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.



‘Approaching the bunker’ – an early glimpse of the book project


The email arrived during the summer, catching me slightly off guard. A writer for the journal Improbable Research wanted to check a few details with me for a piece he was preparing for their website on my ‘bunkers and gender’ paper published last year. From a quick glance I couldn’t tell whether Improbable Research was ironic in its plaudits for the research that it featured. Their motto: “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK”, left me none the wiser. Who wants to be the butt of ‘You got funding for that?!?’ type jibes (and no – I didn’t get finding for it anyway). I still can’t make my mind up on whether I won the academic equivalent of a Golden Raspberry Award, but here’s the article:


I spent 2013 trying to avoid bunkers, but 2014 has sucked me back in good and proper. It seems that the bunker doesn’t let you go once it has your attention.

This summer’s day-long session on Cold War Bunkers at the Royal Geographical Society Conference is now spawning an edited collection – I’m currently pulling together the proposal for a publisher who’s keen. The working title is: “Approaching the bunker: bodies, materialities and meaning-making in Cold War ruins

The idea is to focus on what these bunkers mean to us (or others) now – in their early 21st century state of abandonment. The collection will thus look at a range of engagements with these relics and the purposes and methods behind those attempts at knowing and/or (re)valorising them. As such this project is a continuation of my “multivalence” thesis – that there are a number of stable ways of performing bunkerology, and that there are identifiable practices and motivations out there: ‘logics’ if you like (thus producing ‘bunkerologies’). Some of the contributions will seek to interpret bunker-hunters motivations, but others will showcases the authors’ own engagements with these structures, in doing so reflexively questioning their own motives, methods and representational conventions. The collection will also look at ‘official’ attempts to condition views of and/or practices within these places, and there will also be a look at the materiality of the bunker itself – and its resistances and affordances as they act upon the mind and body of the enquiring subject.

I’ve got 18 contributions, from across the academic spectrum: from artist to archaeologist, architect to anthropologist, geographer to a germ warfare specialist. And the greatest thing is the gender split: exactly 50:50 as things currently stand. Now at one level this causes me some problems – because I’ve previously concluded that the bunker’s call is louder for males than females. But I didn’t contend that there was an essentialist reason as to why bunkerology was gendered, I’d pointed out that I’d come across some women involved in bunkerology, and that the gendering was at best situational (and in many cases occupational). My contributors are all academics, heritage professionals and/or artists so perhaps no surprise there that the gender gap might be far less evident.

John Schofield and others have pioneered the co-opting of artists into Cold War related material culture studies (and in particular contemporary archaeology), but my collection will take this into the social sciences, and specifically geography where it is less common. The plan is to set up provocative juxtapositions between contributions, rather than to group them into clusters of methodological or disciplinary affiliation. Instead I will group the contributions into thematic pairings. So, for example, I have a paper from Martin Dodge (geographer) looking at the difficulties faced in piecing together the history and physical extent of  Manchester’s ‘Guardian’ Underground Telephone Exchange from  archival sources. I’m pairing this with artist Stephen Felmingham’s essay on his attempts to interrogate ROC Posts through in-situ drawing using his peripheral vision. It struck me that each of these ‘researchers’ is trying to find ways to penetrate beyond physical or mental blockages raised in the name of ‘secrecy’ for such installations, so it will be interesting to have such divergent (and yet in some ways similarly challenged) methodologies sitting side by side.

Here’s short video in which Stephen talks about his project:


Photo credit:

Air shaft/surface structure for Manchester’s underground telephone exchange: http://mancbible.fullist.co.uk/2014/10/manchesters-darkest-secret/



CFP for Brook & Dodge’s proposed July 2015 conference session on Cold War Urbanism (plus my submitted abstract)


Richard Brook and Martin Dodge presented their work on the Guardian Exchange complex at the Cold War Bunkers RGS session last week, and I’m delighted to circulate their call for papers for their proposed Cold War Urbanism session at the International Conference of Historical Geographers 2015, London, 5-10 July 2015. NB: the deadline for submissions (to them, not me) is soon: 12 September 2014.

CfP: Cold war urbanism: Histories of strategic plans, secure structures and technocratic politics in post-war Britain and beyond

Convenors: Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) and Martin Dodge (University of Manchester)

In this session we wish to explore how the threat of nuclear war in the 1950s and ‘60s affected planning at a range of geographic scales. National and international telecommunications networks were built during this time as a direct response to global political conditions. The rise of atomic power and computational technologies required new facilities that were often dispersed and situated variously for secrecy and locally available expertise/experience. The zoning of land and organisation of facilities and the planning of towns is not conventionally viewed as informed by processes of the ‘warfare state’ (Edgerton, 2005), but we want to ask; What were the patterns of the built environment, economic structures and aesthetics / cultures of Cold War urbanism in Britain? As Boyd and Linehan (2013) state in the introduction to their recent book Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space, we need to be alert to ‘escalation in the intersections between the fabric of the landscape and the technologies of war and the extrusion and mutation of war from the battlefield into everyday life’. We seek papers drawing on a range of different evidential bases, archival research, personal histories and lived experiences and theoretical ideas to understand the spatiality of technological development, primarily focused upon city scales and architectural resultants.

The following is non-exhaustive list of possible themes:

+ spaces of production, testing, storage of novel military†weapons systems associated with cold war including aircraft and bombers, missiles and submarines, radar system and satellites

+ sites associated with atomic weapons and the distinct design challenges of keeping these safe and secure

+ civil nuclear power research and networks of production, with their links to militarism

+ research and manufacturing facilities for advanced digital computing technologies, programming, and data centres

+ academic research facilities associated with military funding and cold war doctrines

+ civic spaces in cities with shelters and spaces of civilian refuge

+ developments of national telecommunications and need for hardened facilities, underground bunkers and remote radio networks

+ bunkers for the strategic communications, military C&C and continuation of government in the event of war

+ architectural design, materials science and electronics deployed to counter atomic age threats

+ aesthetics of cold war urbanism, forms of visual representation of atomic power and nuclear weapons, the cultural meanings attached to new militarised landscapes and computerisation of society

+ development of transportation infrastructure, logistics and routing to take account of cold war

+ overall shaping of cities, housing renewal and suburbanisation to try to achieve population decentralisation that would reduce the risk of annihilation of citizenry in a single blast


Please send a title and brief abstract (of no more than 200 words) to either of the convenors by 12 September 2014. Also, please detail if you have any special audio-visual requirements or mobility requirements.

 # Richard Brook,†R.Brook@mmu.ac.uk, Manchester School of Architecture

 # Martin Dodge,†M.Dodge@manchester.ac.uk, Department of Geography, University of Manchester


Further details on the ICHG Conference, including registration fees, are available at:



And here’s the abstract I’ve submitted:

Forming an everyday Cold War network – the constitutive role of law, surveying and asset management in the birth, life and death of ROC Posts

Luke Bennett & Sarah Cardwell, Department of the Natural & Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Born in the wartime exigencies of countering Zeppelin and Gotha Bomber raids towards the end of the First World War, the Royal Observer Corps and its distributed network of observation posts grew to become an iconic part of 1939-45 homeland security across the UK. Then, during the Cold War, the ROC’s network of people and land-sites was re-purposed for the observation of atomic bomb blasts and radioactive fallout clouds. This paper will examine the constitutive role of (mundane, vanilla flavour) property law in the creation and management of the ROC’s national network of 1,500 Cold War monitoring posts. For the Cold War, this network of small underground posts, spread across fields and hilltops, was mostly held in existence via leases, and the simple surrender of these leases in 1991 (transferring these posts back to ambivalent rural landowners following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent disbanding of the ROC) ‘privatised’, multiplied and diversified the actors engaged in the abandonment, decommissioning and or alternative use-making for these now de-networked structures.


Photo credit (photo added by Luke): 




RGS 2014 – ‘Cold War Bunkers – exceptionalism, affect and aftermath’ – final session details

York RSG

John Beck (University of Westminster), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and I are convening four sessions on Cold War Bunkers at the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in London at the end of August. A previous post on the overall aims of the sessions is here , and now below are the abstracts of the individual papers:

When?: Friday, 29 August 2014, 9am to 6.30pm

Where?: Imperial College, London in Skempton Building, Room 163

How?: Details of booking procedures and the full RGS 2014 programme are here.

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm. The single day delegate rate is: £185.

9.00 – 10.40am, Session 1 – encountering the bunker

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape – Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University)

This presentation will set the scene for the Cold War Bunkers strand by situating my work on ‘bunkerology’ alongside a wider interpretation of the psycho-cultural drivers for ‘bunker gazing’. It will seek to show that just as Paul Virilio’s Atlantikwall bunker hunting in the late 1950s / early 1960s was rooted in his desire to make sense of the “geostrategic and geopolitical foundations of the total war I had lived through in Nantes, not far from the submarine base of Saint-Nazaire” (Virilio & Parent 1996: 11), so Cold War bunker hunting can be seen as an ongoing processing of the trauma of an ‘ultimate’ war that never happened, but which none the less left spatial and psycho-cultural scars. The paper will follow the sublimation of this trauma, through Peter Laurie’s 1970s attempts to read the materialisation of power in the Cold War’s landscape, W.S. Sebald standing before the ‘Pagodas’ of Orford ness contemplating the post-traumatic landscape before him shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Sarah Vowell writing in 2004 of the potency of ruined bunkers for the last Cold War generation, and of their validation of the apocalyptic anxiety that suddenly vanished with adulthood, but yet still haunts. This investigation will be pursued by reference to the testimony of bunker hunters, my own journey to bunker gazing and by drawing upon the anxieties of Cold War era psychologists and their concerns for the effects that apocalyptic anxiety might (and perhaps did) have upon children raised in the era of the Cold War bunker building.

The Cold War bunker and/as cinema – John Beck (Westminster University)

This paper considers the ways in which Cold War bunkers, both large-scale military fortifications and domestic shelters, have been imagined in films. Central to the narrative construction of bunkered space is the sense of the bunker as a time machine, incarceration within both stopping time and altering perception of time passing. Living inside the bunker intensifies the anxieties and tensions of Cold War society but also renders them irrelevant, as there is often no accessible world left beyond the walls of the shelter. In this way, the bunker might be said to merge with the function of the cinema as a sealed space with its own temporal logic and peculiar relation to the external world. Does the cinema, then, provide a privileged space through which the containment embodied in the bunker can be affectively as well as symbolically encountered? Works discussed include Cuban Missile Crisis-era films such as Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Fail-Safe (1964); 1970s paranoid horror films like Chosen Survivors (1974) and the Polish Communist-era parable Seksmisja (1984); and post-Cold War responses to the legacy of nuclear dread, from grim speculations like Paul Bartel’s Shelf Life (1993) to mainstream comedies like Blast from the Past (1999).

The sublime myth of the Cold War bunker – Kathrine Sandys (Rose Bruford College)

As civilians, films, novels and public information programmes have shaped our knowledge of the Cold War, both during the period and even following decommissioning. The fictional architecture portrayed through this mediated experience was exotic and of a structure never experienced in a domestic environment, with designers such as Ken Adam creating the mysterious and epic subterranean operational bunkers for the villains of the Cold War period Bond films. The reality of these ‘secret’ spaces is often closer to the fiction than imagined, in their unusual, purpose-built vernacular, improvised style with many bunkers and hardened shell military buildings displaying their purpose through their unusual shape and form. Without knowing this purpose however, to the civilian eye, these structures maintain their mythical qualities and presence. This illustrated paper presents a series of public art installations created between 2004 and 2011, animating and mythologizing Cold War military bunkers. These works were the build up to an entire PhD project exploring the sublime imbued in the unknown of the Cold War military space, through phenomenology. In the case of this research, the intangibility of lighting and sound were applied as scenographic devices where the audience explored the derelict sites, animated by subtly integrated lighting and/or infrasound (sound as sensation of nuclear pulse or machinery), in order to form their own stories and desire for authenticity around the purpose of the spaces. Notions of journey, expectation, isolation and framing were explored throughout the research, now offered in this presentation.

Torås Fort and the military sublime: A macro and granular study of war architecture in landscape – Matthew Flintham (University of Newcastle)

Over a three year period Matthew Flintham has undertaken a photo and videographic study of the military facility of Torås on the island of Tjøme, Norway. The site was established as a naval defensive post in anticipation of a Nazi invasion but was rapidly captured and significantly modified by the invaders. The site was again remodeled during the Cold War against Soviet incursion with a maze of subterranean tunnels blasted into the dramatic Larvikite rock formations that are typical of the region. Previously closed to civilian islanders the gates were suddenly thrown open in 2007 (?) and the remote base, once almost entirely hidden in the dramatic topography of the island, is now revealed as a unique fusion of landscape, architecture and weapon systems. The Norwegian landscape often prompts reference to the ‘sublime’, but the notion of the ‘military sublime’ (a problematic term that has been applied the work of contemporary fine art photographers working in conflict zones) is perhaps more relevant here. Flintham’s paper will describe his micro and macro visual methodology for studying the hasty transformation of landscape into military architecture, and the much slower process of bunker into ruin and ruin into dust. This paper will ultimately address the role of images in the analysis of geological time, or more specifically, the ‘dark’ stratum of human conflict and the transformation of its material presence in the landscape. The presentation will be accompanied by moving image footage of Torås Fort and the surrounding area.

The Bunker Project: claustrophobia, performance and influence – Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge)

The Bunker Project ran from 2005-8 and was a community-focused performance research project, exploring hidden war spaces in the city of Cambridge – from dilapidated air-raid shelters in peoples’ back gardens to a Cold War era Regional Seat of Government. The project brought together oral history and performance theory, site-specific theatre and changing concepts of ‘rehearsal’, to produce a powerful cultural intervention. This paper will outline the structure of the project and its aesthetic and cultural aims, showing how subsequent work from Metis Arts (the theatre company which ran the project) has been shaped by this initial thinking about bunkers. Thus the paper will then consider 3rd Ring Out (2010-11) a theatre project concerned with planning for climate change through the mode of rehearsal, which directly drew on Cold War exercises for its rationale. The performances toured the UK in two twenty-foot shipping containers (3rd Ring Out was nominated for a Total Theatre award and won a Tipping Point arts and environment award). World Factory (2013-ongoing) is Metis Arts’ current project, an interdisciplinary performance work, which aims to explore the relationship between China and the UK through the lens of the textile industry. Global textile production – from 19th century Manchester to contemporary Shanghai – might seem remote from bunkers, and the thinking they engender. But the paper will conclude by showing how and why they are linked.

11.10 – 12.50pm, Session 2 – the bunker as exceptional space

From survival cell to ‘empty space’: bunker rites vs acts of resistance in Cold War Switzerland – Silvia Berger (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Imagine a nation peppered with high-security cells in every home. Five decades ago, this vision materialized in Switzerland. Since the early 1960’s, the country has built 2300 collective and 360’000 private nuclear shelters, the majority of them in the basements of single-family homes. By 2006 the authorities announced that Switzerland has enough shelter space for 114% of its population. No other country in the world has ever established such a comprehensive and carefully calibrated system of subterranean bunkers. Inspired by studies on space, body and ritual, my paper zooms in on the operational lives of this megalomaniac underground world. I will trace the fervent government action programs launched in the 1960s and 70s for the control and regulation of the shelter society and the shelter subject. Displayed in behavioural scripts and inscribed in spatial forms and technical objects of the bunker, specific rituals and bodily routines were supposed to be practiced in order to guarantee an orderly passage to the post-apocalypse, without any violation of norms, social roles and affective regimes. The citizens’ compliance to the official bunker rites was rather poor though. This disobedience and the authorities’ operational shortcomings facilitated individual, antagonistic forms of appropriating and imagining the bunker (“autonomous republic”, “zero-star hotel” etc.). Given the myriads of tactics and ideas used to transform the language and materiality of space, I will argue that Swiss bunkers gradually transmogrified into “Empty Spaces” (Kostera/Kociatkiewicz)—i.e. places that defy all attempts at stable classification, and are devoid of clear ownership and meaning.

The bunker and the camp: Inside West Germany’s nuclear retreat – Ian Klinke (University of Oxford)

Recent research has located the camp as the paradigmatic space that emerges when geopolitics and biopolitics intersect. In doing so, it has neglected another space that is indispensible for an understanding of the nexus of these two modalities of power – the nuclear bunker. This paper explores the West German government’s nuclear bunker in Marienthal, a subterranean lebensraum (living space) constructed on the site of an underground WWII concentration camp. Designed as a shelter for up to 3,000 politicians, bureaucrats and military staff, this cryptic concrete space was home to a number of NATO-exercises, which included the simulation of pre-emptive strikes on the Warsaw Pact as well as on West German cities that had been taken by the Red Army only hours before. The paper relates the nuclear bunker to its predecessor – the camp – and uncovers a number of spatial inversions and overlaps between the two. Whilst the nuclear bunker seemingly turns the camp inside out by protecting its inhabitants from the nuclear holocaust outside, it was similarly governed by legal exceptionality, pure logistics, hygiene, semi-invisibility and a genocidal rationality. Yet, it was also an ambiguous space where a fundamental blurring between inside and outside materialised. This porosity and insecurity revealed the nuclear bunker’s deadly character for it was here that sovereign power and total war sought to find eternal peace.

Secrecy, obscurity, security, obsession: The ‘Guardian’ telecommunications bunker deep under Manchester city centre and Cold War urbanism – Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) & Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Our paper focuses on a massive bunker space built in Manchester’s urban heart and seeks to (re)interpret its meanings through different periods of time and perspectives: official secrecy, technical obscurity of service space, securitised critical infrastructure, and conspiratorial obsessions. The bunker, known by its code-name ‘Guardian’, was conceived architecturally as a site of atomic-bomb resistant telecommunication equipment and given the large scale expenditure to construct it 30 metres beneath city streets it clearly had strategic importance to the British Government in terms of advancing its Cold War doctrine in the 1950s. The paper draws as an evidential base on our primary archival research, historical news reporting and first hand accounts of GPO / BT staff. It is theoretically grounded in the spatiality of technological development, focused at the architectural scale on the make-up of the facilities, their geographical configuration across the region/nation, and their how they were planned as work places for particular kinds of ‘cold warriors’ over several decades. Through this place-specific interpretation of Manchester and its infrastructural imperative around communications we also want say something more broadly about the underlying processes of Cold War urbanism as it played out in Britain in the 1950s and 60s and the legacy of these spaces in subsequent decades.

War, peace, and affect in Cuban cave science and exploration – María Alejandra Pérez (West Virginia University, USA)

During the Cold War, Cuba hardly had any need for building defensive concrete structures. Instead, the Revolutionary Armed Forces spearheaded the selection and modification of some of the country’s thousands of caves for the purposes of military defense. Indeed, the link between Cuba’s karst landscape and its political history predates the consolidation of socialist Cuba: the indigenous Taino culture used caverns as sites of ritual and hideouts during the Spanish conquest. African slaves relied on and modified caves by extending passages to escape their owners. During the independence war against Spain, and then again during the Revolution against the Batista regime, caves were critical rebel hideouts and weapon storage sites. This last chapter earned Cuban speleology Fidel Castro’s recognition and support. It was in 1960, during the 20th anniversary of the Speleological Society of Cuba, that Castro famously declared, “The future of our homeland is necessarily a future of men of science.” This paper examines the intricate relationship between the development of cave science, or speleology, and the militarization of the country’s karst landscape, from the perspectives of Cuban speleologists both living in Cuba and abroad. Their stories reveal contrasting views on the impact of the Cold War on the internationalization of Cuban cave science. All share, however, how much fieldwork and underground exploration promoted camaraderie and unity of purpose. Thus, Cuba’s “geographies of speleology” (Cant 2006) are as much about militarization and science as they are about the affective bonds that fieldwork and underground exploration facilitates and engenders.

2.40-4.20pm, Session 3 – the bunker as post traumatic landscape

The Royal Observer Corps – a study in transitory archaeology and the disenfranchised – Bob Clarke (University of Exeter)

The taskscape has become a necessary interpretive component when considering human endeavour. No more so than when investigating the archaeology of Cold War Britain. By its very nature, the Cold War maintained a level of subterfuge; often transitory activities of a secret or clandestine nature segregated the general populous from the activities acted out by those initiated into its order. In the Western World, this forced increasing tensions between state and public, manifesting itself in civil disobedience or apathy and disenfranchisement. Now just over two decades later we have an opportunity to investigate the secret landscape of the Cold War. Recent work has demonstrated that a perceived landscape of security fences, miss-representative signage and ordnance survey designations intended to mislead the user does represent an array of related activities. Moreover, those who participated in the development of this taskscape, moving through their own, and the organisations life-cycle are still available for comment. Engaging with those who were members of secret organisations allows for a hitherto un-narrated account of a taskscape now made visible. Utilising the national landscape of the Royal Observer Corps it is possible to map certain behaviours – especially the landscape of the disenfranchised. This paper describes the landscape of the ROC, its bunkers and the transition it has experienced as it transits from a secret landscape to a public one. It investigates the premise that secret landscapes, whilst transitory, do maintain longevity through the memory of those who now act out remembrance by telling their story.

Emerging from the bunker: embodiment, practice and Cold War legacies – Steven Leech (University of Manchester)

Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks highlights a tension between the “living breathing remnants” of the Cold War and contemporary social memory. In his work, the ageing body of the former ‘Cold Warrior’ is juxtaposed to a sense of ambivalence (surrounding a “war that was not a war”). Through the lens of portraiture, the artist’s subjects, members of the marginal American Cold War Veterans Association (2009), emerge as a forgotten collective. His work is presents a set of questions; how do we make sense of the presence of these veterans and how does thinking through their corporeality help us articulate the character of Cold War ambiguities? Similarly, this paper will raise questions about the military body and its impact upon the management and representation of Cold War legacies in the landscapes and subterranean spaces of the UK. Drawing upon oral history interviews and ethnographic research with former radar engineers and operators, it will highlight the ways in which they negotiate forms of identity, authenticity and disconnection through a range of cultural practices. For example, it will discuss their participation as guides and volunteers at military and bunker museums, visiting former sites of operation and grass-roots heritage work. Specifically, It will argue that these experiences are, partially, an attempt to relocate themselves in relation to the conflict and as a means of making sense of the transition of former places of work, from sites of national security to facets of the historic environment – as heritage sites – or as places of abandonment and ruination.

Engaging bunkers: how a popular historical geography of the Cold War is practiced – Gunnar Maus (University of Kiel, Germany)

Many Cold War bunkers are hidden in plain sight. They acquire meaning as traces of world and local history only when engaged as such. A popular historical geography of Cold War militarized landscapes is in the making in Germany. I will visit a variety of concrete bunkers, atomic shelters and depots through accompanying geocachers, local historians, ‘bunkerologists’ (Bennett 2010), museum specialists and state conservators. I argue that by asking how these groups bestow meaning upon these relics, one can observe a cultural memory in-the-making. Their occupations can be described as practices of memory that transcend group delimitations. Conceptually, this follows on from work on the geography of memory, which has generally characterized memory as a means to socially construct place-based narratives of collective and individual identity. In this view, informed by practice theory, a set of more or less universal (in a Western context) set of practices of memory is confronted with material arrangements of a time past. The end of the Cold War, understood as a contextual break for the way bunkers are enacted, affords new ways of dealing with them. Re-contextualizing them as traces of the Cold War is one of those ways.

Cold War heritage (and) tourism: exploring discourses of neglect and engagement – Inge Hermann (Saxion University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands)

This paper explores the idea of ‘Cold War heritage (and) tourism’, that is, the process of construction and negotiation meanings that develop through tourism, whilst simultaneously being a moment that also resides within tourism (often termed heritage tourism) at Cold War sites in Britain. The entanglement of heritage (and) tourism has led to two sets of dominant practices; the first is concerned with the preservation and conservation management of sites, places and objects for future uses and generations to enjoy, whilst the second regards heritage as something that can be used here and now as a tool for community development, social unity, or as an economic resource which, according to some, is part of and stirred by processes of commodification and touristification. Through examining the representational practices at five Cold War sites in Britain which are opened as tourist attractions this paper, based on a previous doctoral research, aims to identify the order of discourses that surround Cold War heritage, including who engages in the dialogue of what should remain of the Cold War for tourism uses and human engagement.

4.50-6.30pm, Session 4 – ruination and afteruse

Peripheral artefacts: drawing [out] the Cold War – Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art)

The systems of fortified bunkers built during the twentieth century have become, especially since the end of the Cold War, objects of troubled fascination for artists and their relationships to the landscape, to geo-politics and to the speed of modern warfare have been well delineated. This paper will describe other, largely unconsidered, aspects of these sites and the drawings made during my practice-based doctoral research: ‘Drawing, Place and the Contemporary Sublime’, which uses as its basis the network of Royal Observer Corps observation bunkers built across the UK in response to the nuclear threat. The paper will describe the agency of the drawn line, as an active, dynamic and responsive element and a ‘primary means of symbolic communication’ (Downs, 2007, xi). This status, the paper will argue, offers the possibility that the fleeting and uncanny visions carried in our peripheral vision, largely repressed by the perceptual system, can be uncovered through the agency of drawing and that these can begin to describe the residues of traumatic memory remaining in the concrete crucible of the bunker. The paper will outline the fieldwork carried out in the bunkers, the innovative drawing techniques utilised and its implications for theories of place, the sublime and perception. It will conclude that the communication that drawing can make, through the tracing of gesture and its echoes that lie far back in the psyche, has the potential to uncover cultural anxieties that remain in the collective unconscious from this most dangerous time in man’s history.

Processional engagement: Sebaldian pilgrimages to the Ness – Louise K. Wilson (Sound Artist)

The shingle spit of Orford Ness in Suffolk – known locally as ‘the island’ – is owned and run by the National Trust – charged with the difficult task of managing tourism while stewarding the fragile habitat on this nature reserve. This role primarily involves the fraught guardianship of a significant territory for 20th century history – espousing a policy of continued ruination for the structures that represent a 70 odd year history of military testing. The Trust’s webpage on the Ness additionally cites one aspect of their work as “enriching with art”: it is approached by and actively approaches artists to be resident and to respond to this unique landscape. This presentation will critically reflect on the place of novelty in these numerous and successive responses. This presentation will examine the different and repetitive methodologies (and cultural references) employed by artists gathering and processing visual/ auditory material there. Of particular interest when considering questions of (artistic) access and (architectural) legibility, are influential texts by Paul Virilio and the late W G Sebald whose works are recurrently cited by artists, archaeologists and writers. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (1995) it is argued offers a seemingly mandatory lens through which to ‘see’ the Ness now. This notion will be contextualized in a wider framework, addressing the tension between difference and repetition that arises in artists’ engagements with fraught and ‘difficult’ historical sites.

Preserving and managing York Cold War bunker: authenticity, curation and the visitor experience – Rachael Bowers (English Heritage) & Kevin Booth (English Heritage)

An exploration of the curation and management of York Cold War Bunker, this paper details the transformation of an abandoned Cold War structure into a heritage attraction and its ongoing management. The relative perfection of the building in comparison with other Cold War monuments is shown to have informed the presentation of artefacts and the museum’s collections policy, creating an authentic representation of the experiences of the Royal Observer Corps personnel who served here between 1961 and 1991. The difficulties encountered in presenting the building are discussed, illuminating why English Heritage chose to protect and manage the bunker in its present form. Initial suggestions for how best to use, interpret and manage the building are also examined. The physical restrictions of the bunker with regards to space and safety (of both collections and visitors) have also dictated the form of interpretation offered, leading to the development of high quality but labour intensive personalised interpretation. York Cold War Bunker’s success as a heritage attraction is then measured in relation to the achievement of its original aims, the authenticity of experience and the effectiveness of the interpretation offered. Central to the examination of its success are the reactions and responses of visitors to York Cold War Bunker, and the continuing development of the site as a heritage attraction. This analysis leads to a discussion of ways in which York Cold War Bunker can continue to develop.

The conversion of resilience: on turning bunkers to new uses – Arno Geesink (Kraft Architectuur, The Netherlands)

Many bunkers still linger around in the landscape not because they were conserved, but because they are built to withstand extreme external forces. This resilience – the core of their being – is the primary reason why people try to put them to new use, as destruction is not an affordable option. All these constructions were built for an extremely specific military purpose and in a different time or setting, new users are faced with the problem of the specific functional layout combined with the extreme inflexibility of the material. Most of the times these structure don’t have any connection with the existing urban fabric; they adhere to a completely different reality of war maps, lines, sectors and schemes. After this reality is gone, the bunker is left as an erratic in the landscape, disposed of its reason to exist. The raw essence of its origination is still readily available. When one walks through it one can feel the confinement, the claustrophobic spaces, its small openings and its immense walls.  The readability of the rigid functionality of its design and the frequent beauty of their strategic locations make bunkers grateful objects for conversion. As Arnhem has been a strategic garrison town for ages, its landscape is riddled with remains from medieval times till the end of the Cold War, combined with its beautiful natural surroundings, which makes it fertile ground for bunker conversion projects. As an architect I use the intriguing robust remains of conflict heritage and its stories and connotations as the basis for new architectural proposals. By giving these objects a new purpose, giving them a new life, conservation becomes part of their exploitation, instead of just a matter of conservation expenses.




Photo credit: York Regional Seat of Government Bunker, http://davstott.me.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/bunker.jpg



19 bunkerologists set to talk about Cold War Bunkers at RGS 2014


“Military bunkers are…a key component of our urban condition, if not always consciously acknowledged as such…sensitivity to military bunkers can offer an essential anchor in material culture…” John Armitage quoted in Schofield (2009: 1)

I’m delighted to announce that the proposed Cold War Bunkers: Exceptionalism, Affect, Materiality and Aftermath conference session will be going ahead at the 2014 Royal Geographical Society Conference, in London at the end of August.

Together with my co-convenors John Beck and Ian Klinke, I’ve today finalised the programme and there will be a total of 17 papers, spread across four consecutive panel sessions. That’s a full day of bunker talk, from 9am through to 6.30pm.

We’ve had to obtain special permission in advance from the RGS to have a four part session, but they were impressed by the diverse range of disciplines to be featured, the international draw of the event and how well it fits with the conference’s theme of ‘co-production’.

Our session summary describes the day’s aim as follows:

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. This session will investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history, fine art and archaeology to name a few) – thus forming its own cross disciplinary co-production, a multi-modal interrogation of the bunker. The day-long set of four panels will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Cold War bunkers are anomalous spaces – ‘heterotopias’ (Foucault  1967) and yet primal too, womb-like. Virilio (2009) has pointed out the atavistic and ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

The papers assembled for this day-long session will examine the origins and operational life of these places, their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), their material legacies and attempted repurposing.

We hope by mid April to know which day (27, 28 or 29 August) our session will run, and I will provide further details here as they emerge (including copies of the speakers’ abstracts). It will be possible for people to register to attend one day of the conference for around £165, please see the RGS 2014 website for more details:


But, for now, here’s a thematic summary of the event – looking briefly at who’s involved in each of the four stages of the session and what they will be focusing upon.

 (1): encountering the bunker

I will open this session by looking at why (some) people want to gaze at bunkers – and build on my previous work (e.g. The Bunker (2011), Bunkerology (2011), Who Goes There? (2013) and Concrete Multivalence (2013)) by looking further into the psychocultural effects of the exposure of the last Cold War generation to bunkers and anticipated apocalypse in the early 1980s era of the Cruise Missile. John Beck (Westminster University: Dirty Wars (2010), Concrete Ambivalence (2013)) will then look at the relationship between cinematic portrayal of bunkers during the Cold War and the bunker-like condition of the cinema theatre itself. This will then lead into sound artist Katherine Sandys examining the ‘myth of the Cold War bunker’ in terms of the bunker’s symbolic resonance and illustrate this by taking us through her installation work (and perhaps also mentioning her chilling audio conditioning work for the Churchill Museum in the heart of the Cabinet War Rooms bunker). Matthew Flintham (University of Newcaste: The Military Pastoral Complex (2012)) will then examine the bunker’s place within the ‘military sublime’ by means of his film treatment of the Torås Fort mountain-bunker complex in Norway.  This session will then end with Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge) taking us through her ‘Bunker Project’ (2005-08) which created performance pieces based upon exploring hidden war spaces of Cambridge, and the link from that project to her theatre company – Metis Arts’ – 3rd Ring Out production which co-opted members of the public into simulating climate change crisis command within adapted shipping containers.

 (2): the bunker as exceptional space

Silvia Berger Ziauddin of Columbia University / University of Zurich will open stage 2 with a glimpse of her forthcoming book length study of Swizerland’s bunker building programme, looking at how the ubiquity of the Swiss domestic bunker was assimilated into daily life. Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) will then, in contrast, explore the command bunker’s link to geo- and bio-politics, based upon his study of the West German government’s bunker at Marienthal – excavating this site as a ‘camp’, and looking at the parallels to its former incarnation as a concentration camp. Martin Dodge (University of Manchester: Eyeballing (2004)) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) will then examine the infrastructural bunker-work beneath Manchester – the ‘Guardian Telephone Exchange’ – situating their case study within a wider consideration of Cold War urbanism. Then Maria Alejandra Perez (West Virginia University) will examine the political and military purposing of natural cave complexes within Cuba during the Cold War – looking at the militarization of Cuban cave science and exploration.

(3): the bunker as post traumatic landscape

The papers in this stage will all consider the human/landscape relationship in the aftermath of the Cold War. Bob Clarke (Exeter University) will examine the ‘disenfranchisement’ of the Royal Observer Corps volunteers whose Cold War ‘taskscape’ (Ingold 2000) suddenly disappeared in 1991, leaving obscure material traces of a local-national network of fallout monitoring stations. Following on from this Steven Leech (University of Manchester) will report upon his oral history work with former Cold War radar engineers, looking at the potent links between identity and grass-roots heritage work. Gunnar Maus (University of Kiel) will then outline his ethnographic investigations of memory work and meaning making around the ruins of Cold War heritage in Germany, having accompanied geocachers, urban explorers and heritage enthusiasms in their physical engagement with these relic structures. Then attention will turn to the UK’s Cold War ‘museums’ as Inge Hermann (Saxion University, Netherlands) reports upon her study of the motives and meaning making of tourists visiting these sites.

(4): ruination and afteruse

In the final session attention will turn to the afterlife of Cold War bunkers. It will consider artistic engagements with Cold War bunkers in the widest sense: considering how their representation in contemporary art, and the resultant tropes influence conservation, repurposing or destruction strategies. First, Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth School of Art) will report upon his attempts to find new ways to interrogate bunkers, in his case through the medium of drawing. Stephen’s work will link back to the previous speakers’ attempts to portray the trauma of severance of Cold War workers (e.g. the ROC) from their once purposive landscape. Louise K. Wilson (University of Lincoln, Notes on A Record of Fear (2009)) will then survey the iconography of Orford Ness (ex) military testing range, and its hegemonic status in Cold War bunker art and literature showing how these tropes are engaged in a complex feedback loop with the landowner’s (The National Trust) vision for the nurturing of the decay of the former military structures left in this nature reserve as a sublime ‘ruinscape’. We will then hear from Rachael Bowers and Kevin Booth how English Heritage manages its ‘York Cold War Bunker’, gaining valuable insight into their curatorial decisions and dilemmas. Finally, Dutch architect Arno Geesink will outline his bunker conversion projects in Arnhem, showing how the brutal resilience of bunker structures resists their eradication. Theese structures, above all others, force us to adjust our will to their materiality.


Beck, J (2010) Dirty Wars – Landscape, Power and Waste in Western American literature, University of Nebraska Press

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

Bennett, L (2011). ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management’. Culture and Organization17, 155-173.

Bennett, L (2011). ‘Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space29, 421-434.

Bennett, L (2013). ‘Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers’. Gender, Place and Culture20, 630-646

Bennett, L(2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space31 (3), 502-521

Dodge, M. (2004) ‘Mapping secret places and sensitive sites: examining the Cryptome “eyeballing” map series’, Society of Cartographers Bulletin 37, 5-11

Foucault, M (1967) ‘Of Other Spaces’ in Leach, N. (1997) Rethinking Architecture – a reader in cultural theory, Routledge: Abingdon.

Flintham, m. (2012) ‘The Military-Pastoral Complex – contemporary representations of militarism in the landscape. Tate Occasional Papers No 17: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/military-pastoral-complex-contemporary-representations-militarism

Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment – essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill, Routledge: Abingdon.

McCamley, N. (2007) Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – the passive defence of the Western world during the Cold war, Pen & Sword: Barnsley.

Wilson, L.K. (2009) ‘Notes on A Record of Fear : on the threshold of the audible’ Leonardo Music Journal, 16, 28-33.

Schofield, J (2009) ‘Considering Virilio’s (1994) Bunker Archeology’ in Schofield’s Aftermath: Readings in the Archaeology of Recent Conflict, Springer: New York, pp. 1-13

Virilio, P. (2009) Bunker Archeology, Princeton Architectural Press: New York (Trans. George Collins).


Stephen Felmingham – Transition #3 – a drawing of the view from a ROC Post, influenced by the primitive ‘ground zero indicator’ (a pin hole camera device stored at these posts to indicate the direction and elevation of a nuclear blast): more here:


This post is New Uses for Old Bunkers #37

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


Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference,

London 26-29 August 2014


Proposed sessions on:


Cold War Bunkers:

exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath



Session Convenors:

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


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

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

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

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

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

Submissions might also address such matters as:

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

How to propose a contribution:

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

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

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

A fault on the line – carpets, cables and invisible things


“…the ordinary course of life demands nearly constant efforts to maintain or salvage situations that are falling into disarray by restoring them to order. In everyday life, people never completely suppress their anxieties, and, like scientists, ordinary people never stop suspecting, wondering, and submitting the world to tests.”

Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) On Justification, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p37.

His phone rings

as he’s standing by the sink. With attention abruptly turned from cleaning to talking – suds dripping as he reaches across the floor – he picks up the handset.


“I’m really sorry to bother you, but my phone’s stopped working and I don’t know what to do.”

“So how are you calling me then?” he feels compelled to ask, and then instantly regrets its surly impression.

“I’m on a mobile. My son gave it to me, but I barely know how to use it. My proper phone has gone dead.”

In the ensuing conversation the talk maps out the arrangement of this elderly lady’s hallway, the telephone ‘table’ under the stairs, the ‘old style’ composure of this device as a caller, a visitor from outside to be kept at bay, waiting uncertainly in the hallway, not invited properly into the depth of the home. To make phone calls she climbs into the space under the stairs, adjusts the register of her voice. And here is where she is most comfortable calling from, huddled in the cavity, hunched over a rickety G-Plan assembly, amidst a pile of long superseded telephone directories, and a frayed and heavily annotated contacts directory: the sedimented strata of evolved and lost acquaintance.

He suggests she checks the phone socket. Carpet fitters visited her hallway yesterday. Perhaps they tugged the cable loose.

“Take the cover off and look inside.”

From the silence at the other end it is clear that he might as well have said “fire up the warp drive and set course for the heart of the sun”.

Eventually she replies: “No, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.”

From the onward conversation it’s clear that she holds the telephone in some reverence, it’s a magical device that provides a service, but it is not hers to tinker with. The whole assembly is other. She owns a screw driver, a wooden handled one from the last century. It’s lain in a box for years, only ever used for opening cans of paint. It won’t get wielded here. She will call the telephone company instead. She hangs up.

The next day she calls again.

“I’m in a call box” she announces, with some distress. Apparently her mobile has now stopped working too. He asks a few questions to try and ascertain the symptoms of this fatality, but soon realises that this is not what she wants to talk about. Earlier that day she stood in that draughty call box for 40 minutes, eventually getting through to the phone company but getting little sense out of them. There was muzak, there was continual ringing, there was referral between different departments and eventually an undertaking to send out an engineer within the next five days.

He phones the company on her behalf to try and get things expedited. He too waits in an auditory limbo land, marvelling at just how crap the service is (and the irony that you need a phone to report a broken phone). Eventually there’s a connection. Yes, an engineer call is booked, no they can’t (or won’t) expedite for an elderly lady living on her own (unless she declared her ‘special needs’ at the time of signing up with them).

A couple of days later, she calls him again. This time from her home phone, now happily huddled back under the stairs. Her phone problem has been fixed. An engineer called yesterday. He pulled up the freshly laid carpet and carefully traced the phone cable from the socket towards its point of entry to the house.  Eventually he found it, the break in the connection:  the cable was cleanly and fully severed – cleaved by a carpet fitter’s Stanley Knife blade moving at speed and with force. The engineer held up the two ends, some shock on his face. This wasn’t a knick; this was a full cut through.

“Could they have chopped it without realising?” she asked the engineer – the forensic instinct suddenly to the fore in the hallway, all attention and thought focussed on the moment at which that cable switched from one length to two.

“Oh, they would have known” he replied with theatrical gravity.

Back in the call her spoken thoughts turn to minutiae of the fitters’ moment by moment afternoon residence in her house.  She recalls a moment – that seemed odd at the time, but which only now tumbled back to thought because of its emergent significance, when the fitters suddenly went outside to the van, but brought nothing back from that trip. She remembers the abruptness of their departure at the end of the job. In conversation with the engineer (who by then had ascended to a gallant ‘white knight’ in her narrative, contrasting with the opposing figuration of the fitters, now hunched, ruddy and vaguely Neanderthal in the imagery of the story) matters of fault and blame are mapped out. She returns to civilisation both through the restoration of her phone line and in the validation of her anger, vulnerability and sense of having been assailed. No, she didn’t imagine it. This event was real and her feeling of distress and inconvenience proportionate. She felt that she had returned to the world.

Hunting invisible things

In the above event, we find – if we choose to look – an entanglement of the personhood, matter and abstract notions of service. Whilst we do need to pay more attention to (physical) things themselves, we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. To talk of a telephone ceasing to work is as much as social situation as it is a technical one. Yes, the existence of the telephone system (and our dependency upon it) is revealed in the moment of its failure, but exploring the thing that is revealed requires more than tracing the cable to the point of its severance. Many things flow from that cut, and many of them are invisible.

As a lawyer my gut response to that telephone call would be a flurry of sentences floating into mind, hovering before my eyes like subtitles to the event and situation beyond. I’d see section 13 of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982:

“In a contract for the supply of a service where the supplier is acting in the course of a business, there is an implied term that the supplier will carry out the service with reasonable care and skill.”

I’d see paperwork, a pathway to effective arguments – all so many words marshalled as ammunition for a campaign against the carpet fitter. But, that’s me. She didn’t read the situation that way. Perhaps at some vague level she realises that she has some form of contractual connection (and attendant rights) in her relationship with the carpet fitters – but if she does this element is far from mind. Her reaction is more instinctive and driven by an embedded sense of what is right and wrong, what is appropriate and not appropriate and what order and disorder look and feel like. What restores the balance is the reconnection of the phone (an important part of her identity and sense of security) and the confirmation by others (the engineer, the carpet shop) that her dislocation caused by the event was significant to others, not just her.

In her reflection upon the event – in its becalming aftermath – she also sees paper. But she does not reach for the law-makers’ vellum, the call handler’s laminated flow chart or the crinkled job-sheet of the carpet fitter. No, she reaches for her Basildon Bond and her Parker Pen. Such situations – for her – call for a stiff letter, written on her luscious watermarked cream pad. This is her way of completing the stabilisation of the situation, to commit umbrage to paper; to send off a missive. This is what the situation calls for. She invests careful thought in her letter, these things must be said for their own sake. For her they are part of the resolution of this situation.

She directs her volley to: “To whom it may concern” and awaits its return service. But she is doomed to be disappointed. For neither the carpet fitter nor the telephone company are playing the same game as her. For them the situational framing and the modes of engagement are so different, an anonymous instance of generic processes. There will be no parley. This cable, this carpet, this space under the stairs – so much to some, so little to others.

Image source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/business/industries/retailing/article3886403.ece (NB: generic image, no aspersions intended on the fitter pictured or the carpet co featured in the source article)