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

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“As three-dimensional public objects [urban ruins] still serve useful purposes and act as concrete, tangible catalysts for storytelling.”

Mélanie van der Hoorn (2012) Indispensable Eyesores: An anthropology of undesired buildings. Berghahn Books: Oxford (p.8)

Nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere more so than in the crowded, densely developed space of central London. So where might we look to find underoccupied ruins in such a highly utilised terrain? The answer it seems is below our feet. I report here on recent trips into two of the city’s uncharacteristically empty spaces. By comparing these two seemingly very different sites I seek to draw out how they are both ultimately preoccupied with the question of how to fill these uncommon voids.

The cult of information meets the cult of the misty bull

In the heart of the City, in the bowels of the new corporate HQ for information giant Bloomberg, lie the remains of a small Roman temple. Built around AD 240, this temple was the site at which the all-male worshippers of the Mithras cult met to enact their rituals in celebration of their bull slaying god.

Abandoned in the 5th century with the retreat of Rome, the temple fell into ruin and sank beneath the surface of the city (in the standard way that archaeology does). Then along came post war clearance of the site (now a bomb-site from the Blitz), the ruins of the temple were uncovered, and thousands of people flocked to the excavation, trample its mud and to gaze (and stand) upon its stones and their silent-but-tactile revelation of a time very-long-ago. In the subsequent redevelopment of the site, the ruin was transplanted in 1962 to the top of a nearby car park where – over the years – it received a few visitors. But now, as a condition of the £1 Billion re-redevelopment of the site the ruin has been re-placed, back upon its original site and now sits as a tourist attraction in the bowels of the Bloomberg building.

Entry is free (via a booking system at https://www.londonmithraeum.com/), through a small, bright gallery space called Bloomberg Space, currently displaying the vibrant, citrus hewed art of Isabel Nolan. Here very friendly guides welcome the visitor, as they step into this exception space to the fare of plush eateries and swish offices dominating the surrounding streetscape.

“Is this the right place for the Roman ruins?” I ask. “Indeed it is”, comes the bright reply and an eager arm thrusts a rather expensive looking tablet in my direction. This, I’m told, will help me to interpret the array of excavated artefacts comprising a tall vertical display on one wall of the gallery. “We have over 14,000 artefacts in total, these are just a sample here – you can experience the rest using the tablet” says the attendant, urging me with every gesture to engage with its pleading screen. Here the whole set up yearns to emphasise both the abundance and its orderly mastery by Bloomberg’s blending of physical and virtual modes of encounter.

There is something very proficient and mission-affirming about this curation – it didn’t strike me as cynical and the guides genuinely seem very proud of their ruin attraction – but the manner of staging this encounter with the past screams out that Bloomberg are in the information business and that they can collate and relay anything, not just business performance data.

A black staircase then guides us below ground and into a chamber where Joanna Lumley and academic friends tell us (on rotation, every 15 minutes) what is known about the Cult of Mithras and its rituals. We sit in the gloom, instructed by images projected Plato-like onto the (cave) wall. A silhouette of a cloaked figure shimmers, by turns looking like a bull or a man. This references the Mithras ritual’s own simulation of the sacrifice of a bull (and whilst information is scarce about the rituals, we are confidently assured that space was simply too small to enable an actual bull killing here).

shadow

Suitably primed (and in turn acting out our own modern tourist ritual) we process into a dark room and are invited to spread out around the edge of this space in order to best “enjoy the experience”. Here we experience a soundtrack of Mithras worshippers assembling, a hubbub of voice chatting excitedly in Latin. We, the 21st century audience, stand at the periphery of the room and we can hear the 4th century denizens who have also assembled here for their ritual, but cannot see them. Then comes the sound of an ancient horn, which ushers in an attentive quiet (from both audiences) and then ritual chanting (from the 4th century participants). This interplay between the reaction of the two audiences is suitably atmospheric. Mist then starts to spray into the room and fine lines of lights shining down through the damp air mark out the walls of the temple, as the chanting continues.

mithraem

Then after a few moments of this strange empty-presence the house lights come on and we are invited to inspect the ruins. We are back in the 21st century and alone with our thoughts and interpretations. The end of the sound- and light-show leaves us within a room that has some runs of nondescript, and rather clean looking, stone – wall stumps – laid out upon the floor. Once the room is fully revealed there is actually very little to see here. The materiality of the stones themselves can’t match the vibrancy of the sound and light show. And the ruins occupy little of the volume of the space and this is why the walls written in mist and light are so effective. But their side effect is that, once they have gone, they emphasise that a ruin is always (at least in part) an absence of structure and matter. A ruin always has missing mass and lost surfaces, for it is void space in which a former building partly lingers.

The presentation of the London Mithraeum is both powerful and an anti-climax, because it is an attempt to reanimate a void; to temporarily fill it with action, structure and intimations of mass. The power comes from the active curation of the experience of this ruin-encounter, and inevitably (perhaps) this entails the active use of our own processes of myth-making and storytelling in order to animate this space. The sound and light show creates a sense of the Mithras ritual, but it also creates its own ritual performance of heritage-spectacle (and/or ruin-gazing).

There is no reason to suggest that this is the final staging of the London Mithraeum. Perhaps in the year 2500 there will be a London Bloomberg experience that creates a ritual in which our further evolved selves can have the titillating retro experience of an IT-enabled sound and light show activating the conjoined ghosts of a late-Capitalist corporate headquarters and/or a Roman heritage attraction and of the ruin-voids they have each left behind beneath the active surfaces of The Greater Anglia Conurbation.

The Minotaur’s lair and the infinite tunnels to nowhere

Artist Naomi Avsec talks me through the chain of events that led to her taking up a six month residency deep beneath Clapham, South London in an abandoned air raid complex of tunnels: “When I saw the advert, I just couldn’t resist. Studio space here in London is so cramped and expensive, and you end up with a bland, tiny room. Here was a chance to work in a strange, exciting and voluminous place quite different to the standard studio offering. In short, here was a wonderful opportunity-space”.

We met above ground in a local café and then took the rickety elevator down, over 100 feet into her lair. Here the tunnels went on and on, their emptiness punctuated only by the occasional variegation in the cement cast hemispherical panels: a hatch here, a sign there, and a light screed of dust everywhere.

At times Naomi strode off into the dark, announcing that when alone she likes to go for walks along her tunnels without any lights on, for they are almost straight and predictable enough for such drifting.

After wending our way along, up, across and down a few turns of tunnel (for our indulgence, safely guided by torchlight) we reached Naomi’s studio, an arbitrarily selected station point. Her territory was marked out by a desk, piles of material and laid-out work-in-progress. And yet the tunnel still seemed so empty. “That’s the real challenge here” Naomi told me, “how to make a mark upon this emptiness. I find things in my forays to the surface and drag it back down here. Up there these items feel big, and I struggle to drag them and cram them into the lift. But as soon as I get them here they shrink to insignificance. I’m approaching half-way through my residency now and I’m still trying to work out how I can make my area feel populated”.

big tunnel

Built as one of London’s deep shelters in the aftermath of the Blitz, these tunnels saw little use in the war. Back in those days the now-empty space of this labyrinth would have been full, floor to ceiling – with bunk beds, and in design intention at least would have been full of bodies, the anxious flesh of huddled families.

Naomi’s creative work here is bringing some bodies into the tunnels, but not in the sense portrayed by Henry Moore in his sketches of slumbering human figures in London’s air raid shelters during the war. Naomi works across a number of media and styles. Collage is to the fore in her creative practice at the moment, summoning strange/uncanny inhabitants into the tunnel.

creatures

Perhaps due to the absence of an anthropomorphic stimulus in the solitude of this place, Naomi’s work seems instead to be tending towards the more atavistic. She has also assembled a variety of surreal three dimensional sculptures made with those found materials that she has laboriously dragged back into her lair, like an ant with its payload waving precariously in the breeze, its bounty far larger than its body.

Maybe it’s inevitable that time spent alone in stygian gloom summons thoughts and impressions of shadow creatures that have been glimpsed in the underworld across the generations. There is a dreamy, playful tone to the uncanny beings that Naomi has summoned into being.

“I get carried away down here. There are no distractions and that’s such a luxury. This really is such a great opportunity. Some days, after a while, I eventually notice the cold creeping up from the concrete through my feet. When that strikes I go back to the surface and nip into the local supermarket, both to use the loo and to top up on sunlight and a sense of connection with the surface-world. I also take Vitamin D as a precaution against the lack of exposure to daylight. But it’s still a thrilling and really stimulating experience.”

Naomi’s opportunity to be here comes courtesy of a residency programme called GROUNDED offered by Battersea Art Centre and Growing Underground (http://growing-underground.com/), the owners of this subterranean complex who are steadily expanding their own operations into the presently unoccupied portions of the labyrinth. Growing Underground grow fresh micro-greens and salad leaves in a bright, white, pest-free, highly controlled environment using the latest hydroponic systems and LED lighting. At the moment their operation inhabits some, but not all of the tunnels. Naomi’s is one of three current artist residencies within the as-yet-to-be converted tunnels. Human access into the growing areas is strictly controlled and my visit was only to the currently spare tunnels. Growing Underground’s ongoing expansion of production will see more of the empty tunnels transformed into vibrant, ultra-clean growing spaces, though the insertion of sealed units into the tunnel – creating tunnels within the tunnels and a lingering voidspace between the doubled ceilings, sides and floors. Naomi therefore is free to leave her mark upon her tunnel-space’s cast concrete walls if she wishes, but if she does so then the chance is that few if any will ever see her creations. “That creates a strange challenge. It’s almost like being invited to create some invisible art; something that only the artist knows about.” Perhaps the early cave painters felt this way and/or that they saw the audience for their art as not of-this-earth. Again, we return to the atavisitic elements that seem recurrent in the work inspired by Naomi’s lone dwelling in these man-made caves, the drift towards her production of sigils, invoking or inviting a communication with inner and outer demons as she wrestles with the abundance of this empty, blank, worm-like subterranean space.

minotaur

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

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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…

2017

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

1979

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

“Royal Observer Post

7/P2

Wasnott”

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

1933

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

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

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

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

1942

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

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

1946

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

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

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

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

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

1954

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

1956

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

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

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

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

1960

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

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

1962

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

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

1980

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

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

1992

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

1999

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

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

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

2007

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

2013

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

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

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

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

 

Dread, Utopia and Survival in Subterranea: Bradley Garrett & Ian Klinke’s bunker CFP for AAG 2018, New Orleans

“Mrs Miggins crackling tasted good”. That’s what I heard them say. I was only about four years of age. The adults had gathered at my father’s house at his request one evening. The door was closed. But that’s what I heard them say as I played in the lounge listening out across the hallway.

The group of earnest adults were members of my father’s amateur dramatics society. They had gathered to rehearse his short play. It was set in a near future, post-apocalyptic world. In keeping with the multiple sources of early 1970s anxiety, the actual nature of the disaster (and whether natural or man-made) was left unrevealled. All that was clear in the play was that this motley group of characters were huddled, in an underground shelter, trying to work out where their next meal would come from. All of their non-human food had been exhausted. Cannibalism was the only option left. Aged four I somehow picked up on the dark double-meaning. This pun was chilling indeed. The sentence concerned the delicacy that was Mrs Miggins’ own cooked flesh.

Maybe this was the moment that sowed the seed of my interest in making sense of bunkers, survival architecture and the darkness that they exude. It certainly left an impression. I remember little else of my fourth year.

Bradley Garrett and Ian Klinke have recently issued a Call For Papers for a bunker/shelter/survival themed session at the Association of American Geographers’ conference in New Orleans next April. I’m not sure whether I’m going to be able to attend, but the session will – I’m sure – be very interesting.

By bringing to the surface the themes of survival, shelter and dread Garrett and Klinke are helpfully reminding us that bunkers are not just deactivated oblique ruins ripe for a funky make-over or reappropriation. They are primal, dark existential places, a fusing of womb/tomb and of all of the contradictions that flow from that. Taking shelter, making shelter and needing shelter is a fundamental in human life and in the face of nuclear or ‘conventional’ assault that urge to shelter becomes a trigger for frantic improvisation and life/death decision-taking. Their CFP reminds us that shelter comes in many forms (not just the monolith’s of Virilio’s Atlantic Wall). History shows that spaces of withdrawal and exception are formed, stocked and barricaded as society fractures – and whether as the underground citadels of dictators, billionaires, preppers or citizens caught up in the next warzone.

Perhaps the next horizon for bunker studies is better understanding sheltering and shelter-making, and of the politico-affective experience of taking shelter (or of being commanded to do so by a state that can no longer quite manage to assure the safety of its citizens). It will certainly be interesting to see what Garrett and Klinke’s session comes up with.

Call for Papers
Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers,
New Orleans, 10th-14th April 2018.
Dread, Utopia and Survival in Subterranea
Bradley Garrett (University of Sydney)
Ian Klinke (University of Oxford)

In recent years, a wave of work has explored volumetric geopolitics (Weizman, 2007; Elden, 2013; Graham, 2016) and social geographers have argued that ‘the experiences, practices and textures of vertical life’ (Harris, 2014, 608) need to be explored in greater detail. At the confluence of these prompts, the bunker has re-emerged as a site of fascination.
Long discarded as uninteresting, the subterranean ‘survival machine’ (Virilio 1994: 39) has more recently been investigated as a site of psychological preparedness for annihilation (Masco, 2009), an ambivalent space and a waste of modernity (Beck, 2011), a space of exceptionality and biopolitics (Klinke, 2015), of ruination and meaning-making
(Bennett, 2017, Garrett 2013) and of deterritorialisation and domestication (Berger-Ziuaddin, 2017). In short, the bunker, long thought of as an anticipatory and dystopian architectural byproduct of aerial war, has been rendered a more nuanced and varied architectural form.
As WWII shelters and Cold War bunkers are increasingly turned into underground farms, secure file storage facilities and heritage sites, and as governments continue to dig deeper boltholes and private luxury bunkers are being pitched as places to ‘escape’ globalisation, connectivity and even those same governments, can we find in architectural form of the bunker a shared philosophy of excavation that exceeds the ideological divides between Fascist dictators, Communist apparatchiks, business tycoons and the leaders of liberal democracies? What does ‘survival’ even mean today, given
current political and environmental circumstances? Could bunkers harbour hope for ‘conservation practices’ beyond the human? This session thus will bring together papers that address one or more aspects of a growing contemporary concern with the social and geopolitical underground. We seek to attract critically-minded work from a range of
theoretical and disciplinary backgrounds to explore issues such as:
• The relationship between geology, politics and human survival
• Subterranea as a cultural, (bio)political or existential space
• The materiality of the underground
• The (actual or speculative) phenomenology of self-confinement
• The socio-political significance of contemporary bunker construction (e.g. iceberg houses, prepping, panic
rooms)
• Bunkers as representational spaces (in computer games, films etc.)
• Philosophies of fear, dread, utopia and survival motivating excavation and burrowing
• The relationship between the horizontal, the vertical and the oblique
• Temporalities of underground survival and evacuation

Please send an abstract of no more than 250 words by 13th October to:
Ian Klinke – ian.klinke@ouce.ox.ac.uk
Bradley Garrett – bradley.garrett@sydney.edu.au
__________________________________________________________________________________
Beck, J. (2011) ‘Concrete ambivalence: Inside the bunker complex’ Cultural Politics, 7, 79-102.
Bennett, L. (2017) The ruins of the Cold War bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (London: Rowman and Littlefield International).
Berger Ziauddin, S. (2017) ‘(De)territorializing the home. The nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage’ Environment and Planning D, 35, 674-693.
Elden, S. (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34, 35-51.
Garrett, B. (2013) Explore everything: Place-hacking the city (London: Verso).
Graham, S. (2016) Vertical: The city from satellites to bunkers (London: Verso).
Harris A. (2014) ‘Vertical urbanisms: Opening up geographies of the three-dimensional city’ Progress in Human Geography 39 601-620.
Klinke, I. (2015) ‘The bunker and the camp: inside West Germany’s nuclear tomb’, Environment and Planning D, 33, 1, 154-168.
Masco, J. (2009) ‘Life underground. Building the bunker society’ Anthropology Now 1(2): 13-29.
Virilio, P. (1994) ‘Bunker Archeology’ (New York: Princeton Architectural Press).
Weizman, E. (2007) Hollow land: Israel’s architecture of occupation (London: Verso).

Image credit:

https://www.popsci.com/sites/popsci.com/files/styles/1000_1x_/public/import/2013/images/2013/02/1960_0.jpg?itok=rH3p36Sm

 

 

Bored to death? Here’s how to attend one (or both) of the book launch events for ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker’ on 1st and 7th September 2017.

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The next couple of weeks sees a flurry of promotional activity for my bunker book, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker.

THE LONDON LAUNCH: 1 September 2017

Next Thursday (1 September 2017) is the ‘bunkerfest’ at the RGS, with three sessions in Skempton Building, Room 307:

11.10-12.50 The Future of the Bunker (1): new uses and meanings for the 20th century’s abandoned bunkers

14.40-16.20 The Future of the Bunker (2) : materialising contemporary anxieties and desires in 21st century bunker building

16.50-18.30 The Future of the Bunker (3): In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: John Beck in conversation with Luke Bennett, Kathrine Sandys and Kevin Booth.

Full abstracts for the sessions and their contributors are available on the RGS conference website, http://www.rgs.org (and in earlier blogs on this site).

THE SHEFFIELD & YORK LAUNCH: 7 September 2017

There are just a few free places left on the ‘guest-list’ for this afternoon seminar, early evening bunker tour and book launch. If interested please email me at:  l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk asap.

The event starts and ends in Sheffield (close to the railway station), and comprises:

1.30 – 3.15pm Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus: Cantor Building, Room 9130.

ASLE / LAND2 Conference Session – “To The Bunker: Three Views Of Cold War Landscapes”

A public session chaired by Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University

Writing at the end of the 1970s, amidst resurgent US/Soviet nuclear brinksmanship, Thatcher’s reassertion of the authoritarian ‘Nuclear State’ (Jungk 1979) and the rebirth of the anti-nuclear movement across Europe, investigative journalist Peter Laurie declared that “the paranoia of power can be read in the concrete of the bunkers, the radio towers, the food stores and the dispersed centres of government” and concluded that this materialisation of both power and paranoia was now “written on the face of England” (1979: 9). This paranoia, and its sculpting of both discursive networks and concrete structures across the landscape has in recent years become a productive point of focus for artists and writers who have been seeking to examine the traumatic power of that era, and specifically to explore the links between the unsettling of minds and of the nuclear state’s colonisation of otherwise bucolic landscapes, by what landscape historian W.G. Hoskins, writing in 1954, had called “the obscene shape of the atom-bomber, laying a trail like a filthy slug upon Constable’s and Gainsborough’s sky [and on the ground an equally contaminating] “high barbed wire around some unmentionable devilment” (1985: 299). This cross-disciplinary field has also increasingly seen attempts made to trace and understand the lingering, after-effects of these Cold War framings through into the early 21st century and to investigate the motivations behind the current revalorisation of the now-abandoned brutal ruins of the cold war. This session will seek to show case three artists work in this field, alongside launching a collection of essays to which they and others have contributed that examines this psychic and material legacy of the cold war’s bunkers.

Three views of Cold War landscapes will comprise a showing of work by the following artists, with short accompanying presentations and Q&A opportunity:

  • Louise K. Wilson (University of Leeds) The Eerie and the Banal: This sonic exploration reflects on artists’ and writers’ troubled fascination with Cold War bunkers. A strange interplay of fact and fiction frames this reflection into these anomalous and primal spaces. The role of the ‘eerie’ (explored in the writings of Robert Macfarlane and the late Mark Fisher) is invoked in a new sound work that melds memories of places visited, imagined and composited.
  • Matthew Flintham (Kingston University) Torås Fort: A Speculative Study of War Architecture in the Landscape. Matthew will show his short film which in image and narration uses the techniques of speculative fiction to unsettle an account of a geologist’s compulsive analysis of the materialities of the remains of a Norwegian coastal battery, fusing the styles of the natural sciences and horror writing to do so. Flintham’s account reflects the ‘weird realism’ stylistics and concerns of contemporary writers (like De Landa 1997; Negarestani 2008; Bogost 2012; and Harman 2012) who each ascribe ominous, ‘hidden in plain sight’ posthuman mystery to seemingly dumb brute banal geological objects.
  • Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art) Peripheral Artefacts: Drawing [out] the Cold War, Stephen will show and discuss his use of experimental drawing techniques to access the ‘hidden in plain sight’ uncanny qualities of now abandoned ROC Posts. In doing so he will show how his bunker-entering reconnaissance accessed his sublimated childhood trauma of growing up in East Anglia in the 1980s amidst USAF and RAF nuclear bases, pointing to the potency of material and spatial triggers to memory and feeling.

Plus a presentation by me to launch the book:

  • Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University) What do we want from our Bunkers? Ruins, Reinvention, Anxiety and Power. This presentation will explore 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 by the contributors to In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker.

At 3.15pm we will then depart by coach to attend a private viewing of English Heritage’s York Cold War Bunker plus a panel event there in which Ian Klinke (Political Geographer, University of Oxford) will interrogate a panel of contributors to the edited collection, In The Ruins of The Cold War Bunker. Due to space constraints within the bunker there will be two sittings of the panel session (alternating with the bunker tour). The panel will comprise:

  • Louise K. Wilson / Stephen Felmingham (Artists) (alternating between presenter and chair)
  • Luke Bennett (editor of In the Ruins)
  • Arno Geesink (Architect)
  • Kevin Booth (Senior curator, English Heritage)

The coach will then leave York bunker around 7.15pm, returning us to central Sheffield by 8.30pm (approx.)

Preview and discount code for my ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker’ edited collection which is being published on 30/6/17.

In the Ruins - final cover

Provocative and informative yet personal and thoughtful, this diverse collection of essays offers a much needed exploration of that defining cultural space of the 20th century – the bunker. Bennett and his collaborators approach the ruins of the Cold War not just as historical curiosities but as the starting point for a myriad of transdisciplinary journeys and adventures.”

Ian Klinke, Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford and the author of the forthcoming monograph Cryptic Concrete: A subterranean journey to Cold War Germany.

I’m pleased to present below a copy of the publisher’s flyer for my book, and delighted at the reviews featured there (and above).

I’m told the book (hardback and ebook formats) will be available to buy from 30 June 2017, and using the code below on the publisher’s website you’ll be able to get 30% off either format. Please note that all author and editorial royalties are being donated to www.msf.org.uk (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

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

https://www.rowmaninternational.com/book/in_the_ruins_of_the_cold_war_bunker/3-156-afdcfe7a-b585-4303-82a2-23ee9b64e05d#

and here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ruins-Cold-War-Bunker-Materiality-ebook/dp/B072SSPTXS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498233592&sr=8-1&keywords=ruins+of+the+cold+war+bunker

Further details of launch events will follow soon.

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-001

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-002

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

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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:

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Programme/Programme.htm

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

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Registration/Register+to+attend.htm

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: http://www.dariolasagni.com/index.php?id=7http://www.fondazione-vaf.it/premio/compendio/premio-artistico-2014/partecipanti/margherita-moscardini/

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

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

https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2017/05/21/programme-now-announced-for-1st-sept-2017-bunker-fest-at-the-rgs-ibg-london-conference/

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

https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/the-future-of-the-bunker-the-bunker-of-the-future-call-for-papers-royal-geographical-association-annual-conference-london-29-august-1-september-2017/

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

Proposal summary

The last two decades have seen increasing public interest in, and engagements with, the abandoned remains of Second World War and Cold War era military and civil defence bunkers. Academics have been busy analysing the motives and forms of this engagement (Bennett 2011; Maus 2017) and also charting the origins and affective-material impacts of those 20th century waves of bunker-building mania (Bartolini 2015; Klinke 2015; Berger Ziauddin 2016). Such engagements and studies have tended to figure the bunker as a now-deactivated form – as a form of contemporary ruin – and as a phenomenon of the (albeit recent) past. This set of sessions seeks to supplement this scholarship by examining the bunkers’ futurity: through considering the bunker as an immanent contemporary and still-yet-to-come form of place. This concern to examine the bunkers’ futurity will be examined in two different, but complementary, ways: first by exploring the ways in which the 20th century’s bunkers are being reinterpreted and/or repurposed for the 21st century and secondly, by analysing what contemporary bunker-building looks like, and here exploring the anxieties and desires that drive it. As John Armitage (2015) has recently argued, Paul Virilio (1994) did not see bunkers as having a singular, fixed meaning or purpose and he instead saw early signs of their semantic evolution and repurposing. The assembled presentations will each consider this evolution, but will also acknowledge that the cultural foregrounding of denatured, “funky bunkers” (Strömberg 2013) is problematic both as regards how it presents (or erases) the bunker-form’s dark history or its ongoing contemporary replication. This unease will be debated in the final session, in which contributors to the recent edited collection In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making (Rowman & Littlefield International, Luke Bennett ed. 2017) will be interrogated by John Beck.

Session overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Picture credit: WWII bunker at Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey USA from: http://www.futurenostalgia.org/index.php?showimage=218, some details here: http://www.artificialowl.net/2008/10/abandoned-cape-may-giant-concrete-ww2.html