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

Image result for skara brae

“…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).

Image credit:



“Utility after Abandonment”: our CFP for the RGS-IBG Conference: Cardiff, August 2018

smith island

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018

Geographical landscapes / Changing landscapes of geography 

Cardiff, Tuesday 28th August – Friday 31st August 2018

 Session Call for Papers


The New Ruin as Cultural Asset and Public Space

Session sponsored by the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group (of the RGS-IBG)

Convenors: Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam Uni.), Ed Hollis (Univ. of Edinburgh), Hayden Lorimer (Univ. of Glasgow), Ruth Olden (Univ. of Glasgow)


During recent years, across the arts and humanities, and associated cultural spheres of literature, cinema, architecture, heritage, urban exploration and curated art, interest has intensified in ruinenlust, ruins and ruination (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey and Edensor 2012; Lavery and Gough 2015; Bennett 2017). Ruminating on the ruin has come to be understood as a sensibility reflective of classical, romantic and picturesque tropes. However, other modes of social engagement are possible.

Learning how to live with ruins is a twenty-first century challenge requiring cultural articulations that are forward-thinking and experimental, acknowledging new models of intervention, ownership and access, and welcoming contrasting – even conflicting – forms of aesthetic and emotional attachment (DeSilvey 2017; Hollis 2010; Lorimer and Murray 2015).

Nationally and internationally, there are a multitude of valued heritage landscapes, currently in ruinous, vulnerable, degraded states, requiring differing forms of creative intervention for the purposes of rehabilitation, re-occupation and reinvention, so as to safeguard cultural legacies for the future. For this session we seek not only statements of intent, but also critical reports on activities already occurring in cities under austerity and non-urban landscapes, in the global north and global south, where ruins are being reimagined and repurposed as cultural assets and public spaces.

The session’s convening team represent a variety of perspectives on the reimagining and repurposing of ruins, variously undertaking studies and investigations ranging across landscape design and architectural history, cultural geography, law and risk management. We welcome contributions that reflect and/or go beyond this constellation of interests, and which embrace (or challenge) our view that open interdisciplinarity is the best way to understand and activate the potentialities of the contemporary ruin.

Session presentations/contributions are sought which variously address three connected questions:

– How do you activate modern ruins safely?

– How do you activate modern ruins creatively?

– How do you activate modern ruins collaboratively?


Please send expressions of interest/abstracts (250 words max.) and a title to:

Ruth Olden ( by Monday 5th February 2018.


Image credit: Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay via baldeaglebluff/flickr,



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

Markyate Montage

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

                J.B. Priestley, News Chronicle 17 Oct 1939

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


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


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

“Royal Observer Post



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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


Here’s a chance to work as a post doc with me and others on our study of the St Peter’s, Kilmahew modern ruin project

“You have been warned”
A photo of the seminary gates with asbestos warning signs, May 2013.

Back in December 2015 I announced here that I was part of an AHRC bid for a large project to study the re-activation of the modernist ruins of former seminary, St Peter’s, Kilmahew, details here . That bid got through to the final round but ultimately wasn’t granted. So, we picked  ourselves up and dusted our ideas off and I’m please to report that we have now secured a smaller grant from The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland that will enable a more modest study of the project to now go ahead.

The key element enabled by this funding is a 14 months post-doc post (based at the University of Glasgow) to provide the embedded eyes and ears of our study. Here’s the summary of the post that’s been circulating via other channels this week…

“Research Assistant

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’

RA Grade 7, Part-Time (0.8 FTE) for 14 months

Full details and job specification (post reference: 018433) available at:

This position is part of a research project funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, entitled:

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’.

The post-holder will enable the research project to address three research questions:

– How do you activate a modern ruin safely?

– How do you activate a modern ruin creatively?

– How do you activate a modern ruin collaboratively?

Responses and findings will be drawn from an interdisciplinary study that investigates the on-going transformation of a Scottish site of international architectural significance and its surrounding historic landscape, Kilmahew-St. Peters (Argyll & Bute). Studying the novel and experimental approach to heritage site presentation and management being taken by artists, architects and designers at Kilmahew-St. Peters, will be the means to produce novel research findings with widespread relevance and applicability. Nationally and internationally, there are a multitude of valued heritage landscapes, in a ruinous, vulnerable, degraded state, requiring equivalent levels of creative intervention for the purposes of rehabilitation and to safeguard cultural legacies for the future. See: The post-holder will gather original data through a combination of critical literature review, stakeholder interviewing, and immersive, participatory fieldwork activity in the site under investigation.

Data gathering undertaken by the Research Assistant will be managed and supported by the Principal Investigators: Professor Hayden Lorimer (University of Glasgow), Professor Ed Hollis (University of Edinburgh) and collaborators Dr Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University) and Angus Farquhar (NVA).

The project team will produce high-quality academic outputs, complemented by a range of dissemination activities.

Applications are sought from candidates with an awarded PhD in one of the following subject areas: Cultural Geography, Landscape Architecture, Landscape Studies, Architecture and Design, Heritage Studies, Creative Arts.

Closing date for applications: Monday July 31st 2017.

Applicants should note that interviews for the post are due to be held at University of Glasgow on Monday 21st August 2017.

Projected start date for post: 1st October 2017.

The appointed researcher will be based at University of Glasgow, in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, and will be a member of the Human Geography Research Group:


Image credit:

Programme now announced for 1st Sept 2017 Bunker-fest at the RGS-IBG London Conference


The Royal Geographical Society have now released their timetable for the 2017 Annual Conference, and the three bunker sessions have been scheduled for Friday 1st September, running from 11.10 a.m. until 6.30 pm.

A copy of the full conference programme is downloadable here:

And conference registration (for the one day or the full conference) is here:

I’m delighted now to be able to present full details of our interdisciplinary bunker-fest, including each speaker’s abstract:

Session 1: The Future of the Bunker: new uses and meanings for the 20th century’s abandoned bunkers – chaired by Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University, UK (geographer)

Rethinking the Atlantic Wall: art, death and minerology

Xenia Vytuleva, Columbia University, USA (architectural historian)

The Atlantic Wall along the coast of Europe and Norway is in ruins. One of the most radical of Hitler’s infrastructure projects, known as Fuhrer Directive No 40, sought to transform natural coastal lines into the Fortress Europe. But today the wall lies in oblivion and solitude and its concrete structures are migrating along the borderlines, becoming part of rocks, dissolving back into minerals, metamorphosing into skeletons and the giant shells of reptiles. No longer regarded as functioning architectural bodies, no longer serving as a record of violent human activity, today fifteen hundred of these Nazi bunkers have become a new form of media, the abstract techno-basis of a new layer of coded information. This paper advances the idea of transplanting the discourse of the Atlantic Wall Bunkers onto the territory of photography, film and contemporary cultures at large, based on an on-going cross-disciplinary research – project – 1XUnknown. Launched in 2012, by the Italian urban artist Margherita Moscardini this multidisciplinary experiment forces us to re-think and re-calibrate the phenomenon within the broader trajectory of curatorial practices, material cultures, law, geography, conservation, chemistry and mineralogy. Balancing on the border of different media—engineering, politics, military-industrial production, statistics, science, forensic architecture the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall themselves embody numerous layers of meaning. However, it is this particular shift from the most traumatic archaeological remains to radical art that takes the discourse on the bunker as a material fact to a whole new extent.

The BMEW radomes: reimagining RAF Fylingdales as a military contemporary art complex

Michael Mulvihill, University of Newcastle, UK (artist)

Once when I was a small boy in the early 1980s I ran home as fast as I could from school to see if I could make it within the four-minute nuclear attack warning. Now, as an adult, I find myself in the uncanny position of Artist in Residence at RAF Fylingdales Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station (BMEW), the very place that would have signaled an impending nuclear attack. RAF Fylingdales is one of three BMEW Radar Stations situated around the North Pole that provide warning of possible nuclear missile attack to the US and UK. RAF Fylingdales is run in partnership with the USAF 21st Space Wing, which also provides tracking data on the 17,000 objects in orbit around the Earth, including satellites, space stations and the ever increasing “space junk.” Early last year RAF Fylingdales invited me to be Artist in Residence at their Visitor Centre and Archive. This presentation will show art works made in response to RAF Fylingdales’ archive, and survey the archive’s material culture, which charts the history of RAF Fylingdales from empty moor to operational BMEW Station. Amongst these materials are examples of creative activities taking place at RAF Fylingdales during the Cold War. This includes a section of RAF Fylingdales once iconic “golf ball” radomes, attributed to the mid-century modernist architect and utopian guru Buckminister Fuller, which I will use to situate a relationship between contemporaneity and timelessness with the materials of the silo, bunker and art studio.

Malleable concrete?: moving from contemporary memory to curated meaning at York Nuclear Bunker

Kevin Booth, English Heritage (UK) (heritage professional)

For those who lived through the Cold War the Royal Observer Corps headquarters in York, though in itself an unfamiliar space, acts as a catalyst to memory and association – a portal through which broader personal experiences are recalled and re-lived.  Yet such powerful association is a finite resource and a gradual shift in our visitor profile sees a move from actual, visceral experience of the Cold War to an experience wholly interpreted, curated and consumed.  At the end of our chapter in the In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker (2017) collection, Rachael Bowers and I noted that for younger adults the Cold War storyline is deeply embedded within their own popular culture references, design motifs and finishes echoed in style magazines. In this presentation I will reflect on how as curators we are endeavouring to manage, influence and benefit from this shift from contemporary memory to curated meaning. I will review a range of interventions within the bunker: as art gallery with subject themed content (Michael Mullvihill); augmented with a 10 piece chamber orchestra playing a bespoke composition; enlivened with the pounding beats of a techno duo as accompaniment to stitched together content from the Yorkshire Film Archive.  The paper explores how English Heritage has worked with a variety of bunker narratives (some pre-given, and others that we are helping to create), playing with different mediums of translation, as our bunker looks for sustained meaning and relevance for 21st century audiences.

De-bunking the bunker: managing myth and misinformation in the bunkers beneath Dover Castle

Rowena Willard-Wright, English Heritage, UK (heritage professional)

By their very nature, government policies around the development and use of cold war bunkers are difficult to retrieve and navigate. This, alongside the fact that bunkers are often hidden “in plain sight” within our communities, has led to the development of false memories around their functions, with some deliberately planted. Most cold war academic interest is focused on military and foreign policy and architectural history. Which means that the mythology around the use of the bunker continues to grow and persist in the free dialogue of the Internet, without the benefit of academic challenge. I will be using Dover Castle tunnels and their cold war use (as Regional Seat of Government for the South East of England) as a case study to illustrate the difficulties of interpretation that the curator faces when explaining a bunker’s cold war use to the public, and how hard it is to be seen as an “honest broker” in this role. This is particularly clear in comparison to the same set of tunnels’ current public interpretation as a WWII frontline hospital, and operations rooms that played a key role in Dunkirk. We want to encourage imagination, because at its essence a cold war bunker was never “used” for its purpose, but also an authentic understanding of how government, in the past, has imagined itself into global nuclear war.  Because it is in the subtlety of this that our recent history can reveal far more about our nature as a country and our form of government, than the safely entertaining history of wars from our more distant past.​

Bunker Boredom: An ethnography of the experience of bunker labour, as an emergency planner

Becky Alexis-Martin, University of Southampton, UK (geographer)

Emergency planning in the UK has a dark heritage, with origins that stem from civil defence work aimed at preparedness for potential nuclear strikes during the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall civil defence gradually diversified to include generic emergencies, reformulated under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Some nuclear bunkers have found new lives as emergency planning centres. This has entailed only modest change to their layout: filtration systems have been switched off and dust now gathers in cupboards of log books and pencils, but the occasional dark artefact or document survives in the back of a filing cabinet testifying to an earlier formulation of ‘thinking the unthinkable’. This paper presents an autoethnography of my experience of working in a repurposed nuclear bunker as an emergency planner at the start of the 2010s. I gradually became aware of its original function by conversation with senior service members. My presentation will chart this slow realisation, setting it alongside a depiction of the mundane labour of emergency planning – the multi-agency meetings, the acronyms, training exercises and coffee breaks – all played out within the repurposed bunker.  My presentation will show that as a workplace, the bunker becomes boring and cognitive dissonance kicks in quickly, an aspect of bunker-dwelling that is often ignored.

Session 2 – The Bunker of the Future: materialising contemporary anxieties and desires in 21st century bunker building – chaired by Kathrine Sandys, Rose Bruford College, UK (scenographer)

What do we want from our bunkers? ruins, reinvention, anxiety and power

Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University, UK (geographer)

This presentation will provide a segue between the first session’s focus on the re-interpretation and re-purposing of the 20th century’s bunkers and the second session’s concern with the 21st century’s contemporary bunker-building, and its motivations. It will do so by exploring the relationship between the enduring cultural salience of the bunker and the intransigent materiality of its concrete instantiations. In short, it will ask “why is it that the bunker refuses to fade away?” Within this examination of the bunker’s continual reverberation I will explore the strengths and limits of Strömberg’s (2013) “funky bunker” hypothesis, consider the continued valence of bunker imagery across popular culture and its symbiotic relationship with contemporary bunker-building.  I will also seek to build a conceptual linkage between recent scholarship on ‘concrete governmentality’ and the sociology of shelter (Deville, Guggenheim & Hrdličková 2014; Foster 2016; Shapiro & Bird-David 2016) and the ruin-focussed material-cultural disciplines that have tended to be the core of the nascent bunker studies reflected in the contributors to the 2014 RGS conference sessions on bunkers and the edited collection arising from it, Bennett (2017) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker.

Every home a fortress: fatherhood and the family fallout Shelter in Cold War America

Tom Bishop, University of Sheffield, UK (historian)

By taking a historical look back to the nuclear crisis years of 1958 to 1961, this presentation will set the scene for subsequent exploration of contemporary bunker-mania. At the height of the ‘first’ Cold War millions of U.S. citizens were instructed by their federal government that the best chance of surviving a direct nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union resided in converting their backyards or basements into family fallout shelters. Directing their policies towards middle-class suburban America, civil defence policymakers asked citizens to realign their lives and family relationships in accordance with a new doctrine of ‘do-it-yourself’ survival, stating that middle-class suburban fathers had the capacity and resources to protect both themselves and their families from the worst possible manmade disaster. This paper offers the first historical study of fatherhood and the family fallout shelter during the early Cold War, examining the tension between the politics of ‘do-it-yourself’ survival and the lived reality. Rather than fostering one singular politicised vision of Cold War fatherhood, this thesis argues that fallout shelters brought to the surface a variety of interlinked visions of Cold War fatherhood, rooted in narratives of domesticity, militarism, and survivalism. Central to these narratives of masculinity was the private fallout shelter itself, a malleable Cold War space that inspired a new national discourse around notions of nationhood, domestic duty, and collective assumptions of what it meant to be a father in the nuclear age.

Bunker play: Possibility space and survival in the Fallout series

Emma Fraser, University of Manchester, UK (sociologist)

Bunkers (and bunker-like forms) have often been deployed in mainstream gaming franchises to support play in repetitive and restricted game spaces (Bennett). Influenced by the pop-culture image of the bunker as a site of post-catastrophe survival, games like Fallout depict hyper-technological and futuristic fallout shelters (or “vaults”) as key sites of gameplay – these have been a feature of the franchise since its inception (and are the sole setting in the 2015 iPad game Fallout Shelter, for example). Related games like the Borderlands series also deploy the “vault” architecture as a means to structure space within the game (especially in early iterations), but also as plausible spaces in which end-of-the-world survival narratives can develop. Through the Fallout series in particular – one of the biggest contemporary gaming franchises – this paper considers the way in which the space of the bunker is used in-game (structured, navigated, viewed), as well as the development of the contemporary bunker imaginary over time. Does the in-game bunker reveal a space of potential and possibility (Massumi), or are they more suggestive of Heterotopic spaces (Foucault), contested and inverted representations of real space? As the bunker imaginary and mechanic has evolved over the course of the Fallout series, what does the “vault” tell us about the bunker-form? Finally, do real-world practices of play and exploration in bunkers (Bennett) map onto virtual bunkers as spatial models for bunker-living?

Bugging out and bunkering down: on the sheltering tactics of survivalists and preppers in the 21st century

Michael Adams & Carrie Wilkinson, University of Wollongong, Australia (geographers)

Survivalist individuals and groups have become significantly more visible in recent years. A phenomenon emerging out of the USA in the late 1950s, survivalists, or ‘preppers’ as they have increasingly come to be known, anticipate and plan for a natural or man-made catastrophe that will bring about the total collapse of civil society, or the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). A central feature of preparing for TEOTWAWKI is establishing a suitable place to weather out the immediate fallout when shit hits the fan (SHTF) or, depending on the nature of the catastrophe, to see out the end of days. This paper will examine the shelter (or ‘bunkering’) tactics and technologies of survivalists and preppers in the 21st century. To bring focus to the paper, we concentrate on the Australian context, with data collected from online, publicly available survivalist and prepper blogs, websites and forums. The bunker is a symbol of the intersection of Anthropocene and Apocalypse – discussions about the need for developing personal and community-wide resilience in regions experiencing and facing the effects of climate change resonate with survivalist concerns and practices.

Subterranean sanctuaries? secret underground spaces today.

Theo Kindynis, University of Roehampton, UK (criminologist)

Recent years have seen the ongoing and increasing appropriation and colonisation of selected subterranean spaces by economic, political and military elites. In 2015, London councils received over 4000 planning applications for so-called “mega-basement” developments: elaborate subterranean extensions, containing cinemas, bowling alleys, spas, wine cellars, tennis courts and gun rooms. The volume of such luxury bunkers – a growing trend amongst the city’s billionaire class – can exceed the housing space above the surface several times over, constituting a kind of ‘iceberg architecture’. Meanwhile, underground government and military facilities – many dating from the Second World and Cold Wars – remain quietly in use. Ageing bunker complexes are repurposed and retrofitted as secure “crisis management facilities”, cyber strike command centres and clandestine communications monitoring hubs. Taken together, such installations suggest a kind of subterranean ‘secret geography’; a shadowy subsurface archipelago of military and intelligence “black sites” (Paglen, 2010). Furthermore, there is an increasing convergence between, on the one hand, luxury basement residences, and on the other hand, the kinds of reinforced underground structures utilised by governments and militaries. The past decade has seen a surge in demand for so-called “panic rooms” amongst the super-rich, as well as the construction of full-scale bunkerised gated communities, touted as “luxury for the apocalypse”. This paper considers the implications of these contemporary forms of elite bunker-building.

Session 3 – In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: John Beck (University of Westminster, UK – literary and cultural theorist) in conversation with Luke Bennett, Kathrine Sandys and Kevin Booth – chaired by Nadia Bartolini, University of Exeter, UK (geographer)

In a day-long series of sessions at the 2014 RGS conference scholars from around the world met to debate the contemporary significance of the remains of the Cold War’s bunkers. Subsequently many of participants have contributed chapters to a collection edited by Luke Bennett, In the Ruins of the Cold War: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making published by Rowman & Littlefield International in June 2017. This final session brings together Bennett and John Beck, one of his co-convenors from the 2014 RGS sessions, to discuss the approach taken by the book in examining contemporary engagements with these 20th century ruins. Bennett will be joined by two other contributors to the book, Kathrine Sandys (a scenographer) and Kevin Booth (curator of English Heritage’s York Nuclear Bunker). 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 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. Like the 2014 sessions, the book 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). This session will be chaired by Nadia Bartolini, a cultural geographer with a particular research interest in contemporary ruins who, in particular, has written of the necessity of blending an attentiveness to materiality, affect and meaning making in the interpretation of contemporary re-engagements with fascist bunkers in Italy (Bartolini 2015). Running this discussion as a session in its own right will give an opportunity for in-depth debate, both between the panel members and with encouraged audience participation.

Image credit: Dario Lasagni photograph of Margherita Moscardini’s 1xUnknown (2012) at Museo d’ Arte Contemoranea Roma:

Ruinphobia, the New Ruins and the anti-ruination reflex – my newly published chapter is out

1988 ruined shop

“The problems associated with empty properties are considerable. They attract vandalism and increase insecurity and fear. And this all reduces the value of surrounding businesses and homes. So the decision to leave a property empty is not just a private matter for the landlord. It affects us all.”

Mary Portas, The Portas Review: The Future of Our High Streets, 2011, p 35.

Portas here reveals that any discussion of transience and permanence in urban development engages deeply embedded cultural assumptions about utility and progress. I explore the origins and effects of this anxiety in a contribution to a recently published collection of essays on the theme of temporary re-uses of vacant urban property. In my chapter I show how an underlying ruinphobia quitely but powerfully shapes the fate of abandoned buildings, regardless of how some might more loudly valorise them through a ruinphiliac (or ruin lusty) gaze.

In my chapter I place recent (largely ruinphiliac) ruin studies scholarship in the arts and humanities alongside insights from both critical urban studies and the more professionally focused concerns of real estate practitioners in order to see what happens when ruinphobia and ruinphilia try to inhabit the same space. As a taster here’s a snippet, in which I set up the juxtaposition by taking Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher off for a walk in a direction he didn’t intend:

“The ruin is a provocative mix of time and matter – it shows us simultaneously the longevity and the ephemeral nature of both buildings and their uses. It also holds a mirror up to our relationship with their constituent matter, destabilising our perception of and reaction to the building as a whole, and the building as an assemblage. It is also paradoxically both a lawless prospect – and yet strangely of the law. To pursue these points let us dwell for a moment at the threshold of The House of Usher. Let us imagine that we are standing there with Edgar Allan Poe’s unidentified narrator as he looks upon the bleak vista, scrutinising the building before him and searching out its sublime import:

“more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity […] yet all of this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and, the crumbling condition of the individual stones” (Poe, 2003, p 94)

But what if we re-contextualise the scene, replacing Poe’s intimated ruinphiliac frisson with a workaday ruinphobia? Then – perhaps – our unidentified narrator becomes the occupant’s tax adviser, come to advise the decrepit titular owner upon demolition or a creative ruination ruse to avoid Business Rates. Perhaps he has come to disassemble the building, totting up as he looks on, how many stone blocks, lead pipes and copper cupolas the House of Usher will yield when levelled. Perhaps he has come from the local council and will shortly serve legal notice upon the owner, commanding corrective works under the Building Act 1984. Perhaps he has come from next door, alleging recourse against Usher under the common law principles of Private Nuisance, for damage sustained by his own property caused by this decaying structure. Perhaps he is a local councillor concerned about the adverse effects of this dereliction upon the amenity of the neighbourhood, and is contemplating the scene with a view to producing a report to his Council’s cabinet in favour of action being ordered under Section 215 Town & Country Planning Act 1990. Perhaps he is the local crime prevention officer attending to warn the owner that the degenerating condition of his place is a magnet to crime. Perhaps he is an insurance broker, steeling his nerve before breaking the news to his client that policy premiums are now prohibitively expensive, on account of the recent decline of this once stately house.

The Fall of the House of Usher is fiction, it is just a story. It is presented as an entertainment – predicated on the assumption that there is a willing audience for tales that summon the prospect of standing, contemplating the degeneration of a ruinous building, and getting some unsettling thrill from vicariously doing so, whilst reading the story in the safety of our own warm, cosy and familiar homes.  But, much as we might enjoy TV crime shows and their grizzly exceptionality, we do so only from a safe distance: we only want ruination in controllable amounts, too much or its occurrence at a time and place not of our choosing is cause for a different type of unsettling – one that calls for action, intervention and eradication of the ruin.”

The edited collection in which my essay appears is Transience & Change in Urban Development (ed. John Henneberry, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), and its rather pricey (more details here). But there’s an early version of what eventually became my chapter here, worked up with some initial help from my SHU colleague Jill Dickinson. The book’s chapters derive from an international EU funded workshop convened by John Henneberry in January 2015.

Image credit:

Abandoned shop front, 1988:


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 -