“The Future of the Bunker // The Bunker of the Future”: Call For Papers: Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, London: 29 August – 1 September 2017

Call For Papers

Royal Geographical Society  Annual Conference,

London: 29 August – 1 September 2017

The Future of the Bunker // The Bunker of the Future


“Anachronistic in normal periods, in peacetime the bunker appears as a survival machine, as a shipwrecked submarine on a beach.” (Virilio, 1994)

The last two decades have seen increasing public interest in, and engagements with, the abandoned remains of Second World War and Cold War era military and civil defence bunkers. Academics have been busy analysing the motives and forms of this engagement (Bennett 2011; Maus 2017) and also charting the origins and affective-material impacts of those 20th century waves of bunker-building mania (Bartolini 2015; Klinke 2015; Berger Ziauddin 2016). Such engagements and studies have tended to figure the bunker as a now-deactivated form – as a form of contemporary ruin – and as a phenomenon of the (albeit recent) past. This Call for Papers seeks to supplement this scholarship by examining the bunkers’ futurity: through considering the bunker as an immanent contemporary and still-yet-to-come form of place. As John Armitage (2015) has recently put it (writing of Paul Virilio’s seminal first-encounter with a bunker of the Nazi Atlantic Wall in 1958): “when we face the bunker, we need to periodize our feelings of lurking danger – to insert them into historical time and to identify the periods of relative serenity, when not only the fixed content of the military bunker but also the relation between oblique architecture and the sudden appearance of this object on the beach remain relatively tranquil”.

This call invites proposals for 15 mins presentations originating in any discipline, that speak to this concern to examine the bunker’s futurity. This call is not intended to be prescriptive, as consideration of the bunker’s (benign or malevolent) potentialities requires a degree of speculation and cross-disciplinary thinking. The following list of potential themes is therefore indicative, rather than restrictive:

  • How are the 20th century’s redundant bunkers repurposed, and is this re-appropriation always playful or “funky” (Strömberg 2013). What does the variety of re-uses tell us about the multivalent resilience (or obstinacy) of the bunker-form?
  • How, specifically, has the bunker-form influenced the ‘new military urbanism’ observed by Stephen Graham (2011) at heart of contemporary urban infrastructures and the bunkerisation of otherwise conventional buildings (Monteyne 2014)?
  • How is the bunker-form evolving in its contemporary suburban manifestations as drone command centres, government crisis command rooms and fortified emergency stores?
  • How might the “perpetual architecture” (CLUI 2013) of seed banks, nuclear waste and fissile material repositories and server farms be seen as the bunker’s latest iteration? And following Van Wyck 2004, how can we analyse the time-capsule role of such bunker-forms?
  • How can the present and future of the bunker be publicly presenced? Do the techniques of bunker-hunting applied to the recreational surveying of the last century’s now-abandoned bunkers work for their extant, and forthcoming 21st century variants?
  • How is the image of the bunker evolving in popular culture?
  • Is the intimate association between concrete and bunkers breaking down, and if it is what are the implications of this material change to the bunker-form? Is a bunker defined by it’s poured-concrete construction or by the exceptional, power-concentrated and emergency-driven reasons for its existence?
  • Given the rise of commercial panic room and bunker-builders like http://www.terravivos.com/ has the bunker become privatised, and prospects of survival commodified? What are the emergent inequalities of protection against 21st century existential threats?
  • What and where are the bunkers of future? Space bases, underground or undersea living-stations, cryogenic capsules?

Please send abstracts (maximum of 250 words) to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) (Reader in Space, Place & Law, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, UK) by 1st February 2017.



Armitage, John. 2015. Virilio for Architects. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bartolini, Nadia. 2015. ‘The Politics of Vibrant Matter: Consistency, Containment and the Concrete of Mussolini’s Bunker’ Journal of Material Culture 20(2): 191-210.

Bennett, Luke. 2011. ‘Bunkerology: A Case Study in the Theory and Practice of Urban Exploration’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29: 421-434.

Berger Ziauddin, Silvia . 2016. ‘(De)territorializing the Home. The Nuclear Bomb Shelter as a Malleable Site of Passage’. Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, advanced publication online 12 November, DOI 10.1177/0263775816677551.

CLUI (Center for Land Use Interpretation). 2013. ‘Perpetual Architecture: Uranium Disposal Cells of America.’ Lay of the Land Newsletter, Winter 2013 (online) http://www.clui.org/newsletter/winter-2013/perpetual-architecture

Graham, Stephen. 2011. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso.

Klinke, Ian. 2015. ‘The Bunker and the Camp: Inside West Germany’s Nuclear Tomb’ Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 33(1): 154-168.

Monteyne, David. 2014. ‘Uncertainties: Architecture and Building Security in the 21st Century’ in Benjamin Flowers (ed.) Architecture in an Age of Uncertainty. Abingdon: Routledge.

Maus, Gunnar. 2017. ‘Popular Historical Geographies of the Cold War: Playing, Hunting and Recording Small Munitions Bunkers in Germany’ in Luke Bennett (ed.) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Strömberg, Per. 2013. ‘Funky Bunkers: The Post-Military Landscape as a Readymade Space and a Cultural Playground’ in Gary A. Boyd & Denis Linehan, Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 67-81.

Van Wyck, Peter. 2004. ‘American Monument: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’, in Scott C. Zeman & Michael A, Amundson (eds.), Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, pp. 149-172.

Virilio, Paul. 1994. Bunker Archeology. New York: Princeton Architectural Press (translated by George Collins).


Image Credit: Svalbard Seed Vault, Norway via http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/syria-war-forces-first-withdrawal-artic-seed-vault-n433471

This is New Uses for Old Bunkers #41.

CFP – RGS 2014 – Cold War Bunkers: exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath


Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference,

London 26-29 August 2014


Proposed sessions on:


Cold War Bunkers:

exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath



Session Convenors:

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and John Beck (University of Westminster)


“… the closer I came to the ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where I was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.”

W.G. Sebald (2002) The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage (trans. Michael Hulse)

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. The proposed sessions seek to investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history and archaeology to name a few). The sessions will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Virilio (2009) has pointed out the ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

This proposed session seeks papers that examine the origins and operational life of these places, of their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), of their material legacies and attempted repurposing. A broad range of papers are invited, approaching bunkers at a variety of scales, perspectives and national contexts. The contributions might – for example – be case studies, analysis of bunker imagery in media representations, empirical studies of public engagement with bunker ‘museums’ and/or theoretical treatments of the meaning/matter meld that bunkers comprise.

Submissions might also address such matters as:

  • The excavation of the ‘secret’ history of specific bunkers – and/or analysis of bunkers’  intentional and inadvertent secrecy, of the changing status of such sites and the techniques of investigation
  • The bunker as an exceptional space at the intersection of sovereign and bio-power; how can the history of particular sites and particularly their decommissioning be fed into theories of sovereign power and legal exceptionality?
  • The significance of the subterranean nature of most bunkers – their hiddenness from sight and encounter; their womb-like properties; their primitivism; their confinement; the costly hubris of going underground; the hyper-control required or enabled in subterranean dwelling
  • The gap between fantasy and reality – ‘space age bachelor pad’ vs ‘concrete submarine’ (Vanderbilt 2002); local improvisation and vernacular styling in bunker construction; the nuclear bunker as concrete fantasy, a space where geopolitical fantasy materialises
  • Civil defence and the encouragement (or suppression) of private bunker building
  • The link between bunkers, modernism and civic infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications networks and their bunkerization)
  • The fate and aftermath of these bunkers: studies of decommissioning (policy and reality); markets in purchasing and reusing bunkers; the (in)significance of public perception in attempted reuse; the preservation of cold war heritage
  • Artistic engagements with bunkers
  • Oral history and reminiscence work with bunker personnel
  • The influence of bunker engineering on Brutalism (and vice versa)
  • Bunker hunters and their motivations
  • The (post) modern bunker – how has the bunker evolved?

How to propose a contribution:

Please submit an abstract (maximum 250 words) and single paragraph biography (including institutional and disciplinary affiliation) to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 15 February 2014.

Further information about the conference, venue, delegate fee etc is available via the RGS website: www.rgs.org

Each selected presenter will have a 15 minutes slot, with PowerPoint facilities provided. The sessions are subject to approval/adoption by the RGS.

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

“Real estate property is linked, directly or indirectly ,

to the faculty of its penetration and,

just as something changes in value

in being taken from one region into another,

a place changes in quality according to

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

Paul Virilio (1994) Bunker Archeology 

arnhem cross section

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

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

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

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

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

1) How did you find your bunkers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As bunkers are built to resist external force, it’s pretty costly to adapt them to new uses. You mostly have to use them as they come, so apparently they end up as archive space due to their robust nature and constant climate. Because of this I haven’t seen that many new uses, but I love the bunker 599 project by Ronald Rietveld http://www.rietveldlandscape.com/en/projects/7, as it shows the workings of a bunker sensationally, with a very simple gesture (which wasn’t that simple in reality). As our bunker used to be a tunnel, it is narrow and long, and we have been looking at similar spaces, instead of focussing on the bunker aspect.


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

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

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

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

Before Furnace Park

Occursus 13

“Most human activities produce marks in the physical world.

These marks are vestiges.

They freeze fleeting moments of engagement in practice into monuments,

which persist and disappear in their own time”

Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning & Identity, CUP: Cambridge, p. 60


The site bounded by Matthew Street and Doncaster Street had many lives before it became Furnace Park. My interest is in how different types of people try to trace back into this layering of past uses and how and why they do it. In my research I study this trace-work as it is undertaken both by professionals (surveyors, engineers, planners, developers) and enthusiasts (amateur archaeologists, urban explorers, psychogeographers, poets and curious passerbys).

Looking at the past

In each case this trace-work involves staring intently – either on site or in an archive – to try and bring to the surface the site’s former use and arrangements, something only now hinted at in the site’s current state.

In each case the attention paid to the ‘lost past’ of the site is directed towards making it better known, more deeply understood. For the professionals that knowledge has very practical aims and benefits. Knowing the site’s past enables costly future problems to be anticipated and managed in any ensuing redevelopment. For the enthusiasts it presents something a little more intangible. Some seek to ‘know’ the site in terms of preserving its histories and its stories, for others is it more poetic – enabling a more open, flowing engagement with this place through tracing the rich colour and diversity of its former lives. For these, showing that a site has been many things over a recorded span of history prompts the viewer pause at the gates of this currently scrubland site and to see quite different things through the railings – the ghosts of former uses, arrangements and activities that once took place there.

The Furnace Park site is particularly rich in its layers – and once you start digging through them (whether physically or in the archive) many versions of use and arrangement tumble forth. Yet there is little currently at this site to suggest that this would be so. The site sits now in an unloved, overlooked corner of the city surrounded by change (industrial units giving way to apartment blocks) but the site itself sits dishevelled and static. It is an ‘L’ shaped plot of made ground, weeds and remnant brick walls.

Digging into the history of the site is not about hoping to find and restore a more noble or more fully engaged era of use of this site. There is no golden age to excavate. In the most cases the former uses were mundane – places of work and play, day-in day-out places that may have been used without any special regard. Also, as we peer back through time each phase of use is alien to each other, and largely self-contained and unconnected to what came before or after it. It is not that all the previous uses ‘knew’ each other and that only us, in the ‘now,’ are strangers to a happy club of former uses. No, what captures the attention most is glimpses of uses that are all quite different to each other, and separate in time, on-site location and nature from each other. This pausing to look and trace back what has now gone gives us scope to think about how other people – other generations – might have gone about their use and arrangement of what would to them perhaps have seemed the only form in which this site could exist.

As part of my contribution to the Furnace Park project I have been working through old maps and Sheffield City Council’s photograph archive, in order to summon some sense of these former incarnations of this now scrub-land site. In what follows I give some glimpses of what I have found, and how it has struck me, in a more enthusiast-than-professional style.

Turning the lights back on

Half of the site – that part nearest to The Ship Inn and the dual carriageway – is now just a bare concrete pad. Weeds thrust up through cracks in this now deteriorating surface. Remnant rich red brick walls flank this pad, the only signal left of the large building once standing here. For this portion of the site was formerly the Council’s Street Lighting Department’s depot. Here’s a view of the building, as far as I can tell it was demolished in the 1990s, the demolition debris then spread across the other portion of the site.

 Lighting Depot

S12575 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies

What strikes me is the purposefulness of this image. Almost like a child’s impression of a depot. Vans loaded awaiting despatch. A place of municipal action. A place dedicated to keeping the lights on.

 inside lighting depot

S12573 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies

And archival photographs can also take us inside now-absent buildings. I love this photo. Here is order and purpose in abundance – a floor to ceiling organised system of purpose, everything assigned its place. The contrast to the site today is quite extreme – this depot occupied the site vertically as well as horizontally. There’s lots of empty airspace now, where once these stacked racks sat, reaching up to the rafters of the depot building.

A place to play

The Doncaster Street end of the site started recorded life (in 1860s mapping) as dense court style housing. Much of this was demolished in an early 1920s slum clearance project. The archive gives us – perhaps – a glimpse of the planning of that erasure. Here’s an annotated image of the Doncaster Arms pub, that sat on-site at the corner of Matthew Street and Doncaster Street. The pub appears already to have been shut-up, ready for demolition. The photo comes from the Council’s City Engineers’ Department’s papers, the measurements inscribed onto the image likely part of the compensation calculation for the compulsory purchase of this derelict building in the run up to its demolition.

Doncaster Arms

U00972 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies

Once the pub (and 97 neighbouring houses) had gone the vacant site was repurposed as a children’s playground, the gift of city benefactor J.C. Graves, as recorded in the jubilant scene recorded in the park’s opening in 1931. Happy faces indeed, but also a glimpse of another era of social relations, a world of rank denoted by which type of hat you wore :

playground opens 1931

S03839 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies

The playground was in its day a model, a local echo of an early Twentieth century movement to improve the physical and moral health of the working classes through the provision of equipment for recreation, a move towards the structuring of play, bringing it off the streets and into a mechanically and spatially organized play-ground. This ‘arranged-ness’ of this playground is captured well in the ‘outdoor factory’ appearance shown in this image:


S03994 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies

And at this place, there is a particular poignancy to the idea of bringing play off the streets and into a space specifically set aside for it. For what is now the HSBC offices site on the opposite side of Doncaster Street to the Furnace Park site used to be the Daniel Doncaster & Sons’ foundry.

Here on Wednesday, 25th August 1886, at around 5pm the 18 feet high wall of Daniel Doncaster’s stockyard gave way, raining hundreds of tons of steel and iron bars, bricks, roofing timbers and slates out into Matthew Street, and onto a group of local children playing in the street.

Police Review 1886

Source: The Illustrated Police Review, 2 September 1886

Eight died: Martha Armitage (aged ten), John Armitage (two), Henry Crisp (six), William Cullingworth (seven), Clifford Anderson (seven), Samuel Oates (five), William Henry Ward (five) Herbert Crookes (five).

I’ve found no suggestion that the playground opened in 1931 was intended as a memorial to these children, or that it reflected particular concern about street-play in this particular inner city location. J.G. Graves set up a number of playgrounds around Sheffield around this time. The post-slum clearance open plot bounded by Matthew Street and Doncaster Street lent itself well to a philanthropist seeking a site for a modern life-enhancing playground.

Also, the 1886 event and the 1931 opening ceremony were 45 years apart. Two generations. Two different phases in the life of what now is set to become Furnace Park.


Image Sources: Photo of the concrete pad: Amanda Crawley Jackson. Archival images courtesy of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies, Sheffield City Council. Illustrated Police Review via http://www.chrishobbs.com/deathatdoncasters.htm

“When surface is depth” – on method, collaboration and Scree



we enter the land,

sooner or later we pick up

the scent of our own histories,

and when we begin to travel vertically,

we end up following road maps in the marrow

of our bones and in the thump of our blood”

William Least Heat-Moon (1991) PrairyErth, page 273

Earlier this week I sat with Katja Hock and worked through her photoset so that we could work out the images for Scree and how to mix words and pictures in a way that treated both as equal-but-different. This has been the hallmark of our collaboration – that what we came up with would neither be a text augmented by interpretative pictures nor a collection of photos contextualized by some interpretative essays. No, what we wanted was something that treated both equally, and this essay is a reflection on how sticking to that plan affected what we came up with.

Spotting difference

Scree will end with a dialogue piece in which Katja and I talk about the process of collaboration. The following is an extract:

Luke:     “What has it been like working with me (as someone who is so word focused)?”

Katja:    “To be straight, I sometimes just had to block out the information as this then became too influential on my perception of the places we walked and explored. Walking has also something to do with getting lost, exploring not really knowing where one is or what one is looking at, the process of photographing is a process of getting to know, getting closer. I would regard it more like a weaving of different types of material, giving the work an interesting structure and patina. The one informs the other without it becoming an illustration of it, adding something different and new, another angle and point of view, visually or in written form.”

Katja:    “How was it for you to work with a person so focused, literally on the surfaces of things?”

Luke:     “I’d sensed that blocking out of information as we walked around the hillside. It wasn’t a problem, but it perhaps took us on parallel journeys as we walked. For me I walk the hillside, but I’m also walking the archives (whether in books, on-line or picking up information from looking and listening in). I’m trying to stitch together what I find and then frame the materiality of the hillside through that intangible stuff – all the context. I want to be able to surf a bit through time and domains of meaning by having this architecture underlying my meaning-making up on the hill.”

Parallel lines

I found that in putting this dialogue together (we each exchanged questions and then stitched the result together as an apparent conversation) we were putting into words something previously unspoken but acknowledged between us, for it was palpable during our walks upon the hillside. The aim of the project had been to see how our two backgrounds and practices would contrast in our attempts to each interrogate and depict ‘absence’ upon this barren hillside. What was felt during the walks, and finally said in our dialogue, was that we had each been travelling the hill in parallel because our methods and preoccupations demanded this. I’d sensed early on that my babbling on about the background and context that I’d discovered for portions of the hill or things remaining there was not helping Katja. I picked up subtle cues (bodily gestures and suchlike, not words) that encouraged me stop acting like a tour guide, and keep to myself most of the excavated  ‘stuff’ that I’d brought along – as so much interpretative equipment – to the hillside.

As Katja said, context was not needed for her engagement with the physical stuff of the hill, and “you can’t photograph something that’s not there”. Yes, that’s self evident: but somehow I still needed it pointed out to me. Then she explained the essence of her interest in absence-depiction: it’s the relationship between what is shown and what might only be suggested. Katja’s work explores how still and moving image, in its representation of architectural space and landscape, frames and refers both to human presence and to transience. People are absent in her work, with only traces remaining: often only the memory of activity. Her work uses apparent emptiness to prompt the viewer to reflect on their experiences with such sites, allowing space for the viewer’s imagination to enter the photographic field.

So, therefore me blabbing on about who’d stood on this hillside in the past, where the mine had been or how many generations of locals were interred in the cemetery were potentially undermining her attempts to find something generic and memory-provoking in her image-work.

The best way to characterise the difference between our approaches (our ways of depicting absence) is to describe hers as surficial and mine as archival. Words have to be chosen carefully here because (as Deleuze has shown) our culture is haunted by 3,000 years of lauding ‘depth’ as good and ‘shallow’ as bad. What I came to realise is how steeped in that dominant (vertical) approach I still am, and that in the Scree project I have instinctively equated productivity on my part with digging into the context, burrowing into the archive to find treasure, testimonies, anomalies. I then  offered that excavated stuff back to the hill – as a votive – in the hope that it would then reveal itself to me in an enhanced – ‘deeper’ – way.  Thus, I’d piled matter (and meaning) back onto the mountain. Meanwhile, Katja had worked quite differently – to an extent horizontally rather than vertically –  taking what was physically present and co-opting it as a spur to triggering ‘memory of activity’ in the mind of the future viewer of her images, activity which may well have no direct connection to this particular hillside.

Which absence?

The oddity is that our words and pictures – presented alongside each other – do still seem to capture the same sense of the hill. This is no great surprise, for both of our investigations of this hillside were setting out with the aim of foregrounding what was absent, and both of us were working within a broadly psychogeographical spirit. Both of us were concerned with matter/mind interplay and subjective response to the hillside. But we were working with different aspects of absence to the fore, mine was a preoccupation with absence of the past things, people, projections of meaning and activity, hers was the absent presence of the anticipated future viewer (or perhaps more particularly the remembrances of other absences carried by that viewer and through which the desolate images might chime).

The difference was only one of degree though. Katja is also seeking to work vertically, in the sense of summoning things that have passed and which can be excavated by attentiveness. But photographic practice requires something – some physical trace – to be present as a seed from which the image can arise and/or act as a prompt in the mind of the current or future viewer. Katja seeks to trigger meaning making via analogy, through provoking the viewer to reflect upon their own tangible experiences elsewhere in time and space in response to the hinted-at events and things in the photographs. In one of her questions in the dialogue Katja asked me “How do you see your practice related to aspects of time and place?” Here’s how I responded:

“Yes, I agree that places have the ability to act as prompts for trails of thought, for example I look at the bare black plastic of Cell 4’s liner and I find my mind mulling on the life (and lifeword) of my grandmother. One thought, image, sensation, artefact can lead to another. Usually such thoughts evaporate because they have no medium to be fixed in. Poets and fiction writers manage to get close, but in my disciplinary background (law, built environment and social science) such impressions have no place, and I’m interested in questioning that, playing with the genre conventions and juxtaposing facts and impressions in the hope that new angles can be glimpsed. I’m also fascinated by the link between materiality (in this case the matter on this hillside) and the intangible world of ideas, memories, projections onto this brute ‘stuff’. It has been fascinating reading through the Sheffield Forum posts, seeing the rich ways in which people’s recollections and mental images link themselves back, across time and space to this place (or previous incarnations of it).”

Then we discussed the dominance of the written word in interpretation and ‘authoritative’ engagement with the material world:

Katja:    “The use of the written word in this case of course is equally subjective, although being rather authoritative at the same time, but how do you experience these two sides of the coin?”

Luke:     “Yes, this is a major theme for me too. Professionally I’ve been trained to use words as a vehicle for either truth or persuasive, logic-driven, argumentation. So, stepping away from that is rather taboo. But working within the psychogeographic tradition and blending that with some contemporary drifts in cultural geography frees me to be a little more playful in both the way that I write and what I write about. It’s because I know that I’m not supposed to mix imagistic creative travel writing and technical analysis of legal or engineering concepts that makes me want to do it. I like the effects that that instability throws up. I guess its writing against the grain for me and experimenting in other genres has made me more aware of the power of rhetoric and other stylistic devices in writing of all types. For example, I’m more alert to the ingress of metaphor, visual and spatial imagery within court judgments about the management of places and material things. I like the way that Graham Harman and others in the object orientated ontology movement are offering up a ‘weird realism’, an approach that both acknowledges the gritty materiality of the world that we exist in, but also of the multi-coloured symbolic realm that we project onto brute matter in our attempts to make sense of and to master the stuff of the world. This means that I increasingly find myself using the word ‘ghosts’ to describe some of the things going on out there beyond us, but actually I’m intensely down to earth and pragmatic, I don’t believe in ghosts of the white sheet variety.”

Navigating bounds and butting

I’ve concentrated in the reflections above on what I learnt from contrasting Katja’s method and orientation with my own – and what I learnt about my own approach as I came to understand hers. Reading back through it perhaps sounds like I now think that my archival, vertical approach was flawed in some way. But I don’t think that and I’m very happy with what I’ve written, and could only have approached this project in the way that worked for me. Our images and text work well together. But what I’ve wanted to show (and to foreground) in this piece is why it’s been fascinating working with Katja on this collaboration – and important for my academic research into who people read derelict sites differently. Through the project I’ve directly experienced the ‘bounds’ that I’ve tried to depict above, the unspoken normative limits inherent in our particular ways of seeing, and what happens when two different ways of seeing butt up against each other and how the normative confusion gets resolved into something that broadly satisfies the two frames in play:

         now / then

                    word / image

                                    surface / depth

                                                    here / there

                                                             past / future

                                                                       known / unknown

                                                                                       familiar / unfamiliar

                                                                                                           representation / non-representation

About Scree

Scree is currently being compiled by Ben Dunmore at Article Magazine. It will be published via Occursus by Amanda Crawley Jackson in the Tract imprint later this year. It will then exist as a limited edition physical publication, and hopefully thereafter as a pdf somewhere on my site.

“This is not a place of honour, you should not have come here” – nuclear waste repositories and their messages for the future


In the 1960 cold war sci fi classic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr, a post apocalyptic history is charted through the eyes and research of an order of desert dwelling monks who preserve the last vestiges of pre-doomsday culture. They problem is they can’t decipher the documentary fragments that they are dedicating their lives to transmit through successive generations. In this future dark age, the monks operate in a similar fashion to those of the pre-medieval Dark Ages. In both cases they are withdrawn into their remote redoubts, praying, contemplating and seeking to extract meaning from the ancient cultural fragments in their care. The irony in Canticle is that the fragment venerated by these monks yet to be, is actually a mundane shopping list.

This blog post is about the difficulties of transmitting messages into the future, specifically warning messages about high level nuclear waste burial sites. This essay is a companion piece to my short article for popanth.com here on the limits of human contemplation of deep-time in connection with such sites. That other piece is entitled Why it’s very hard to think like a mountain, and links its rumination on the limits of human temporality to the ‘geologic turn’ heralded recently by Ellsworth & Kruse (2013) and the notion of the anthropocene, the man-made strata being laid down in the current epoch. This blog post does not pre-tread the steps of that other piece. Instead it will contemplate how time affects the transmissibility of key messages about such places, into the deep future.

There are over 250,000 million tonnes of high level radioactive waste in the world today. It is presently held in surface (or shallow) interim storage facilities, solutions that depend upon human management and power systems. ’Permanent’ disposal will see this material buried within purpose built deep rock repositories. None of these places of ‘final’ disposal have yet been commissioned, but construction has commenced in Scandinavia (and is currently stalled in the US and the UK). Finland’s repository, Onkalo, is most advanced, and over the coming decades over 6km of roadways will be driven deep underground there, with a network of disposal chambers then fanning out from the subterranean terminus.

These facilities will take over 100 years to design, authorise, build and fill with waste. But sometime in the 22nd century they will be sealed, the wastes inside entombed to remain isolated from future people and their environment for 100,000 years (in the US Congress has recently revised this required period of confinement to 1 Million years, and there are signs of other national law makers following suit). But how do you ensure than an abandoned underground repository will remain undisturbed by future generations?

Here we come closest to the monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for experts commissioned to think through how best to project the information needed to understand this toxic legacy into the deep future consider that this task might require – amongst other things – a trans-generational  nuclear priesthood  to raise up this technical information to religious-like veneration so that it has best chance of persisting through the centuries ahead. How one would go about founding a religion for this timescale, and energising its sacred knowledge in this way, has not – to date – been mapped out. But the talk, within these otherwise sober circles, is of the greater power and durability of myth, legend, faith and ritual than of science. Indeed, this call for a sect-like focus on preserving nuclear knowledge into future generations has even been seriously advocated as a way of addressing the feared nuclear trade-skills shortage that may otherwise arise later this century and jeopardise future nuclear decommissioning and/or new build.

Onkalo means ‘hiding place’ in Finnish. At the heart of nuclear waste repository programmes is an unresolved tension between those who counsel that that non-disturbance will best be attained by erasing all surface indications that the facility exists at that location, and those who argue that future generations can only be protected against inadvertent encounter with these waste by provision of ‘future proof’ warning markers and related technical archives.

Legislators have decided that steps must be taken to ensure that future generations will be warned of these places and their properties, and that the information needed to understand the hazards there will be transmitted through culture. At the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, an underground repository for low level waste that has been in development since the 1970s, that site is to be physically signified as hostile using ‘forbidding blocks’, ‘hostile markers’ and ‘menacing earthworks’. There will be text warnings written in the six main UN languages, plus the local Navajo language, but aversion will be courted also through hostile symbolic architecture-sculptures. These proposed landscape features will aim at triggering affective – pre (or post) linguistic stimuli based upon an assumed universal human instinctual aesthetic reflex. The aim is that the site itself signals its message – following Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message”, in words of the expert report, that “the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993: para 2.1). According to the US Department of Energy (2004) the final plan for the WIPP site markers is due to be submitted to the U.S. Government around 2033 (yes time moves very slowly on these deep-time projects).

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Alongside the proposed landscapes of thorns, spike fields and forbidding blocks, the WIPP site will also feature a text based warning not to drill or dig at the site before A.D. 12,000 augmented by drawings of human faces modelled on Edvard Munch’s The Scream it seems that the international experts regard Munch’s potent image as a universal expression of terror. But, if Munch’s painting always carries that allusion, if it can be a timeless synonym for ‘go away from this place’, could it not equally be interpreted by a slightly misinformed future traveller as the advertising hording announcing the concealed treasures of some ancient funky underground art gallery? Conversely, should a visitor to the National Gallery of Norway flee that place upon sight of that painting, due to an instinctive reaction that lingering in that place would be to expose him or herself to the invisible danger of an odourless, tasteless and delayed action dose of radiation?


The image above is an internationally agreed symbol (ISO 21482) for warning the public about radiation dangers. Jointly developed by the International Atomic Energy Authority and The International Organization for Standardisation it is intended to intuitively communicate hazard warning to a non-technical audience. It is the outcome of a five year project conducted in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine and the United States. Yet it’s meaning still rests upon a host of cultural assumptions: that red is danger, that a trefoil is a hazard indicator, that a skull and crossed bones is bad, and that the stick figure is fleeing. Equally the sign could be read as a welcome to a splendid festival zone at which there is a fantastic sound-system, free food (served off the bone) and a charity fun run in the right-hand corner of the auditorium. I’m reminded of Grossberg et al’s (1998) retelling of the fate of an anti-malarial programme conducted by the US Army in the far east during the Second World War. The ‘natives’ were shown posters with blown-up images of mosquitoes and spray equipment for insecticide. Upon later enquiring why there technologies had not been put into use, the clan chief replied: “because we do not have any mosquitoes that big”. In that culture there was no notion of the ‘blown up’ image – that increasing an item beyond its natural size will draw attention to it.

In his haunting documentary on the Finnish Onkalo repository, Into Eternity (2010), director Michael Madsen sets his narrator to address an imagined deep future audience for his film, vocalising the intended aversion thus: ”this is not a place of honour. No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here”. But any attempt to deter attention to a site, particularly one based upon monumental scale artificial markers, portentous images and tablets on stone all serve to attract the attention of future generations to such places, sparking their curiosity. In reality, the only effective warning marker will be the radiation itself. Exposure will send the most compelling message to the community from which the irradiated tomb raiders hail.

There must be the distinct possibility that we may not be understood by the future – especially the distant future. History shows that knowledge, and civilisation itself can be lost – future civilisations may regress, lose a central fixation with science and technology. And even if the markers, nuclear-priests and distributed archives work to transmit a sense of aversion to these places, that very knowledge of their contents may spur some to seek to burrow into these places, whether for copper, plutonium or motivations that we cannot yet comprehend. Warnings appended to the entrance to the pyramids and to Viking tombs have each proven to be of little or no effect in deterring intrepid explorers or looters alike.

The post is a.k.a. Avoiding New Uses For Old Bunkers #29


Ellsworth, E. & Kruse, J. Eds. (2013) Making the Geologic Now – responses to material conditions of contemporary life, punctum books: New York, available for free at: http://geologicnow.com/index.php

Grossberg, L., Wartella, E. & Whitney, D.C. (1998) Media Making – mass media in popular culture, SAGE: Lomdon.

IAEA (2007) ‘New symbol launched to warn public about radiation dangers’ www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2007/radiationsymbol.htm

Madsen, M. (dir) (2010) Into Eternity, Magic Hours Films

Sandia National Laboratories (1993) Expert Judgement on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (ref: SAND92-1382/UC-721, p. F-49) excerpts at: http://downlode.org/etext/WIPP

US Department of Energy (2004) Permanent Markers Implementation Plan, WIPP (rev.1)(DOE/WIPP 04-3302) Carlsbad, New Mexico: www.wipp.energy.gov/picsprog/test1

Photos / drawings: Sandia National Laboratories (1993) and IAEA (2007).

Searching for ghosts at Furnace Park


This is a snippet from a longer piece I’m working on for the Furnace Park project, in which I explore a variety of ways in which this urban backwater can be read and rendered ‘known’:

Today, I find myself back at the site. I’m sitting by the Cementation Furnace (can it really be that it’s the last one left in the world?). I’ve now been to the site many times. There’s never anyone visiting this industrial monument, its plaque and brick recessed viewing point. I’m sat here looking across at the park-to-be site, my view partially obscured by a familiar line of tired cars awaiting attention in the hanger shaped garage nearby. The street beneath my feet is a patchwork of eras of paving, a mix of cobbles, tarmac, faded yellow lines and scuffed curbstones. By coincidence I’m wearing a suit today, and as I stare at my shoes I wonder whether what I wear shapes how I read this place.

Hardly anyone passes by. I look and I look and still all I see is a scrubland site. I came here to commune with the ghosts that the archive tells me I should find here in abundance. But today this is a mundane non-place: move-along, there is nothing to see here.

Yes, this is the kind of place that only makes sense as a crime scene.

I look across to the corner of Matthew Street and Doncaster Street, the site of the Doncaster Arms pub, demolished a century ago. The fat old television sits forlornly face down on the crumbing pavement, about where the pub’s threshold once was. That TV didn’t quite make it into the site. Perhaps the fly-tipper didn’t even try to launch it over the fence, and just casually flopped it out of the boot. Or maybe, with strained back, they gave up after several attempts to manhandle it over. Who knows. There is no record in the archive for this non-event, this act of disposal, this attempt to erase a thing: pre-owned becoming de-loved.

I walk along the Matthew Street edge of the site. Can I see the footpads of the then state-of-the-art playground swings and see-saws proudly unveiled at the 1931 opening ceremony by the Mayor and Alderman J.G. Graves, whose donation this start of the art playground then was? No, all I see is rubble, scrub and subsequent over-fill of this plot. I walk on further down Matthew Street, to the littered bell shaped main entrance, beyond is a flat scrubby plain, bounded by fragments of spalled brick walls. Here was the Council’s Lighting Dept, in its day a proud-looking multi-levelled municipal compound of workshops, stores and offices, the hub from which the city’s street lighting was maintained. But the place that once helped us to see Sheffield’s streets is now invisible, erased, gone: building and all. Yet, courtesy of the Council’s photograph archive, I have recently peered into this now non-existent building, my eyes have traversed the ordered racks, signage and stepladders – a dense vertical occupation of this now empty space.

I have sat and stared at photographs of the depot and the playground, straining to correlate each to each other and to the current lie of the land. I think I have worked it out, but I must distrust this achievement – for, if someone had thrown in a faded picture of a playground or workshop from somewhere else, I fear my mind would have managed to persuade me that that view too was part of the former lives and arrangements of the Furnace Park site.

I hear no voices. There are no ghosts of activity here. The only legacies are those I see (bricks) and sense in the ground (contamination). The emptiness of this site does not deliver to me an upwelling of the past as an occupied place. But I do sense the ghosts that Michel de Certeau sees stalking the inner-city:

“seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories [which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)

For, along Matthew Street I see the truncated roads, the exposed layers of street surfacing, the fragments of walls that linger untouched in this deadzone. These may be swept away by redevelopment someday, but until then this space is limbo. But those traces are partial, and each layer erases some of the traces beneath. The tarmac of the playground hid the foundations of the 97 back-to-back houses cleared here in a 1920s slum clearance scheme (a scheme reported with pride to a Parliamentary committee in 1927 and proudly recorded for posterity in Hansard as one of 91 schemes approved since 1919 for the “improvement of unhealthy areas”). The convenient spreading of the rubble of the Council’s depot then in turn overtopped the by now perished surface of the playground. The park project will see that surface obscured by geotextile and/or a carpet of pallets and in turn, perhaps, some more permanent erasure as the site finds future purpose when the commercial appetite for marginal sites returns.

I turn and walk back down Matthew Street. I reach the junction with Doncaster Street. Matthew Street used to carry on across from here, into what is now the car park of the HSBC building. Here, until the 1950s was Daniel Doncaster’s foundry. Here, in 1886 was Daniel Doncaster’s stockyard. Here, was where the 18 feet high wall of that abundant place gave way at 5pm on Wednesday, 25th August that year and tonnes of steel and iron bars, bricks, roofing timbers and slates fell onto a group of children playing in the street.

Eight died: Martha Armitage (aged ten), John Armitage (two), Henry Crisp (six), William Cullingworth (seven), Clifford Anderson (seven), Samuel Oates (five), William Henry Ward (five) Herbert Crookes (five).

I conjecture that perhaps Graves’ playground was intended as a memorial for this tragedy, something for the memory of these street children, but then the maths pulls me up short. Forty years separate these events. They were alien to each other, just as we and the site are now alien to either of these former eras of use.