The Greater Confinement: Survival Cells, the Survival City and how COVID-19 evolves protective sequestration

“Although cities and city dwellers are vulnerable to assaults on their biotope, however crude or sophisticated, they are resilient and not easily wiped from the map. The defensive reflex that has beset the Western world, including Europe, in recent years merits some critical scrutiny. Historically, it is by no means a unique phenomenon. We may view the current syndrome in the light of the earliest attempts at national risk management, namely the defensive measures taken against air raids and when we do so, a striking continuity emerges.”
Koos Bosma (2012) Shelter City, p. 7.

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The Cellar

Do you remember the rain? In February this year, at the height of this winter’s heavy downpours, I stood in a dark, dank cellar ankle deep in water. An emergency pump had cleared most of the floodwater accumulated there. But as we started to pack up, the water level slowly started to rise again. Then I saw it, bubbling, over at the base of one of the subterranean walls: a small steady trickle.

We gave up and called in a damp specialist. And he diagnosed the Second World War as the likely reason for this insistent water ingress. The cellar, he explained, would have been the best place in the house to hide from falling bombs. But it would also have been an especially deadly place: a tomb in the event of a bomb’s direct hit. So, as a precaution against entombment, residents commonly knocked an escape passage through into their neighbour’s cellar.

After the war, when the desire for territorial integrity of the home reasserted itself, such passages were quickly filled in. But the rough rubble fill material would have left voids, and this was how the water was finding its preferential pathway into the cellar.

Survival Cell

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown this prosaic encounter with past sheltering and its womb/tomb duality got me thinking about how across history we see home confinement (or ‘protective sequestration’ as it is styled in contemporary public health discourse) operating as a base unit of action: as what Silvia Berger Ziauddin has styled a bio-political “survival cell”. In her 2017 article on the Swiss authorities’ (not entirely successful) attempt to foster a culture of sheltering from nuclear attack within each household, she shows how even in a country where the apparatus of the state (and all associated building ordinances) were geared towards ensuring that every new house or apartment was built with a fall out shelter, attempts to ensure preparedness and respectful maintenance of these facilities increasingly faltered as time went on (and no attack came). These purpose-built shelter-rooms instead became absorbed into the ‘peacetime’ household practices and/or subverted for illicit uses. Thus, neither physically creating these special rooms, nor attempts to impose respectful and prepared norms for them seemed to have worked.

But, Berger Ziauddin’s work is helpful in identifying this attempt by the Swiss authorities to fix the home, and the family unit, as the scale, or unit of action. What the policy did above all was to repurpose the home as potential shelter. We see something similar in Shapiro & Bird-David’s 2017 study of Israeli mamad rooms (domestic bomb shelters), and in studies of US Cold War shelter policy and culture (of which there are quite a few, including Rose (2001)).

We also find it in UK guidance on nuclear sheltering – think of Protect and Survive (written 1976; published 1980) and its focus on adapting suitable spaces within the home, to make an inner refuge from dismantled doors, sandbags and suchlike.

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Then jump back in time to the 1950s.

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The Hydrogen Bomb (1957), HMSO

Or the 1940s – in each era their air raid guidance is emphasising the shelter-taking potential of the home, and of the importance of withdrawal into its protective depths.

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Survival City

But this image of the enclosed, self-contained survival cell is a myth. First because a survival cell cannot ever be fully self-contained and secondly because there is nothing necessarily benign about its enclosure. Its comforts are also not equally available to all.
A survival cell exists (can only exist) within a system of relations stretching across time and space. Take current COVID-19 isolation: the ability to withdraw depends (for most) upon others’ continuing to make and deliver power, water, sewerage, food. Those who shelter are dependent upon others who do not, and the infrastructural systems that sustain (and collectivise) individual life. Here we start to glimpse survival cells as necessarily interconnected (just as my cellar was with my neighbours) and forming a network, and it is the network that is truly the author of survival. Thus we witness what Bosma (2012) has (also in the context of Second World War air raid sheltering) termed “Shelter City” – sheltering as a collaborative urban infrastructural project, in which the city (acting as a defensive organism) is the real base unit of survival.

As I encountered in my cellar. A shelter without an assured means of escape is a tomb. Just as a home can be made a place of protection, so can it be made a place of confinement: the walls of a home just as easily be made into a prison. In short, a shelter cannot shelter unless it connects to life-sustaining networks that extend beyond its walls.

Protective Sequestration.

As an organism, the city seeks to perpetuate human life in general (i.e. society). Its survival instinct can see the home become a containment vessel. But the oddity of the COVID-19 situation is that it is both the healthy and the sick who are sequestered at home. Looking back at previous outbreaks, it has more often tended to be the infected who have found themselves in confinement in their homes. Thus, as Newman (2012) shows, the Plague Orders deployed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the UK saw the forced quarantine of infected households by ‘shutting up’ whole families for a period of 40 days. The rules provided for provision of a live-in nurse and food (for the poor) – and a guard outside to make sure that the confinement was enforced. No one could leave the ‘shut-up’ houses (for any reason) until the infection there had run its course.

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As Moote and Moote (2004) show, following the Great Plague (which centred around London in 1665), the practice of forced whole-family house confinement started to fade, and the idea of taking the sick into purpose-built places of isolation and treatment gathered relative force. Such places had existed at a rudimentary level since the Middle Ages. During the Crusades, isolation camps for pilgrims infected by leprosy had been created in Mediterranean islands. In Italy this provision had progressed to ornate Lazarettos (proto-isolation hospitals). But in England this sophistication had not been attained, instead ad hoc, and small-scale pesthouses were sometimes established on a local basis in the face of infectious outbreaks. Pesthouses were often little more than shacks at the edge of a settlement, either left to fall into dereliction following an outbreak or systematically erased from the urban scene.

In the 19th century more institutionalised and long-standing forms of confinement of the infectious were arranged by municipal authorities: first workhouses then isolation hospitals (for diseases like typhoid, tuberculosis and scarlet fever). Mooney (2015) notes that by 1914, in the wake of the construction boom sparked by the Isolation Hospitals Act 1893 (which permitted local Boards of Health to raise funding), 755 isolation hospitals had been constructed in England, usually in remote locations, providing 32,000 beds. This trend towards evacuation of the sick, and the mad, the poor and the deviant from the places and spaces of everyday society to purpose-built places of separation, has been termed by Foucault “the great confinement”. Foucault locates the coding of those exclusionary practices as originating in (ultimately) the Old Testament’s banishment of lepers, to live “outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46).

The Greater Confinement

To return to the home as the declared unit of survival in this present crisis feels both strange and familiar.

Berger Ziauddin’s analysis shows that the roots of the Swiss authorities’ failure to successfully colonise and condition a portion of the Swiss home as a place of ritual transition to an apocalyptic counter-reality ultimately failed because that feared state of play never happened. It was ritualistically practiced for, but with time passing it came to be taken less seriously and its grip on the domestic rituals faded. The integral bunker-in-the-basement simply became assimilated into everyday domesticity as a spare room. But the sudden COVID-19 confinement around the world, works in the opposite direction. It appropriates standard domestic space and renders it the focal point of a fight for survival. And the novelty of this bad dream is that it has actually happened, and that it came upon us with relatively little prehension or ritualised practice drills. The place-appropriating spell of “Stay Home. Saves Lives. Protect the NHS” was cast (almost) overnight.

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To a UK audience the bunker/stay at home parallels might seem a little far-fetched – because we lack more recent cultural cues by which to analyse confinement at home. (Fortunately) we have no culture of “house arrest” or curfew, nor do we have a discourse of emergency management which has sought to frame hiding at home as a claimed imperative of “homeland security”. In contrast, in the US, civil contingencies planning – in the wake of school shootings and terrorist attacks – has come to prominently define two forms of shelter-taking: the “lock down” and “shelter in place”. A lock down defines a situation in which in the face of a local violent aggressor a place is sealed so that that danger cannot spread. Faced with that possibility school children faced with a prospect of being locked inside their school, are trained how to hide within a normally familiar and nurturing environment which may one day turn hostile. Meanwhile, “shelter in place” usually describes a response to an environmental danger (a tornado or a chemical spill). Here the aim is to adapt the building in which you find yourself into a protective shell within which to escape from the outside world and its marauding threats (by, for example, sealing windows to keep poisoned air out).

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But in the context of the COVID-19 confinement language has evolved: “shelter in place” has now been adopted by the US media as a convenient short-hand by which to describe protective sequestration of the healthy. New York New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has criticised this migration of language, arguing that “words matter” (Opam 2020) and that talk of shelter-in-place unhelpfully evokes images of active shooters and nuclear war. In contrast he chose to style New York City’s confinement measures using the infrastructural metaphor of “closing the valve”, emphasising (in effect) that protective confinement is a survival city measure, a contribution to a collective (and connected) response, rather than declaration of a everyone-for-themselves atomised foregrounding of individualised domestic survival cells.

Conclusion: The Greater Confinement

The contemporary crisis – the greater confinement – in which we find ourselves appears by turns to both to isolate us and to emphasise to us the social interconnections upon which any individual act of withdrawal actually depends. The greater confinement is only possible in a society that embodies surplus, and which is sufficiently automated and telecommunicated to enable the work of social coordination to be exercisable from within the confines of (remotely connected) survival cells. In most prior societies majority protective sequestration would have been logistically impossible. But the greater confinement still depends upon a fraction of the population being prepared (or forced by circumstances) to provide material circulation of goods and essential services between the sheltering majority.

The greater confinement also – if we scratch the surface – reveals timeless inequalities that lie within any era of sheltering. We are not (as the slogan would have it) “in this together”, if by that we mean “in this equally”. To have control over whether and where you are sequestered depends upon your resources and social connections. And it was ever thus: Newman (2012) shows how being Shut Up in a plague year was more likely a fate of the poor and the ‘middling’ classes, because the rich could afford to flee to the country (or to relocate to another of their houses). Meanwhile, Mooney flags how, 250 years later, the poor were more likely to be removed to an Isolation Hospital because their homes were viewed as too small and overcrowded to enable safe home-confinement of the infectious sick, the rich and well-connected had other options.

Over the weeks, months, years ahead we will search for ways to understand “what just happened” and what it has revealed to us as individual survivors and as social beings. My invoking parallels (and discontinuities) with bunker studies, and that form of urban sheltering,  is but one way to start to think through the new domestic uncanny.

 

References

Berger Ziauddin, Silvia (2016) ‘(De)Territorializing the home: the nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage.’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4) 674-693.

Bosma, Koos (2012) Shelter City: Protecting citizens against air raids. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Moote, A. Lloyd & Moote, Dorothy C. (2004) The Great Plague: the story of London’s most deadly year. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mooney, Graham (2015) Intrusive Investigations: Public health, domestic space and infectious disease surveillance in England 1840-1914. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester University Press.

Newman, Kira L. S. (2012) ‘Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History, 45(3) 809-834.

Opam, Kwame (2020) ‘It’s not ‘Shelter in Place’: what the New Coronavirus Restrictions Mean’, The New York Times, 24 March. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-shelter-in-place-coronavirus.html

Rose, Kenneth (2001) One Nation Underground: The fallout shelter in American culture. New York: New York University Press.

Shapiro, Matan & Bord-David, Nurit (2017) ‘Routinergency: Domestic securitization in contemporary Israel’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, 35(4) 637-655.
Images:

HMSO; https://www.horton-park.co.uk/; http://www.shutterstock.com; https://www.bl.uk/learning/images/uk/plague/large8122.html

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

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“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

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Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

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

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“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).

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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“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.

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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

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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

What happens after? Thoughts on dark real estate, legal psychogeography and bunker-pooh.

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Back in the bunker

So, I’m standing in the sparse canteen, sipping a glass of something fizzy. My neighbour turns to me and we exchange names. Then there’s a pause. She looks at me quizzically. ‘You’re Luke Bennett? You’re Luke Bennett?’ She looks like her mind is trying to catch up. There’s something about me that apparently doesn’t fit my name. She’s a cultural geographer, we’re in York Cold War Bunker and I’m amused. This isn’t the first time this has happened.

I have two arms, two legs, stand just over six feet tall and have no distinctive features. My once very dark brown hair is starting to look like I’ve been in a fight with a sack of flour. I’m middle aged and dress like it. I’m not sure what she was expecting me to look like (or be like), but from the work of mine that she’d read it seemed that she was expecting something different.

I then gleefully enhanced the mind-warp effect by explaining that I’m not a card-carrying geographer, but instead a slightly wayward environmental lawyer who spends his daylight hours teaching real estate students. To add the knockout blow I then introduced my SHU colleague, Sarah (a chartered surveyor) and explained how we are currently working on a project that explores the role of estate managers and estate agents within the ROC Post network, and that we’re spending most of our time looking at old Air Ministry estate management files, Land Registry title records and  landowner’s files. We think (and our bunker-acquaintance agreed) that this focus on the day to day forming, holding-together and dissembling of the ROC Post network is an angle that’s not been done before, and that it is worth doing.

Since finishing my PhD journey last month I’ve had lots of people coming up to me asking me one or both of the following: ‘So, what’s your next project then?’ and ‘so, are you going to leave SHU now?’. In reply to the second question is: ‘No, I’m not’ and the answer to the first is more complex. My PhD portfolio took me up to work published in 2013. I’ve carried on working on further projects since, and still have some of these in hand (and others in prospect). So, in that sense it’s just a case of keeping on going. I’m still interested in the same fundamental question (how we make, manage and encounter the built world through discursive-materialities) and I still prefer investigating this through case studies. Maybe there has been some subtle refocussing since 2013 – trying to pull the strands more closely together, and so recent work has tried to pull the legal geography and ruins stuff together (and I’m working on a very exciting funding bid on that, more on that when it’s not secret). Maybe also I’m getting a bit more historical in my focus – I’m finding the lure of archives an appealing one. I miss my days spent trawling through stacks of documents as a lawyer, looking for a smoking gun.

But I can’t seem to escape the bunker. My bunkerology is continuing via the book project (now entitled ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, Materiality and Meaning-making), which has been commissioned by Rowman & Littlefield International, and I have 12 contributors inputting to that.

As I strolled around No. 20 Group (York) ROC command bunker last night, all sorts of future angles proliferated. One study that I’d attempt, if I had more time and was even more dissident, would be on bunker-pooh. Yes, bunker-pooh. There’s a ‘sewage ejector’ machine in the York bunker. The sign indicated that this would – if the drains became blocked – expel excrement from the shelter, presumably at quite some speed and force. That certainly summons a strange image and related set of questions (was that machine the culmination of a technician’s life’s work?; was there a committee that identified the need for a shit-cannon?). I’ve tried (and failed) to encourage a fellow academic bunkerologist to write up his findings on problematic pooh at his bunker. He’s far more serious-minded than me though. His research identified that his bunker had revealed itself to the surrounding, outside, everyday world precisely because of its noxious emissions. That bunker’s existence wasn’t ferreted out by valiant oppositional detective work. It was disclosed by wayward excrement.

Anyway. You get the idea – wandering around a bunker you get to encounter all of the technology and logistics of basic human existence. The bunker thus becomes organic, in that it must have mechanical organs to duplicate/aggregate its human denizens’ bodies. It is like walking around inside a body.

The other thing (in a related, but non-scatological vein) that drew my attention was the bureaucratic architecture of resource depletion. This bunker was stocked for 30 days of operation. The commanding officer had a chart on the wall on which he would meticulously log how much food and other consumables were left. When these ran out the bunker’s role (and operability) would expire, along with its occupants too, unless they chose to leave and take their chances in the post-apocalyptic terrain beyond the entrance hatch. This place only offered temporary survival, and had no provision for beyond that. It was a place of pure function and duty (to co-ordinate ROC Post fall-out observations).

Dark Real Estate

Earlier this week, ‘Becoming Spatial Detectives’ my synoptic review of legal geography (co-authored with Antonia Layard) was published in the journal Geography Compass (it’s available open access here). If you want to know how we’d like legal geography to evolve, or you are curious about shipwreck cannibalism, we think it’s well worth a read.

By exploring the legal geography direction, and in other projects examining the fate of particular place-formations, I’ve found a way of re-embracing my law, and also ‘land management’ sides, but doing so within a context that is productive for the existing geographically-inclined topics that I’ve been exploring to date. Maybe such a conjunction needs a name, with Carolyn Gibbeson (another hybrid surveyor/cultural geographer) we’ve come up with ‘dark real estate’. My work has been on bunkers, Carolyn’s is on abandoned mental asylums, and a few years ago we wrote jointly about cemeteries. That makes it all sound like murder-house studies (an emergent sub-genre in the US), but I think its wider, less about studying stigma and more about examining redundancy and the awkwardness of afteruse for properties of a type that are too big (asylums) or too small (ROC Posts) to be either easily repurposed or erased. The intended analogy is with ‘dark tourism’ studies, but I’m also thinking of that more technical sense of ‘occult’ (occluded, hidden, not noticed). In some ways ‘grey real estate’ would be better (in terms of linking to ‘studies of everyday life’), but just as ‘dark real estate’ sounds a little too gothic, ‘grey real estate’ sounds self-defeatingly dull. So, ‘dark’ it is, for now at least.

Each of us (often separately, occasionally simultaneously) hangs out with geographers (and our work often makes more immediate sense to geographers and the wider humanities than to the econometrics dominated world of ‘real estate research’). We use qualitative research methods and cultural geographic concepts, and yet we’re also addressing questions that are (or we think should be) central to studies of how types of buildings (and the places that they form) persist (or don’t).

In pursuit of this question, I also seem to have fallen into the company of contemporary archaeologists recently (those who apply archaeological methods to the physical remains of recently abandoned places). I’m trying to work through the relationship between their near-present focus on built environment heritage, and our dark real estate near-past focus on passage of buildings through use-phases (and their ultimate arrival at redundancy). I’m speaking on this at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference in Sheffield in November, so it will be interesting to see how that goes, particularly as I will be building my talk around the (archive based) ROC Project.

Multiple faces

To return to the beginning.

Doing ‘dark real estate’, places us at the boundary between two (or more) very different disciplines, slightly orphaned, but also strangely empowered because our vantage point lets us be in both worlds, and to mediate between the two. This inevitably entails a degree of active management of the presentation of self (as Erving Goffman would put it). We adjust our register, and present slightly different faces as we engage with each audience. This is much easier to manage in hyperspace though (i.e. through this blog). In face to face encounters it seems to trigger those uncomprehending looks and someone frantically strives to pigeonhole us into one or other identity. It’s hardest when the diverse communities are all in the same room at the same time – and you are trying to address them all at once.

In my last post I wrote about this selectivity of ‘faces to the world’, and of how we never show (nor indeed ever could show) all of the versions of ourselves to the world in one go. We code-switch as circumstances require. This links to a key argument in my contribution to Tina Richardson’s edited collection Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, published earlier this week. My chapter is called ‘Incongrous steps toward a legal psychogeography’. In being part of this collection I align to a more arts and humanities milieu in style and methods, but my aim in doing so is actually to fly the flag for an attentiveness to the constitution of the built environment, the actual laws (rather than the ‘social’ laws that Guy Debord thought psychogeography could uncover). To achieve this (and to subvert the existing legal geography canon in doing so along the way) I take a passage from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp (2012) and apply détournement to it – making Nick’s words work for me, taking them for a walk in a different direction (Nick and I have corresponded and he’s told me that the two passages my chapter works with were ‘passing thoughts’ in his text, so it’s me not he who builds them toward significance). Anyway, here’s an excerpt from my chapter:

“…Papadimitriou takes us – early on in his traverse along the escarpment of what is now the lost county of Middlesex – to ‘Suicide Corner’, a stretch of the A41 snaking out its path North West of London. He recounts for us a succession of fatal car crashes, and of the people, creatures and other matter caught up in each event that occurred there. In doing so he draws forth isolated incidents, from the pages of long forgotten local newspapers and memory, activating these incidental archives in order to show a reverberation of these events within the landscape itself.

At one point in his rumination Papadimitriou figures an anonymous “civil engineer working for the transport ministry” who “through eyeing the scraggy wood just to the north of the farmhouse, sees only camber, curve and how best to extend the planned M1 extension over this high ground from its present terminus” (Papadimitriou 2012, 20).

Papadimitriou captures in this passage how the task-orientated gaze of the engineer sees the topography as a set of logistical challenges, a puzzle to solve as he works through in his mind’s eye the most feasible path for his roadway. Papadimitriou’s description seeks to show how all other sensory inputs are blocked (or discarded) as irrelevant to this man’s purpose. He is standing there for a reason. He is harvesting the landscape for what he needs today. This applied gaze foregrounds certain features, and backgrounds all else. This spectator is in the engineering-professional equivalent of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 2008 – for whom flow is an optimal immersion in the moment, marked by both physiological and psychological change). He is portrayed as at one with his task, the landscape presenting to him as a specific “taskscape” (Ingold 1993, 1570) – the very perception of a landscape being formed by the requirements of the task to be carried out there.

And yet, Papadimitriou then importantly shows how even that intent focus is vulnerable to undermining by the assault of the disregarded ‘background’, as an irresistible reverie – or least a momentary noticing of other things – takes hold:

Momentarily distracted from his plans by the chirping of some unnamable night bird, he looks eastwards across the brightly lit Edgware Way, towards the high ground at Edgewarebury. Perhaps moved by some spontaneous memory of childhood holidays spent in the New Forest, his imagination lingers in the woods and fields like a slowly drifting plant community and then dissolves into ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves – a residue of previous summers – and the ghosts of dead insects (Papadimitriou 2012, 20).

I then chart how this connects to the material-affective turn in cultural geography (suggesting that it’s time to recognise psychogeography’s affinity with Non Representational Theory (Thrift 2008)) and then try to switch psychogeography’s attachment to an escapist ‘reverie’ back upon itself, thus:

“But, there is more work to be done. Whilst the landscape poet can happily leave us with a Romantic resurgence of ‘nature’ overwhelming instrumentalist man, psychogeography’s embrace of incongruity can – and should – be taken further. Psychogeography should equally be able to show how the workaday preoccupations of an instrumentalist science can invade a thought-stream of more affective purpose, showing how the ‘straight’ world reasserts itself, barging itself back to the foreground, in short how it re-colonizes consciousness and gaze. So for example, Papadimitriou’s engineer’s reverie – his tumble back to environment related childhood memories – is fleeting, itself inevitably undermined by the ‘day job’ returning to his consciousness, the ‘real world’ bringing him back down to earth, and back to the prosaic task in hand, as he turns away from reminiscence and resumes his survey of this countryside and its future road course.”

I then go on to suggest that Legal Geography’s recent interest in the pragmatics of everyday engagement with (and production of) place could provide the avenue for fulfilling Debord’s prescription that:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” (Debord, 1955).

Elsewhere I try to outline the methodology that lies at the heart of this disciplinary-blurring intent (lining it to James Clifford’s (1988) ‘ethnographic surrealism’).

I’m really pleased with this essay (and slightly frustrated that for copyright reasons I can only put snippets here). But if dark real estate has a programme, if it has a methodology and if it has a sense of playfulness, it is here…

References

Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture – Twentieth Century ethnography, literature, and art. London: Harvard University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 2008. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. London: Harper Perennial.

Debord, Guy. 1955. “Introduction to a critique of urban geography”. Les Levres Nues, 6. http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Ingold, Tim. 1993. “The Temporality of the Landscape”. World Archaeology, 25(2): 152-174.

Papadimitriou, Nick. 2012. Scarp: in search of London’s outer limits. London: Sceptre.

Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics and Affect. Abingdon: Routledge.