The undwellable clarity of ruins: on hanging out with rubble again in 2018.

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“…the original style of life at Skara Brae [w]as hopelessly cluttered and filthy. Now it is a place scoured clean and viewed from above and all at once, which thus becomes more abstract and model-like than spaces we can actually enter.”

Robert Harbison (2015) Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery. Reaktion: London.

One day I’ll fully get my head around Harbison’s book. His aphoristic, fragmented writing style is by turns insightful and thwarted. But his point is that fragments and ruins exist all around us – in texts as much as in buildings. We are creatures doomed to walk the Earth sticking pieces together to see what works, and what doesn’t. Not that the World is a puzzle waiting to be solved though, more like a giant instruction-less Lego set. A play of (near) infinite possibilities.

But in bringing forth some combinations, we inevitably deny others. Creating meaning, over-writes other possibilities. Harbison’s beef with Skara Brae seems to be that it’s semantic excavation is too neat – the erasure of the traces of other possibilities is too complete, and he goes on to point out that in the act of dissection the resulting place become uninhabitable. It becomes a specimen, stripped of any direct link to the authenticity of a messy, lived life. This I think is a sobering provocation for any researcher – that we must strive to be careful not to strip our quarry bare in the totalising glare of our analysis. Instead we must try to leave some life in the object of our study, even if that means that our interpretation seems somehow thwarted, denied a synoptic closure. That’s easier said than done though.

I have Harbison’s warning echoing in my mind as I set out on my next batch of conference presentations and related research projects. Once again I seem to have stumbled back into some pretty dark, ruinous labyrinths. The challenge will be to treat these awkward places and subjects necessarily with some respect and sensitivity, but also to find some way to say something new and non-local about them. I need to simultaneously lift the roof off and leave it on.

Here’s what I’ve signed up for:

March 2018: “Law in Ruins: searching for law in empty spaces”. Keynote presentation for the Institute of Australian Geographers – Legal Geography Study Group (at University of Canberra).

Here I’ll be presenting on the role and methods of the ‘spatial detective’, as a follow up my 2015 article with Antonia Layard of that name. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how law is implicated in the formation and replication of new types of places, how that place-forming function is shaped at local level by the perceptions (and feelings) of site managers, how law and materiality intersect and what happens when a place starts to die – how does law face the prospect of its own ruination?

April 2018: “Grubbing out the Führerbunker: Ruination, demolition and Berlin’s difficult subterranean heritage”. This abstract has been accepted for the ‘Difficult Heritage’ conference being held in York in April:

For a few short months in 1987, the ruined remains of Hitler’s Berlin bunker complex were quietly excavated by construction workers grubbing out its subsurface structures and in-filling its voids to enable the erection of a new East German apartment block and its associated grounds. Successive earlier attempts at erasure of this infamous site, had achieved only partial success, for mass concrete is difficult destroy, and even more-so when it lies underground. To this day portions of the complex remain inaccessible but extant beneath Berlin. This article will explore the implications of the slow, faltering physical erasure of this structure by drawing together conceptual insights from across the diverse fields of urban history and hauntology (Ladd 1997), the management/demolition of ‘difficult heritage’ (Macdonald 2010, Sniekers & Reijnders 2011), the political geographies of subterranea (Wiezman 2007, Bridge 2013, Elden 2013, Graham 2016) and studies of the material and symbolic fate of bunkers (Beck 2011, Bennett 2011, Klinke 2015, Bennett 2017). In particular, the analysis will use and develop scholarship on modern ruins in order to consider the slower-than-might-have-been-expected death of the bunker via Bartolini’s (2013, 2015) investigation of the differential rates of semantic and material decomposition of Fascist subterranean ruins in Rome and Moshenka’s (2010) work on the eruptive potentiality of the sudden resurfacing of buried (both literally and metaphorically) wartime artefacts and structures.

August 2018: “What really haunts the modern ruin?”  This abstract forms part of the 15 strong international array of contributions assembled for the proposed session entitled ‘Utility After Abandonment? The New Ruin as Cultural Asset and Public Space’ which Hayden Lorimer, Ed Hollis, Ruth Olden and I are hoping to run at the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff this summer. There’ll be more details on this session here soon, but in the meantime here’s my abstract:

Tim Edensor (2005, 2011) has celebrated the ruin as a place of open possibilities enabled by the decay of its normativities. Meanwhile, acknowledging the ongoing role of the ruin manager, Caitlin DeSilvey has mapped out “palliative curation” as a light-touch approach to ruin-care in which the productive capacities of dilapidation are enabled. In our current study of the management and repurposing of the Modernist ruins of the St Peter’s Seminary near Glasgow, we have investigated the complex ways in which care and associated normativities are iteratively composed and applied to a ruin. Our study suggests that the pragmatic instantiations of a ruin’s care reflect complex, shifting and negotiable apprehensions by owners, managers and security staff forged in the intersection of a site’s pasts, presents and futures, and of the knowledge, risks and opportunities that this journey through time may bring. Here, the dynamic nature of the circumstances and trajectory of any ruin generate a succession of local and provisional assumptions and resulting temporary interventions, which channel engagements with the ruin and how care (and ordering) of it is materially and symbolically expressed. This presentation will explore this through an interpretation of three instances of such ‘haunting’ at St Peter’s: (1) forecasting danger by reference to elsewhere: in liability and risk assessments for organised encounters with the ruin, (2) listening to the site: reflexively adjusting attitudes towards managing recreational trespass as ruination progresses and (3) making do: the improvisational care applied to the ruin by its lone security guard, drawn from his own Lifeworld.

August 2018: “On hearing the roar of war still trapped inside: the reverberation of wartime trauma, and of the bunker, in Paul Virilio’s analysis of Pure War and Hyperterrorism.” Abstract accepted for a proposed RGS-IBG 2018 conference session entitled ‘Changing landscapes / Changing the landscapes of terror and threat: materialities, bodies, ambiances, elements’. Here’s the abstract:

“Occasionally I would put my ear against the bunker’s hardened shell to catch the roar of war still trapped inside” writes Sylvère Lotringer (Virilio & Lotringer, 2002) echoing Paul Virilio’s own captivation by these relics of the Total War of his childhood. Virilio’s account of his own first-encounter with the ruins of a Nazi bunker (Virilio, 1994), is a profoundly intimate and tactile phenomenological exploration of a terror-object. His experience provoked a heady mix of fear and fascination: fear in its recall of the deadly terror he had witnessed as a boy in wartime Nantes; fascination in the affordances presented by the affective materiality of these alien structures; and both fear and fascination in his sensing of the hostility of local residents to his untimely interest in these shunned structures of an enemy occupation. This presentation will look at how Virilio’s subsequent theorising of the evolution of war and terror has been haunted by his wartime formative experiences. These (and ‘the bunker’) resonate throughout his aphoristic writings on the Pure War condition of the Cold War, the subsequent transition to ‘hyperterrorism’, and “the emergency return of the ‘walled city’ and of the bunkerization that is blighting cities everywhere” (Virilio, 2005). A longitudinal, biographical approach will enable a critical examination of the apparent equivalence given by Virilio to the hot terror of the Nazi occupation, the cold terror of the nuclear standoff and the chaotic terror of contemporary hyperterrorism, each with their own logics for the “administration of fear” (Virilio, 2012).

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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 (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

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

and here:

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

The Future of the Bunker // The Bunker of the Future: three sessions proposed for RGS 2017


UPDATE: these proposed sessions have now been adopted by the RGS and will form part of the RGS-IBG 2017 London conference. The bunker sessions described below will be running on Friday 1st September 2017. All of the speaker’s abstracts are now uploaded and available here:

The rationale for the sessions is set out below and in an earlier post here:

I’ve today submitted the formal proposal for a three session bunker strand at this summer’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference (29 August – 1 September 2017, London). Once fully approved and adopted by the RGS I will publish all of the abstracts here. But in the meantime here’s the proposal summary and contribution titles:

Proposal summary

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 set of sessions 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. This concern to examine the bunkers’ futurity will be examined in two different, but complementary, ways: first by exploring the ways in which the 20th century’s bunkers are being reinterpreted and/or repurposed for the 21st century and secondly, by analysing what contemporary bunker-building looks like, and here exploring the anxieties and desires that drive it. As John Armitage (2015) has recently argued, Paul Virilio (1994) did not see bunkers as having a singular, fixed meaning or purpose and he instead saw early signs of their semantic evolution and repurposing. The assembled presentations will each consider this evolution, but will also acknowledge that the cultural foregrounding of denatured, “funky bunkers” (Strömberg 2013) is problematic both as regards how it presents (or erases) the bunker-form’s dark history or its ongoing contemporary replication. This unease will be debated in the final session, in which contributors to the recent edited collection In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making (Rowman & Littlefield International, Luke Bennett ed. 2017) will be interrogated by John Beck.

Session overview

Session 1: The Future of the Bunker: finding new uses and new meanings for the 20th century’s abandoned bunkers

1. Xenia Vytuleva, Columbia University (architectural historian) – Rethinking the Atlantic Wall: art, death and minerology.

2. Drew Mulholland, University of Glasgow (composer) – Listening to the concrete: re-composing the Atlantic Wall and Scotland’s Nuclear Bunker

3. Michael Mulvihill, University of Newcastle (artist) – The BMEW radomes: reimagining RAF Fylingdales as as military contemporary art complex

4. Kevin Booth, English Heritage (Senior Curator, North) – Re-stocking the bunker: curating creative re-uses at York Nuclear Bunker

5. Rowena Willard-Wright, English Heritage (Senior Curator, South East) – De-bunking the bunker: managing myth and misinformation in the bunkers beneath Dover Castle

Session 2: The Bunker of the Future: how we materialise our contemporary anxieties and desires in the new bunker-building of the 21st century 

6. Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University (built environment) – What do we want from our bunkers? ruins, reinvention, anxiety and power.

7. Emma Fraser, University of Manchester (sociology) – Bunker play: Possibility space and survival in the Fallout series

8. Michael Adams & Carrie Wilkinson, University of Wollongong (geography) – Bugging out and bunkering down: on the sheltering tactics of survivalists and preppers in the 21st century

9. Theo Kindynis, University of Roehampton (criminology) – Subterranean sanctuaries? secret underground spaces today.

10. Session 1 and 2 Q&A and discussion.

Session 3: In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: a panel discussion

John Beck, University of Westminster (english) in conversation with Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University (built environment), Kevin Booth, English Heritage (curator) & Kathrine Sandys, Rose Bruford College (scenographer) about their contributions to the edited collection, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: materiality, affect and meaning making (to be published July 2017, Rowman & Littlefield International).

Writing in 2011 Beck declared that the bunker was incapable of cultural recuperation, and that to attempt to do so might put us in thrall to the bunker and cause us to lose sight of its dark exceptionality. Beck also argued that bunkers engender an ambivalence which makes it very difficult to ascribe any stable meaning to them. In the Ruins is an attempt to explore Bennett’s differing interpretation that it is the bunker’s ability to foster multiple parallel, but internally coherent, forms of representation (i.e. multivalence) rather than its ambivalence that calls to be investigated. Accordingly the book explores the myriad ways, practices and logics by which these concrete structures are engaged by a wide spectrum of academics and others and given stable-seeming meanings. This ‘in conference with’ session will enable Beck to engage directly with Bennett about the book’s approach, and to debate with its authors whether the book avoids being in thrall to the bunker: and whether through its focus on multivalence (Bennett), artistic appropriation (Sandys) or heritage curation (Booth).

The panel discussion will be chaired by Nadia Bartolini, University of Exeter (geography).


Picture credit: WWII bunker at Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey USA from:, some details here:

New Uses for Old Bunkers #42 : Schadenfreude in the swanky bunker-hotel

Here’s a teaser from the final chapter of my forthcoming edited collection, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making…


“Cheap holiday in other people’s misery”

Sex Pistols (1977) Holidays in the Sun

As Per Strömberg notes, abandoned bunkers have become a ‘cultural playground’ (2013, 67), repurposed via the ‘well-established art practice of borrowing or stealing, making new uses for and changing the meaning of objects, images and artefacts of a culture’ (2013, 67),  and these interventions are usually spurred by economic agendas of re-use and re-generation (driven by a fear of what might happen if any building is left unused: Bennett 2017), thus (so the logic goes) ‘the cultural alchemy of appropriation turns the materiality of bare concrete walls into new economic value’ (Strömberg 2013, 78).


Strömberg (2013) provides a striking example of a Swedish bunker refurbishment scheme that tries to reconcile economic regeneration, affective authenticity and heritage conservation. The result reveals something very strange about what we appear to what from the bunker. The scheme concerned the Swedish coastal battery fortress of Fårösund on the northern tip of Gotland. The Swedish State’s National Property Board was keen to repurpose this former military site, and to stimulate local employment to redress the job losses of military closures. Accordingly, it supported a proposal for a ‘sympathetic’ heritage-focussed luxury hotel: one where (as Strömberg 2013, 69 notes):

“you can sleep in one of the former bomb shelters furnished as fancy hotel rooms and enjoy a gourmet dinner prepared by fashionable chefs at the place where artillery pieces once were positioned to command the sea. The whole concept is adapted to a military theme. Everything is low-key in colour, scale and finishes: grey and green. Raw materials of local limestone and steel, articulated in a severe minimalism, arouse ‘post-military’ relaxation in the bunker lounge.”

Meanwhile, the perimeter of the site remains ‘authentically’ edged by rusting barbed wire and deserted defence obstacles (presenting as ‘fossils of the military era’ – Strömberg 2013, 70), all now co-opted into the themed hotel’s ‘design scenery’ (69).

This semantic confusion appears to be a vindication of John Beck’s (2011) ‘ambivalence’ thesis: it seems that we may want contradictory things from the bunker, and resolve that incongruity via a wilful conflation of tastes and registers: military – holiday – future – past, all rolled together to service the taste for novel experiences. Our relationship to bunkers, their past, present and future is complex. Perhaps we can detect some evidence of a sublime nostalgia at play – that we can scare ourselves safely now by invoking the atomic- or military-sublime by choosing to visit these places for a short break: safe in the knowledge that this abjection is temporary, of our choosing and that we can choose to leave this experience at any point. Such experience is sublime because we feel that ultimately we are safe – the Cold War has ended, and we have chosen to dabble in this reminiscence or this abjection-lite. This is the ultimate tourism, safely visiting a sanitised version of the past, tasting a remembrance of a childhood fear whilst sipping fine wine.


Jonathan Veitch (2010) takes the point even further – reflecting on his visit to the remains of Survival Town, the mock up cluster of buildings and their mannequin inhabitants, blasted in the civil effects tests held deep in the heart of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in the 1950s. He admits that there is something erotic in the fascination he feels there: ‘these test houses at the NTS convey, more palpably than any other place I can think of, our longing for apocalypse, the desire to bring everything down around us’ (335).


Meanwhile Marc Lafleur’s (2007) ethnographic study of the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima / Nagasaki bombings at the National Atomic Museum, Los Alamos, picks out the ‘intimate spectatorship’ and ‘fleeting pit-stops’ (2007, 211) characteristic of touristic/heritage spectacle at Cold War attractions. For him these sites ‘constitute the fleeting and emptied out moments of politics siphoned through shock, sympathy and schadenfreude’ (214). Schadenfreude – because part of the experience is the (sublime-based) knowledge that yours was not the body that was hurt. Shock in the sense of an aestheticized spectacle, the ultimate effect of which is to anaesthetise through overstimulation (in the sense described by Walter Benjamin). Finally, in Sympathy, Lafleur leaves us some glimmer of hope: that such places have the potentiality at least to be ‘gathering points in the new public sphere, places where a ‘we’ can form, however temporarily, in the bloody haze of one more disaster your body has averted’ (215).


Beck, John (2011) ‘Concrete Ambivalence: Inside the Bunker Complex’ Cultural Politics 7: 79-102.

Bennett, Luke (2017) ‘Forcing the Empties Back to Work: Ruinphobia and the Bluntness of Law and Policy’ in John Henneberry (ed.) Transience and Dereliction in Urban Development and Property Markets, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Lafleur, Marc (2007) ‘Life and Death in the Shadow of the A-Bomb: Sovereignty and Memory on the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’ in Nico Carpentier (ed.) Culture, Trauma, and Conflict: Cultural Studies Perspectives on War. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 209-228.

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.

Veitch, Jonathan (2010) ‘Dr. Strangelove’s Cabinet of Wonder: Sifting through the Atomic Ruins at the Nevada Test Site’ in Julia Hell & Andreas Schönle (eds.) The Ruins of Modernity. London: Duke University Press, pp. 321-338.

Image credits: (1) Barbed wire stands, Fårösund Fortress in Malmros, Sophie (2008). “Fårösunds fästning: från Krimkrig till lyxhotell” (PDF). Kulturvärden (in Swedish) (1): 24–29 : ill (2) Green roof, grey edges, Fårösund Fortress – (3) Nevada Test Site Dummies –; (3) Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum -



(Almost…) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker – materiality, affect and meaning making


Nearly there – the manuscript will be with the publisher by the end of this week. Here’s a sneak peek at the 14 essays that make up my bunker book (due for publication by Rowman & Littlefield International in August 2017, as part of their Place, Memory, Affect series…

Part I – Introducing the Bunker: Ruins, Hunters and Motives –  features a general introduction followed by a second chapter written by me, Entering the Bunker with Paul Virilio: the Atlantic Wall, Pure War and Trauma, in which I discuss the importance of the seminal bunker hunting of French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, who between 1958 and 1965 systematically visited, photographed and researched the imposing bunker formations of the Nazi Atlantic wall, and who did so at the height of the Cold War. I outline Virilio’s affective engagement with these bunkers, their impact upon his later theorising and argue that this compulsive hunting can be shown to be the product of traumatic wartime experiences. I then use this finding to argue that compulsive bunker hunting of the Cold War’s shelters, may also be understood in this way, with even Virilio having described the nuclear anxiety based trauma of the Cold War as greater than that of the Second World War.

Part II – Looking at the Bunker: Representation, Image and Affect – then presents three chapters written by artists, who each explore how established and newly emergent practices of representation engage with the Cold War’s bunkers and what they formerly, and may now, stand for (both for them and for others). First, in Peripheral Artefacts: Drawing [out] the Cold War, Stephen Felmingham discusses his use of experimental drawing techniques to access the ‘hidden in plain sight’ uncanny qualities of now abandoned ROC Posts. In doing so Felmingham shows how his bunker-entering reconnaissance accessed his sublimated childhood trauma of growing up in East Anglia in the 1980s amidst USAF and RAF nuclear bases, pointing to the potency of material and spatial triggers to memory and feeling. Next, in Sublime Concrete: The Fantasy Bunker, Explored scenographer and sound artist Kathrine Sandys, explores the atmospheres, properties and possibilities of the Cold War bunker, situating an account of her own installation-based works, within a wider discussion of the fact vs fiction confusion of these places, and their link to an emergent military sublime. Sandys finds in these remains, a blankness which calls for meaning making to be undertaken actively by those who engage with the bunkers and their phenomenological properties. Finally, in Processional Engagements: Sebaldian Pilgrimages to Orford Ness, Louise K. Wilson considers the ways in which a variety of artists have engaged the iconic Orford Ness site, and the extent to which those engagements have come to be conditioned by certain strong, framing tropes. Specifically, Wilson considers the enduring influence of W.G. Sebald’s melancholic reading of this site and its most iconic remnant structures. Whilst attentive to recent departures from this representational mould, Wilson chronicles the persistence of engagements which seek to foreground (and/or create) an inaccessible (and open, plastic) ‘mystery’ for the site – thereby producing art ‘about’ the site which relies more on imagination than upon deep engagement with its archival or material facticity.

In Part III – Embracing the Bunker: Identity, Materiality and Memory – the concern is with how an emergent attentiveness to the physicality of the world and our ‘entanglement’ with it (Hodder 2012) (this being the sense in which ‘materiality’ is used in this collection) affects the way in which we can account for human engagements with the remains of Cold War bunkers. The first two chapters in this part examine the entanglement of the material world and the identity of the explorer within the act of interpreting Cold War remains, with each author using experimental writing techniques to destabilise seemingly conventional forms of investigatory narrative. First, in Torås Fort: A Speculative Study of War Architecture in the Landscape, artist Matthew Flintham uses the techniques of speculative fiction to unsettle an account of a geologist’s compulsive analysis of the materialities of the remains of a Norwegian coastal battery, fusing the styles of the natural sciences and horror writing to do so. Flintham’s account reflects the ‘weird realism’ stylistics and concerns of contemporary writers (like De Landa 1997; Negarestani 2008; Bogost 2012; and Harman 2012) who each ascribe ominous, ‘hidden in plain sight’ posthuman mystery to seemingly dumb brute banal geological objects.

Then, in Bunker and Cave Counterpoint: Exploring Underground Cold War Landscapes in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, anthropologist María Alejandra Pérez uses techniques of counterpoint and ethnographic surrealism to juxtapose her autoethnographic accounts of visits to the US Congress bunker built beneath the luxury Greenbrier Resort with the remains of a far more rudimentary public nuclear shelter located within the Organ cave complex, 14 miles away. In doing so Pérez emphasises the iterative, unsettled process of meaning making, infusing her account with the bleed between these places’ multiple histories and uses and also the provocations of her own identity: both as an immigrant with a very different cultural experience of the Cold War, and as a caver.

Thereafter, two chapters address the role of affective-materialities in the production of collective identities via practices of recuperation enacted at particular material sites of encounter. First, in Recuperative Materialities: The Kinmen Tunnel Music Festival, cultural geographer J.J. Zhang explores the important role of the material properties of the Zhaishan tunnel complex, part of a defensive network of fortifications protecting the Taiwanese island of Kinmen from Chinese invasion. Only a few miles from the Chinese mainland the island was the scene of repeated exchanges of artillery fire during the Cold War. Now decommissioned, the tunnel is the site of a classical music festival, which Zhang analyses in terms of the affective-material recuperation afforded by the acoustic properties of the tunnel itself, ascribing to it a sensuous agency and showing how ‘rapproachment tourists’ find the tunnel to act as a healing sensorium – an externalized seat of sensation where humans and tunnel come together. Finally, in Once Upon a Time in Ksamil: Communist and Post-Communist Biographies of Mushroom-Shaped Bunkers in Albania, archaeologist Emily Glass considers the seemingly ambivalent relationship of Albanians with the material legacy of the hundreds of thousands of small bunkers constructed upon their landscape during the Cold War – the physical embodiment of Cold War era Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s defensive, isolationist paranoia. Glass shows how a strict control over knowledge about the bunker production during the Cold War era gave way to a multivalent afterlife for these structures, in which locals appropriated them for mundane and illicit uses whilst tourists and the tourism industry adopted them as a symbol of Albania.

In Part IV – Dealing with the Bunker: Hunting, Visiting and Remaking – the attention shifts to how meaning making is organised.  In the first pair of essays, the focus is upon heritage practices and specifically the lay/professional divide. First, cultural geographer Gunnar Maus, applies Theodore Schatzki’s practice theory to an analysis of the parallel bunker hunting by heritage officials, bunkerologists and geocachers in the former West Germany in Popular Historical Geographies of the Cold War: Hunting, Recording and Playing with Small Munitions Bunkers in Germany. Maus finds structural affinities in the ways in which these three communities of bunker hunters seek out and interact with Sperrmittelhäuser: demolition charge storage bunkers that formed part of West Germany’s ‘preconstructed obstacle’ system of Cold War defence. Maus explores the important difference between motivations (which here were divergent) and methods of practice (which both demonstrate affinities and evidence of collaboration between these diverse communities of bunker hunters). Then in Why the Cold War Matters: Exploring Visitors’ Identity Constructions at Cold War Sites in Britain, tourism studies researcher Inge Hermann, reports her study of the ways in which visitors engage with UK Cold War bunker ‘attractions’, highlighting the ways in which individual visitors actively form their own interpretations of Cold War ‘attraction’ sites. Hermann contrasts the vitality of this active reading by audiences with, what she regards as a rather closed approach imposed by heritage professionals, arguing that the effect of an ‘authorised heritage discourse’ in relation to the rendering of Cold War bunkers as ‘heritage’, pays insufficient regard to how individual visitors react to these places.

Hermann’s analysis is then followed by Rachel Bowers’ and Kevin Booth’s discussion of the decisions necessitated in their curation of English Heritage’s York Cold War bunker in Preserving and Managing York Cold War Bunker: Authenticity, Curation and the Visitor Experience. This both sets up a counterpoint to Hermann’s argument – with Bowers and Booth presenting an insiders’ account of the emergence of the Cold War as heritage’ discourse, and also their attentiveness to matters of affect and materiality (alongside discourse) within their reflexive analysis of their own experience of presenting this place as a heritage ‘attraction’. In their focus on the physical limits of curation, and the affective potentialities of place (re)making, Bowers and Booth then set the scene for Dutch architect, Arno Geesink, who considers the spatial possibilities and limitations of his proposals to redevelop a Dutch former nuclear shelter into a public events space in The Anomalous Potential of the Atoombunker: Exploring and Repurposing Arnhem’s Ruins. Geesink shows how his search for sites for redevelopment is informed by his interest in military history, once more disrupting a simplistic dichotomy of enthusiast vs professional bunker hunters.

In the concluding chapter, Presencing the Bunker: Past, Present and Future I pull together the book’s themes and contributions in order to examine the tension between on the one hand the politically-inspired desire to reveal and preserve the bunker as an unmasked cypher of state power, and on the other hand, pressures (and enticements) to re-appropriate bunker-ruins and to move beyond Cold War memorialisation. This enquiry into the question of the bunker’s futurity pits concerns for authenticity and sincerity against the opportunities of plasticity and playfulness, a quandary that appears to affect many contemporary engagements with the ruins of the Cold War bunker.

Image credit: Matthew Flintham, Torås Kommandoplasse (2010) (four frame captures from Lehmann’s footage of Torås). Digital video. Reproduced by kind permission of Matthew Flintham.

This is New Uses for Old Bunkers #40.

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


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.




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’, online feature (The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation), 29 August – at

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:

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,

Solomon, Ari (2016) ‘Report: Assad built seven-storey underground war bunker’ 16 February:

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






Urban exploration as deviant leisure

Oooh, this is good! A very thoughtful essay on the ironies of urbex’s ‘double-helix’ relationship with commodified leisure culture. Too many great quotes to pick from, so this one will do: “the performative project of (individualised) identity construction and intense competition for (subcultural) status are now primary motivations driving the practice of urban exploration towards increasingly spectacular manifestations.” Well worth the read…


By Theo Kindynis (University of Greenwich)

Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis. Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Recreational trespass, or as it has become known in recent years, “urban exploration” (often abbreviated as UrbEx or UE) is the practice of illicitly gaining access to forbidden, forgotten or otherwise off-limits places, ‘simply for the joy of doing so’ and / or in order to document them photographically (Garrett, 2013: 21). Such places typically include: derelict industrial sites, closed hospitals or asylums, abandoned military installations, construction sites and cranes, sewer and storm drain networks, subterranean utility tunnels and rapid transit (metro) systems – the list goes on. In the past two decades, and particularly since the mid-2000s, an emergent global subculture has coalesced around this activity, facilitated by the Internet and online discussion forums such…

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