed by the Thatcher Government’s stated commitment to reviving civil defence. The Chief Observer does not mention his nagging concern that eventually the need for monitoring posts staffed by humans will be overtaken by remote sensing devices given everything that seems to be happening with the boom of electronic devices in the household. For the time being he will take comfort in the works in hand to convert the Wasnott post’s landline links to dedicated private wires and to replace its old terminal with a new loud-speaking Teletalk telephone.

But despite the recent rise in recruits the ROC retains its perennial anxiety about recruitment and at Wasnott this anxiety colours the Chief Observer’s stance around renewal of the Wasnott Post’s lease which is set to expire this year. The PSA (who have now taken over the management of civil assets from the Defence Land Agent) have advised that the ROC can rely upon standard continuation of tenancy rights set down in the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 which mean that the 1959 lease will be deemed to simply continue on its old terms. The UKWMO’s HQ staff have become involved, and they share the Chief Observer’s discomfort with this passive approach. Ultimately UKWMO will insist that the PSA enter into negotiations with the landowner to secure the active grant of a new 21 year lease because “we know from experience that any uncertainty about the long-term future of a post will have an adverse effect upon the morale of its crew.”

1992

The Chief Observer places equipment removed from the post into the back of the hired van, it is now sixth months after the formal standing down of the ROC. The van is driven by full time ROC officers who have been instructed to liaise with ROC Post crews around the country so that they may arrange to collect equipment from their posts and take it to central stores. In July 1991 Kenneth Baker, the Home Secretary, had suddenly announced that following review of the defence requirements in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Home Office could no longer justify the continued use of the ROC volunteers for the nuclear monitoring role, and that this responsibility would in future be met by a mixture of local authorities and the military. The news had been received with shock by the ROC. At Wasnott Post the observers had gathered at the site for the last time and written their names, and the date, upon the wall of their post. Their sector’s commanding officer had exhorted his volunteers to “maintain our image to the end” and that they should “stand down with dignity…there is nothing to be gained from emotive statements to the media, petitions, demonstrations etc”. However, at many posts it had proved difficult to get the now disbanded post members engaged with the clear-out task. The van’s drivers will themselves be redundant by the end of March 1992. This attempted clearance of posts and gathering together of their records will therefore prove to be only partially successful.

1999

Accompanied by the bemused farmer, the man with the expensive looking camera climbs down into the Wasnott post. The photographs that he takes there will form part of a survey which will present on-line an account of the location and physical state of every traceable ROC post. The farmer acquired this field from the Council after the recreation ground was sold for housing development in 1967. He had never paid much attention to it prior to the ROC stand-down. In 1992 he had accepted surrender of the lease and a payment of £50 in lieu of the reinstatement liability. Shortly afterwards he took the post’s fencing down, and cleared away the collapsed Orlit post after it blew over in a heavy storm. But otherwise he had left things alone.

A few years later he had been approached by a businessman who said that he would like to rent the bunker as a weekend retreat. The farmer had seen the man on site a few times, cutting the grass around the post or sitting on the hatch admiring the view of London. One time in conversation the man had declared: “this place was originally built so the Royal Observer Corps could monitor London being wiped off the map. Sometimes that’s easy to forget” and the farmer felt that the man was trying somehow to resist that forgetting. But the man’s attendance had tailed off after a while and he eventually stopped paying the rent.

There had also been some approaches from former members of the ROC Post’s crew, with talk of preserving the post as a historic relic of the Cold War, and seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to do so. But nothing had come of this and the farmer had found all that rather hard to fathom – this place was surely too recent to be archaeological. The photographer assured him that the post had historic interest – and that hundreds of amateur investigators have been working since 1995 on a project to catalogue the twentieth century’s “Defence of Britain” sites across the UK.

2007

Using now-readily available locational data the bunkerologist has programmed his sat-nav to alert him of proximity to any ROC post. Having detected one here, on the outskirts of Wasnott, he strolls across the field and down into the bunker. Inside he finds a burnt out shell. The polystyrene tiles combusted well, coating the underground room in a thick layer of soot, into which recent visitors have written their names and a few faux apocalyptic slogans, echoing the Half Life Video game.  The man takes some photos which he later uploads to an urban exploration forum website, describing his visit thus: “close to minor road and OPEN. As previously reported – empty and burned. Nasty. The site is overgrown and is being undermined by rabbits.”

2013

The farmer has decided to clear away the Wasnott post’s surface features, having heard recently that English Heritage had listed a ROC Post in Yorkshire, he wants to ensure that his site doesn’t attract any restrictive heritage designations. His insurance broker has also worried him by pointing out that he would be liable if anyone were to be injured with the post.

Erasure of the post is easy. The turrets fall with the aid of a towrope and a tractor, and he then grubs out the near-surface remains of the hatch, tumbling the masonry into the ladder well and then overfilling with soil to leave no trace of the ROC’s former presence in this now empty field.

Picture credit: A montage combining a 1979 view of Markyate ROC Post overlayed onto the site’s 2015 Google Earth form. The 1979 photograph is reproduced courtesy of Roland Carr.

Note: Wasnott is not a real place, but all of the quotes are taken from primary sources concerning various ROC Post sites and events at them. References for the quotes are available from me, if desired.

 

Dread, Utopia and Survival in Subterranea: Bradley Garrett & Ian Klinke’s bunker CFP for AAG 2018, New Orleans

“Mrs Miggins crackling tasted good”. That’s what I heard them say. I was only about four years of age. The adults had gathered at my father’s house at his request one evening. The door was closed. But that’s what I heard them say as I played in the lounge listening out across the hallway.

The group of earnest adults were members of my father’s amateur dramatics society. They had gathered to rehearse his short play. It was set in a near future, post-apocalyptic world. In keeping with the multiple sources of early 1970s anxiety, the actual nature of the disaster (and whether natural or man-made) was left unrevealled. All that was clear in the play was that this motley group of characters were huddled, in an underground shelter, trying to work out where their next meal would come from. All of their non-human food had been exhausted. Cannibalism was the only option left. Aged four I somehow picked up on the dark double-meaning. This pun was chilling indeed. The sentence concerned the delicacy that was Mrs Miggins’ own cooked flesh.

Maybe this was the moment that sowed the seed of my interest in making sense of bunkers, survival architecture and the darkness that they exude. It certainly left an impression. I remember little else of my fourth year.

Bradley Garrett and Ian Klinke have recently issued a Call For Papers for a bunker/shelter/survival themed session at the Association of American Geographers’ conference in New Orleans next April. I’m not sure whether I’m going to be able to attend, but the session will – I’m sure – be very interesting.

By bringing to the surface the themes of survival, shelter and dread Garrett and Klinke are helpfully reminding us that bunkers are not just deactivated oblique ruins ripe for a funky make-over or reappropriation. They are primal, dark existential places, a fusing of womb/tomb and of all of the contradictions that flow from that. Taking shelter, making shelter and needing shelter is a fundamental in human life and in the face of nuclear or ‘conventional’ assault that urge to shelter becomes a trigger for frantic improvisation and life/death decision-taking. Their CFP reminds us that shelter comes in many forms (not just the monolith’s of Virilio’s Atlantic Wall). History shows that spaces of withdrawal and exception are formed, stocked and barricaded as society fractures – and whether as the underground citadels of dictators, billionaires, preppers or citizens caught up in the next warzone.

Perhaps the next horizon for bunker studies is better understanding sheltering and shelter-making, and of the politico-affective experience of taking shelter (or of being commanded to do so by a state that can no longer quite manage to assure the safety of its citizens). It will certainly be interesting to see what Garrett and Klinke’s session comes up with.

Call for Papers
Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers,
New Orleans, 10th-14th April 2018.
Dread, Utopia and Survival in Subterranea
Bradley Garrett (University of Sydney)
Ian Klinke (University of Oxford)

In recent years, a wave of work has explored volumetric geopolitics (Weizman, 2007; Elden, 2013; Graham, 2016) and social geographers have argued that ‘the experiences, practices and textures of vertical life’ (Harris, 2014, 608) need to be explored in greater detail. At the confluence of these prompts, the bunker has re-emerged as a site of fascination.
Long discarded as uninteresting, the subterranean ‘survival machine’ (Virilio 1994: 39) has more recently been investigated as a site of psychological preparedness for annihilation (Masco, 2009), an ambivalent space and a waste of modernity (Beck, 2011), a space of exceptionality and biopolitics (Klinke, 2015), of ruination and meaning-making
(Bennett, 2017, Garrett 2013) and of deterritorialisation and domestication (Berger-Ziuaddin, 2017). In short, the bunker, long thought of as an anticipatory and dystopian architectural byproduct of aerial war, has been rendered a more nuanced and varied architectural form.
As WWII shelters and Cold War bunkers are increasingly turned into underground farms, secure file storage facilities and heritage sites, and as governments continue to dig deeper boltholes and private luxury bunkers are being pitched as places to ‘escape’ globalisation, connectivity and even those same governments, can we find in architectural form of the bunker a shared philosophy of excavation that exceeds the ideological divides between Fascist dictators, Communist apparatchiks, business tycoons and the leaders of liberal democracies? What does ‘survival’ even mean today, given
current political and environmental circumstances? Could bunkers harbour hope for ‘conservation practices’ beyond the human? This session thus will bring together papers that address one or more aspects of a growing contemporary concern with the social and geopolitical underground. We seek to attract critically-minded work from a range of
theoretical and disciplinary backgrounds to explore issues such as:
• The relationship between geology, politics and human survival
• Subterranea as a cultural, (bio)political or existential space
• The materiality of the underground
• The (actual or speculative) phenomenology of self-confinement
• The socio-political significance of contemporary bunker construction (e.g. iceberg houses, prepping, panic
rooms)
• Bunkers as representational spaces (in computer games, films etc.)
• Philosophies of fear, dread, utopia and survival motivating excavation and burrowing
• The relationship between the horizontal, the vertical and the oblique
• Temporalities of underground survival and evacuation

Please send an abstract of no more than 250 words by 13th October to:
Ian Klinke – ian.klinke@ouce.ox.ac.uk
Bradley Garrett – bradley.garrett@sydney.edu.au
__________________________________________________________________________________
Beck, J. (2011) ‘Concrete ambivalence: Inside the bunker complex’ Cultural Politics, 7, 79-102.
Bennett, L. (2017) The ruins of the Cold War bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (London: Rowman and Littlefield International).
Berger Ziauddin, S. (2017) ‘(De)territorializing the home. The nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage’ Environment and Planning D, 35, 674-693.
Elden, S. (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34, 35-51.
Garrett, B. (2013) Explore everything: Place-hacking the city (London: Verso).
Graham, S. (2016) Vertical: The city from satellites to bunkers (London: Verso).
Harris A. (2014) ‘Vertical urbanisms: Opening up geographies of the three-dimensional city’ Progress in Human Geography 39 601-620.
Klinke, I. (2015) ‘The bunker and the camp: inside West Germany’s nuclear tomb’, Environment and Planning D, 33, 1, 154-168.
Masco, J. (2009) ‘Life underground. Building the bunker society’ Anthropology Now 1(2): 13-29.
Virilio, P. (1994) ‘Bunker Archeology’ (New York: Princeton Architectural Press).
Weizman, E. (2007) Hollow land: Israel’s architecture of occupation (London: Verso).

Image credit:

https://www.popsci.com/sites/popsci.com/files/styles/1000_1x_/public/import/2013/images/2013/02/1960_0.jpg?itok=rH3p36Sm

 

 

Preview and discount code for my ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker’ edited collection which is being published on 30/6/17.

In the Ruins - final cover

Provocative and informative yet personal and thoughtful, this diverse collection of essays offers a much needed exploration of that defining cultural space of the 20th century – the bunker. Bennett and his collaborators approach the ruins of the Cold War not just as historical curiosities but as the starting point for a myriad of transdisciplinary journeys and adventures.”

Ian Klinke, Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford and the author of the forthcoming monograph Cryptic Concrete: A subterranean journey to Cold War Germany.

I’m pleased to present below a copy of the publisher’s flyer for my book, and delighted at the reviews featured there (and above).

I’m told the book (hardback and ebook formats) will be available to buy from 30 June 2017, and using the code below on the publisher’s website you’ll be able to get 30% off either format. Please note that all author and editorial royalties are being donated to www.msf.org.uk (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

In the meantime my introductory chapter is available to view for free here:

https://www.rowmaninternational.com/book/in_the_ruins_of_the_cold_war_bunker/3-156-afdcfe7a-b585-4303-82a2-23ee9b64e05d#

and here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ruins-Cold-War-Bunker-Materiality-ebook/dp/B072SSPTXS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498233592&sr=8-1&keywords=ruins+of+the+cold+war+bunker

Further details of launch events will follow soon.

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-001

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-002

‘Cold War Ruralism’ – my new article for the Journal of Planning History is now out

Path of fallout (complete)

My new article, ‘Cold War Ruralism: civil defense planning, country ways and the founding of the UK’s Royal Observer Corps’ fallout monitoring posts network’, has been advance-published online today. It will eventually feature in a ‘Cold War Urbanism’ themed special issue of the Journal of Planning History, guest edited by Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture, MMU).

The journal’s main audience is North American (hence the spelling ‘defense’ above) and the special issue’s theme keys into a vein of primarily US scholarship examining the influence of the Cold War upon the urbanism of the 1950s and early 1960s. Thus Jennifer S. Light (2005) shows in her US based study, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, University of British Columbia Press) that:

“during the 1940s and 1950s…civil defense initiatives offered important social settings for several groups – defense experts, atomic scientists, urban planners, and city managers – to come together in conversation about topics from highway planning to shelter design to future city form”

The aim of my article is to explore why the UK (despite having a strongly interventionist, command economy pedigree in the aftermath of the Second World War) did not display the same melding of Cold War military-industrial imperatives and urbanist physical manipulation of the post War built environment.

Having summarised the US scholarship and the arc of post-war UK urbanism, the article shows how war planners in the UK increasingly struggled from the early 1950s to even conceptualise (let alone implement) a shelter policy and how a combination of the rise of the H-bomb and end-of-Empire crises saw the withering of UK civil defence policy and its attendant impact upon the built environment.

The article then develops this analysis through a case study of an actual Cold War inspired building project – that of over 1,500 small underground Royal Observer Corps nuclear blast and fallout monitoring posts spread across the length and breadth of the UK between 1956 and 1965. In doing so, the case study develops an argument that studies of Cold War urbanism have tended to be too fixated upon urban centres – and that the impact of the Cold War can (and should) be traced into the countryside, and that aspects of a Cold War urbanism can be observed there, but that it can be shown to be mediated and modified somewhat by the isolation and ways of being and doing prevalent in the countryside (thus producing a variant, ‘Cold War Ruralism’).

In addition to the ROC Post case study, the article also briefly considers the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food’s 1958 publication Home Defence and the Farmer, and an echo of the article’s overarching argument can be illustrated by the following quote from the its discussion of that MAFF publication:

“In 1958, after working upon it in secret for three years, and with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet wavering during that period over what and when to release information to the public about fallout and what could be done about it in terms of civil defence, the UK Government finally published, ‘Home Defence and the Farmer’, guidance to British farmers on the threats of fallout. The publication publicly acknowledging that the peril of H-bombs extended far beyond the range of their explosive effects and also (even more tellingly) admitted that (even after those three years of rumination) “knowledge about the effect of fall-out in farms is still incomplete”. Couched in the clipped, officious language of the time this admission featured an implicit assurance to the reader that a technocratic solution to this new problem would be found soon. But this reassurance was hollow, amidst the planners’ growing pessimism about their ability to offer salvation. Tellingly, the remainder of the document then instructs the lone farmer on how best to try to protect himself, his crops and livestock by his own efforts – as reflecting civil defence’s post Strath lurch to a “self-help” posture, at least as regards civilian protection.

protection - from HDATF 1958

Notably a paragraph in the farmers’ finalised guidance strove to encourage peacetime configuration of new farm buildings to incorporate principles that would also assist in the event of nuclear war, thus:

“Even the layout of buildings, yards and roads would help, not only in peace time but in fall-out conditions in war time. A good layout would help the farmer and his men to reduce the time spent out of doors and so minimise the dose of radiation they might receive. So efficient farming is not only in the national interest and the farmers’ interest in peace time, but it is a way [also] of preparing for safer farming if another war should occur.”

shed - from HDATF 1958

Here we see the civil defence planners acknowledging that the countryside has its built environments too, and that to be persuasive planning for civil defence needs to be linked (somehow) to the exigencies and logics of peace time operations (because the contingencies of war alone are insufficient incentive to change). This urging for spatial efficiency in the development and use of farm buildings also smacks of urbanism’s quest for improvement of urban environments through purposive designs. It is a sign of cold war urbanism’s penetration into the countryside.

Strath implicity, and ‘Home Defence and the Farmer’ explicitly, signalled that nuclear warfare could no longer be conceptualised in an urban-centric manner. The threat posed by thermonuclear war was not just that of urban destruction, it was now nation-wide, and that this included the countryside that lies between urban centres. In the light of such pronouncements it was clear that planning to address the effects of nuclear war was not solely a matter of urban defence, and there would be a need to develop a system of warning and monitoring that could address this meteorological, dynamic, whole-country situation posed by fallout. Set against this backdrop any neat binary equating “urban” with target and “rural” as safe fell away. Rigid separation of town and country has always been simplistic, but fallout sharply emphasised this. Even before the rise of the H-bomb portions of the countryside were co-opted into the service of urban areas, or targets in their own right, for example as bomber bases. These alone summoned the prospect of 70 nuclear strikes upon the countryside, for in the 1950s the UK Government’s publicised policy was to disperse nuclear bombers to over 70 airfields around the country in time of crisis.”

My article is available here (subscription required):  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1538513217707083

Alternatively, a slightly earlier pre-publication draft version is available on open-access here: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/15465/

Image Credits: All from Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food / Central Office of Information, Home Defence and the Farmer (London: HMSO, 1958), reproduced at http://www.atomica.co.uk/farming/main.htm.

Old Uses for New Bunkers #38: the post Cold War rise (and occasional fall) of underground lairs

6a011279022a6e28a4017ee83b86d8970d

Whilst working on the editorial for In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (Rowman & Littlefield Int, to be published August 2017) I’ve been increasingly thinking about the bunkers’ post-Cold War reverberations. The following is an extract which may or may not end up in the book…

Stuart Elden (2013), has written recently of the need to conceive of the ‘volumetric’ dimensions of political spaces: of the physical “depth of power”. The 20th century increasingly saw military and civil governance moving underground to escape the risk of actual or anticipated aerial attack. During the  Cold War bunkers were a contingency – ready in waiting but rarely used. But the end of the Cold War did not see the end of the Cold War bunker, and indeed the designs perfected in that superpower standoff, came to be the active conflict bolt-hole of client states and once-sponsored insurgents. Thus in the sense of actual use, the Cold War bunker came into its own after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If we look closely at post 1991 conflict zones the bunker is alive and kicking, providing an actual (and/or imagined) locus of sinister political power, fortified hideouts that resist the hegemonic West. In turn, the persistence of these resistant places spurs the US to develop ever more potent ‘bunker-busting’ technologies with which to threaten their eradication. By considering these bunker sites we will see how military and political engagements with such places oscillate between two powerful, persistent bunker imaginaries (Bennett, 2011): the bunker as omnipotent command centre, and its inverse, the bunker as an abject place of final defeat.

The bunker as resistant, oppositional space

The image above is simultaneously an articulation of an atavistic fear of the subterranean and attempt to depict a real bunker complex. It shows how the Tora Bora mountain bunker complex in Afghanistan was described by Western journalists in November 2001 in the run-up to the US attack on Osama bin Laden’s suspected redoubt. In pursuing Al Qaeda and Taliban forces into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom saw the US facing a:

“virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are a product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr bin Laden’s own engineering background – and, 15 years back, a heavy dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.” (Wines, 2001)

The story, as traced by Josh Rothman (2011), of how Tora Bora came to be depicted as a sophisticated Bond villain’s lair is an instructive one – it tells us much of the fact/fiction interplay with our bunker imaginary, for the cave system came to be described in increasingly elaborate terms, and was ultimately said to feature its own hospitals, offices, bedrooms and hydroelectric power supply capable of sustaining 1,500 fighters. The trail starts with a 26 November 2001 New York Times article (Wines 2001) based on an interview with an ex-Russian soldier, Viktor Kusenko who had described his recollection of an elaborate cave complex at Zhawar featuring “iron doors” beyond which lay “a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order”. These were his recollections from the Soviet campaign against the Mujahedeen in the 1980s. The article then added “Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990’s” (allegedly drawing upon bin Laden’s civil engineering training). It also pointed out the 57 days of aerial bombardment and fierce hand-to-hand fighting effort required to capture the Zhawar fortress in 1986, and that even though the Soviets had eventually blown the place up, it had been restored within a year. It had then been blasted again by multiple US cruise missiles in 1998 after Al Qaeda linked American embassy bombings in Africa. On 27 September 2001 The Independent transposed the description of Zhawar to Tora Bora, portraying it as extant and virtually impenetrable. The Associated Press then syndicated the story around the US, and The Times (of London) produced a cut-away schematic of the Tora Bora lair, and its Ken Adam-like styling on 29 September 2001.

The US Government did little to dampen the elaborate and escalating speculation. In an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press on 2 December 2001 interviewer Tim Russert referred to The Times’ elaborate schematic, and its depiction of a multi-tiered complex replete with ventilation ducts, power plant, ammunition caches and entrances large enough to drive a car through. To which Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2001 – 2006) replied that the Tora Bora redoubt was but one of many such complexes to be faced – and not just in Afghanistan. This was not an off-the-cuff remark: Rumsfeld had announced in a Pentagon briefing on 11 October 2001: “A lot of countries have done a lot of digging underground. It is perfectly possible to dig into the side of a mountain and put a large ballistic missile in there and erect it and fire it out of the mountain from an underground post” (quoted in Wines 2001). The mountain bunker thus became equated with the War on Terror’s campaign against ‘rogue states’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

Therefore, in Autumn 2001 it seemed that the US was facing a villainous foe of cinematic proportions. The inflation of the story – the conjecture about how elaborate Tora Bora would be – started with historical fact, and seemed credible. However, once finally overrun by US Forces, Tora Bora proved to be far less sophisticated, as a US Special Forces Staff Sergeant put it when interviewed by the U.S.’s Public Broadcasting Service in 2002 about the battle for Tora Bora:

“…they weren’t these crazy mazes or labyrinths of caves that they described. Most of them were natural caves. Some were supported with some pieces of wood maybe about the size of a 10-foot by 24-foot room, at the largest. They weren’t real big. I know they made a spectacle out of that, and how are we going to be able to get into them? We worried about that too, because we see all these reports. Then it turns out, when you actually go up there, there’s really just small bunkers, and a lot of different ammo storage is up there.” (PBS 2002).

But the fear of (and corresponding faith in) underground fortresses remains a live issue in post-Cold War geopolitics. The Korean War (of 1950-1954) never officially ended, and North and South Korea remain frozen in a military standoff. When Rumsfeld was talking of underground lairs beyond Afghanistan, North Korea was likely to have been at the top of his list, and since 2001, the ‘rogue state’ status of North Korea has been bolstered (in US eyes) by North Korea’s nuclear programme, and in particular its claim in January 2016 to have successfully carried out an underground H-bomb test.

Writing in 2003, Barbara Demmick (a Los Angeles Times East Asia specialist) portrayed North Korea as the exemplar of Rumsfeld’s of rogue nations digging-in. She explains that the North Koreans started tunnelling after the Korean War – when US bombing destroyed most of their industrial base and infrastructure. In response, in 1963, North Korea founder Kim II Sung declared that “the entire nation must be made a fortress. We must dig ourselves into the ground to protect ourselves” (quoted in Demmick 2003). Demmick reports that, as a consequence of this, everything important in North Korea is now underground: with several hundred underground factories, and thousands of smaller facilities. The mountainous topography lends itself well to this – and makes North Korea the world’s most fortified (or bunkerised) country, its population of 22 million people, supporting the World’s fifth largest army. Demmick reports that 13,000 artillery pieces are secreted in mountain bunkers within the (supposedly) demilitarised zone.

The bunker as abject space of defeat

Jonathan Glancey (2011) declares that “no self-respecting dictator can bear to be without a bunker” – but it seems that the reality often falls short of the dream (or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves). Writing in 2011 in the aftermath of US Navy Seals finally tracked down Osama bin Laden to a nondescript residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan fellow Guardian journalist Steve Rose (2011) asks why “the world’s no.1 villain” ended his days “in a lair with no flair”, concluding that bin Laden’s downfall shows us that “life isn’t like a Bond movie”. It seems the narrative for the vanquished is that the bunker must become “the hole they dig themselves into” (all quotes from Rose 2011). Via this inversion of the hyperbole of the omnipotent modernist bunker, the abject bunker looks back to the era of the cave man. The leader who invests in such places – who feels the need for them – has already lost touch with reality and his people, he (or she) exhibits a reality denying “bunker mentality” (Bennett 2011). Originating in the representation of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker in May 1945, a potent political metaphor now exists, whereby vulnerable political leaders can be caricatured: see for example the dubbing of scenes from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s powerful dramatic account of Hitler’s demise, Downfall [Der Untergang] (2004), to reference contemporary leaders and their failings.

In keeping with this motif, (and additionally channelling the despotic collusion of both Marie Antoinette and Eva Braun) a 2013 profile piece on Asma Al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader, who is described as “as the country collapses around her…sheltering in a bomb-proof bunker…said to be obsessed with her weight and looks, [and] stocking up on luxury furniture, health products and food” (Bentley, 2013). Whilst this fits the trope wonderfully – it does rather gloss over the sophistication modern bunker building: a 2016 feature in the Times of Israel (Solomon, 2016) reports Syrian rebel sources claiming to have probed ‘Assad’s Neighbourhood’ an underground town beneath Damascus – a combined military and political command – extending seven storeys underground, and featuring a maze of (escape) tunnels extending to nearby mountains – with tunnels said to be big enough for vehicles, huge gates, and secure against chemical attack (recalling here the villain’s lair features ascribed to Tora Bora).  The rebel video even presents an animated 3D fly-though of the complex, some footage of rebel fighters driving and walking around the recently penetrated complex (from 37 mins into the following):

Meanwhile, in Iraq in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein commissioned Yugoslavian contractors to build him a duplicate a vast Cold War Belgrade bunker beneath one of his palaces to protect him against nuclear and chemical attack at a cost of £50 million. Construction took eight years, with the project completed in 1983. The palace above was destroyed by the US’ bunker busting bombs in the air attack of April 2003 – but the 20 metre thick concrete roof of the bunker held firm. After US Rangers cut their way in through the thick steel door, the bunkers’ fate lay in the hands of looters, and to be occupied by squatters. Oliver Poole (2006) presents his journalistic bunker hunting thus (combining the ‘downfall’ trope and a cross-reference to the truth-grounding familiarities of fictional bunkers in doing so):

“When US Rangers burst in as Baghdad fell there were still sheets on Saddam’s bed and the maps lay in the command centre. Saddam had already fled…Walking through the maze of corridors was like entering a post-apocalyptic film. Some of the fluorescent lights were still blinking, water from smashed pipes oozed over the carpet and wires hung from the ceiling. Torches picked out abandoned and torn chemical weapon protection suits amid the debris littering the corridors.”

And in Saddam’s case the abjection trope would prove to be further topped-off, by the fact that Saddam’s last refuge was a bunker-hovel – an adapted cellar, with room for one crouching occupant – as presented in this CBS News report from 2003:

Libyan dictator  Muammar Gaddafi’s cornering also played out the same way – his October 2011 capture after being found hiding in the confines of a storm drain in Sirte, his home town, a short distance from his family compound (and its bunker – which had been the subject of an RAF bunker-busting raid in August 2011 to deny Gaddafi his Sirte fall-back). This endgame – like that of Saddam – contrasts to depictions of his elaborate “underground fortress” (reportedly one of many) built beneath the vast Bab al-Aziziya military compound in Tripoli which was captured by rebels in August 2011. This complex is said to have tunnels extending for over a kilometre beneath the city, and – as Jessica Dacey (2011) reports – was built by Swiss bunker engineers in the 1970s and 1980s, modelled on the designs for Swiss civilian bunkers, and fitted out with Swiss ventilation equipment (manufactured by Luwa).

It’s a hallmark of the media age that reportage fresh from the 21st century battlezone is available near-instantaniously, and notable that one standard trope in the portrayal of the defeat of an enemy is to show laying bare of his bunkers. But there’s something else too that can be witnessed now on social media – a touristic urban exploration, as captured for example in bunker-hunting excursions reported on You Tube, specifically that of ‘SISTIC1’ who appears to have wandered many of the Gaddafi bunkers within a few weeks of their capture by rebel forces. SISTIC1’s 1st person POV video wandering around the undamaged bunker found in the Ben Ashour area of Tripoli feels, like a video game, but it isn’t: its carried out in an active warzone, with the very real possibility of lethal wounding by an encounter with a fighter or a looter around the next corner. But is this bunker hunting political or is it recreational, a timely instance of “dark tourism” (Lennon & Foley, 2000)?

Bunkerology’s origins lie in anti-nuclear protestors – like the ‘Spies for Peace’ activists of the 1960s, who sought to penetrate the secrecy of a state’s nuclear scheme – and to defeat it by gathering and disseminating systematic knowledge of its existence (see Bennett 2013). But the iconography of roaming grey-walled subterranean corridors in SISTIC1’s video is chilling because of how closely it chimes with adventure movies and video games, rather than because it unmasks the raw face of political power. Searching the long grey corridors of newly-discovered secret facilities are a ubiquitous feature of popular culture, a motif in every ‘shoot ‘em up’ video game since 1993’s DOOM. Indeed juxtaposing SISTIC1’s footage with a promotional video trailer for Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s 2016 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III plays, produces an uncanny effect: fact and fiction side by side. The fiction portraying a cast of modern day political leaders wandering, and animating very similarly styled light grey subterranean corridors of power, and the fact of SISTIC1’s video of the Ben Ashour bunker, an evacuated space, stripped of its people and purpose. Inevitably, the animated, populated fictional space feels more ‘real’, and the real space feels the more uncanny.

The fact/fiction interpenetration in popular culture makes it difficult for us to keep noticing the bunker in a critical political sense – cultural saturation tips the attention over into the theatrical, the touristic or the fantastical.

 

 

References

Bennett, Luke (2011). ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management.’ Culture and Organization, 17 (2): 155-173.

Bennett, Luke (2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31 (3), 502-521.

Bentley, Rick (2013) ‘Syrian dictator Basar Al-Assad’s wife Asma on luxury spending spree’ Daily Express, 2 September.

Dacey, Jessica (2011) ‘Swiss parts helped build Libyan bunkers’, Swissinfo.ch online feature (The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation), 29 August – at http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss-parts-helped-build-libyan-bunkers/31014136

Demmick, Barbara (2003) ‘North Korea has a deep, dark secret known by all’, Orlando Sentinel, 7 December.

Elden, Stuart (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34: 35-51.

Glancey, Jonathan (2011) ‘From Hitler to Gaddafi: dictators and their bunkers’, The Guardian, 27 August.

Hirschbiegel, Oliver (dir.) (2004) Downfall [Der Untergang], Constantin Film Produktion: München.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcolm (2000) Dark Tourism. Thomson: London.

Poole, Oliver (2006) ‘Inside £50million nuclear bunker that couldn’t save Saddam’, The Telegraph, 12 January.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2002) Frontline: Interview: U.S. Special Forces ODA 572, interview transcript at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/572.html

Rose, Steve (2011) ‘Why did Osama bin Laden build such a drab HQ?’ The Guardian, 4 May.

Rothman, Josh (2011) ‘Bin Laden’s (Fictional) Mountain Fortress’, The Boston Globe blog, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2011/05/bin_ladens_fict.html

Solomon, Ari (2016) ‘Report: Assad built seven-storey underground war bunker’ 16 February: http://www.timesofisrael.com/report-assad-able-to-wage-war-from-underground-bunker/

Wines, Michael (2001) ‘A nation challenged: caves and tunnels; heavily fortified ‘Ant farms’ deter bin Laden’s pursuers’, The New York Times, 26 November.

 

 

 

 

 

Vibrant voids: how some places ignore you, and others trip you up

Felimngham - Leominster

“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)

Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.

Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).

And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.

But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.

Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.

Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.

At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.

So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.

But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.

So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.

 

References

Bartonini, N. (2015) ‘The politics of vibrant matter: Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’, Journal of Material Culture, 20 (2), 191-210.

Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31