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.



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
• 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).

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

In the Ruins - final cover

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

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

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

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

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


and here:


Further details of launch events will follow soon.

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

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

‘Cold War Ruralism’ – my new article for the Journal of Planning History is now out

Path of fallout (complete)

My new article, ‘Cold War Ruralism: civil defense planning, country ways and the founding of the UK’s Royal Observer Corps’ fallout monitoring posts network’, has been advance-published online today. It will eventually feature in a ‘Cold War Urbanism’ themed special issue of the Journal of Planning History, guest edited by Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture, MMU).

The journal’s main audience is North American (hence the spelling ‘defense’ above) and the special issue’s theme keys into a vein of primarily US scholarship examining the influence of the Cold War upon the urbanism of the 1950s and early 1960s. Thus Jennifer S. Light (2005) shows in her US based study, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, University of British Columbia Press) that:

“during the 1940s and 1950s…civil defense initiatives offered important social settings for several groups – defense experts, atomic scientists, urban planners, and city managers – to come together in conversation about topics from highway planning to shelter design to future city form”

The aim of my article is to explore why the UK (despite having a strongly interventionist, command economy pedigree in the aftermath of the Second World War) did not display the same melding of Cold War military-industrial imperatives and urbanist physical manipulation of the post War built environment.

Having summarised the US scholarship and the arc of post-war UK urbanism, the article shows how war planners in the UK increasingly struggled from the early 1950s to even conceptualise (let alone implement) a shelter policy and how a combination of the rise of the H-bomb and end-of-Empire crises saw the withering of UK civil defence policy and its attendant impact upon the built environment.

The article then develops this analysis through a case study of an actual Cold War inspired building project – that of over 1,500 small underground Royal Observer Corps nuclear blast and fallout monitoring posts spread across the length and breadth of the UK between 1956 and 1965. In doing so, the case study develops an argument that studies of Cold War urbanism have tended to be too fixated upon urban centres – and that the impact of the Cold War can (and should) be traced into the countryside, and that aspects of a Cold War urbanism can be observed there, but that it can be shown to be mediated and modified somewhat by the isolation and ways of being and doing prevalent in the countryside (thus producing a variant, ‘Cold War Ruralism’).

In addition to the ROC Post case study, the article also briefly considers the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food’s 1958 publication Home Defence and the Farmer, and an echo of the article’s overarching argument can be illustrated by the following quote from the its discussion of that MAFF publication:

“In 1958, after working upon it in secret for three years, and with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet wavering during that period over what and when to release information to the public about fallout and what could be done about it in terms of civil defence, the UK Government finally published, ‘Home Defence and the Farmer’, guidance to British farmers on the threats of fallout. The publication publicly acknowledging that the peril of H-bombs extended far beyond the range of their explosive effects and also (even more tellingly) admitted that (even after those three years of rumination) “knowledge about the effect of fall-out in farms is still incomplete”. Couched in the clipped, officious language of the time this admission featured an implicit assurance to the reader that a technocratic solution to this new problem would be found soon. But this reassurance was hollow, amidst the planners’ growing pessimism about their ability to offer salvation. Tellingly, the remainder of the document then instructs the lone farmer on how best to try to protect himself, his crops and livestock by his own efforts – as reflecting civil defence’s post Strath lurch to a “self-help” posture, at least as regards civilian protection.

protection - from HDATF 1958

Notably a paragraph in the farmers’ finalised guidance strove to encourage peacetime configuration of new farm buildings to incorporate principles that would also assist in the event of nuclear war, thus:

“Even the layout of buildings, yards and roads would help, not only in peace time but in fall-out conditions in war time. A good layout would help the farmer and his men to reduce the time spent out of doors and so minimise the dose of radiation they might receive. So efficient farming is not only in the national interest and the farmers’ interest in peace time, but it is a way [also] of preparing for safer farming if another war should occur.”

shed - from HDATF 1958

Here we see the civil defence planners acknowledging that the countryside has its built environments too, and that to be persuasive planning for civil defence needs to be linked (somehow) to the exigencies and logics of peace time operations (because the contingencies of war alone are insufficient incentive to change). This urging for spatial efficiency in the development and use of farm buildings also smacks of urbanism’s quest for improvement of urban environments through purposive designs. It is a sign of cold war urbanism’s penetration into the countryside.

Strath implicity, and ‘Home Defence and the Farmer’ explicitly, signalled that nuclear warfare could no longer be conceptualised in an urban-centric manner. The threat posed by thermonuclear war was not just that of urban destruction, it was now nation-wide, and that this included the countryside that lies between urban centres. In the light of such pronouncements it was clear that planning to address the effects of nuclear war was not solely a matter of urban defence, and there would be a need to develop a system of warning and monitoring that could address this meteorological, dynamic, whole-country situation posed by fallout. Set against this backdrop any neat binary equating “urban” with target and “rural” as safe fell away. Rigid separation of town and country has always been simplistic, but fallout sharply emphasised this. Even before the rise of the H-bomb portions of the countryside were co-opted into the service of urban areas, or targets in their own right, for example as bomber bases. These alone summoned the prospect of 70 nuclear strikes upon the countryside, for in the 1950s the UK Government’s publicised policy was to disperse nuclear bombers to over 70 airfields around the country in time of crisis.”

My article is available here (subscription required):  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1538513217707083

Alternatively, a slightly earlier pre-publication draft version is available on open-access here: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/15465/

Image Credits: All from Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food / Central Office of Information, Home Defence and the Farmer (London: HMSO, 1958), reproduced at http://www.atomica.co.uk/farming/main.htm.

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


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

A copy of the full conference programme is downloadable here:


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


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

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

Rethinking the Atlantic Wall: art, death and minerology

Xenia Vytuleva, Columbia University, USA (architectural historian)

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

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

Michael Mulvihill, University of Newcastle, UK (artist)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University, UK (geographer)

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

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

Tom Bishop, University of Sheffield, UK (historian)

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

Bunker play: Possibility space and survival in the Fallout series

Emma Fraser, University of Manchester, UK (sociologist)

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

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

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

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

Subterranean sanctuaries? secret underground spaces today.

Theo Kindynis, University of Roehampton, UK (criminologist)

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

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

In a day-long series of sessions at the 2014 RGS conference scholars from around the world met to debate the contemporary significance of the remains of the Cold War’s bunkers. Subsequently many of participants have contributed chapters to a collection edited by Luke Bennett, In the Ruins of the Cold War: Materiality, Affect and Meaning Making published by Rowman & Littlefield International in June 2017. This final session brings together Bennett and John Beck, one of his co-convenors from the 2014 RGS sessions, to discuss the approach taken by the book in examining contemporary engagements with these 20th century ruins. Bennett will be joined by two other contributors to the book, Kathrine Sandys (a scenographer) and Kevin Booth (curator of English Heritage’s York Nuclear Bunker). Writing in 2011 Beck declared that the bunker was incapable of cultural recuperation, and that to attempt to do so might put us in thrall to the bunker and cause us lose sight of its dark exceptionality. Beck also argued that bunkers engender an ambivalence which makes it very difficult to ascribe any stable meaning to them. Like the 2014 sessions, the book is an attempt to explore Bennett’s differing interpretation that it is the bunker’s ability to foster multiple parallel, but internally coherent, forms of representation (i.e. multivalence) rather than its ambivalence that calls to be investigated. Accordingly the book explores the myriad ways, practices and logics by which these concrete structures are engaged by a wide spectrum of academics and others and given stable-seeming meanings. This ‘in conference with’ session will enable Beck to engage directly with Bennett about the book’s approach, and to debate with its authors whether the book avoids being in thrall to the bunker: and whether through its focus on multivalence (Bennett), artistic appropriation (Sandys) or heritage curation (Booth). This session will be chaired by Nadia Bartolini, a cultural geographer with a particular research interest in contemporary ruins who, in particular, has written of the necessity of blending an attentiveness to materiality, affect and meaning making in the interpretation of contemporary re-engagements with fascist bunkers in Italy (Bartolini 2015). Running this discussion as a session in its own right will give an opportunity for in-depth debate, both between the panel members and with encouraged audience participation.

Image credit: Dario Lasagni photograph of Margherita Moscardini’s 1xUnknown (2012) at Museo d’ Arte Contemoranea Roma: http://www.dariolasagni.com/index.php?id=7http://www.fondazione-vaf.it/premio/compendio/premio-artistico-2014/partecipanti/margherita-moscardini/

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is New Uses for Old Bunkers #40.

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


Whilst working on the editorial for In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (Rowman & Littlefield Int, to be published August 2017) I’ve been increasingly thinking about the bunkers’ post-Cold War reverberations. The following is an extract which may or may not end up in the book…

Stuart Elden (2013), has written recently of the need to conceive of the ‘volumetric’ dimensions of political spaces: of the physical “depth of power”. The 20th century increasingly saw military and civil governance moving underground to escape the risk of actual or anticipated aerial attack. During the  Cold War bunkers were a contingency – ready in waiting but rarely used. But the end of the Cold War did not see the end of the Cold War bunker, and indeed the designs perfected in that superpower standoff, came to be the active conflict bolt-hole of client states and once-sponsored insurgents. Thus in the sense of actual use, the Cold War bunker came into its own after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If we look closely at post 1991 conflict zones the bunker is alive and kicking, providing an actual (and/or imagined) locus of sinister political power, fortified hideouts that resist the hegemonic West. In turn, the persistence of these resistant places spurs the US to develop ever more potent ‘bunker-busting’ technologies with which to threaten their eradication. By considering these bunker sites we will see how military and political engagements with such places oscillate between two powerful, persistent bunker imaginaries (Bennett, 2011): the bunker as omnipotent command centre, and its inverse, the bunker as an abject place of final defeat.

The bunker as resistant, oppositional space

The image above is simultaneously an articulation of an atavistic fear of the subterranean and attempt to depict a real bunker complex. It shows how the Tora Bora mountain bunker complex in Afghanistan was described by Western journalists in November 2001 in the run-up to the US attack on Osama bin Laden’s suspected redoubt. In pursuing Al Qaeda and Taliban forces into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom saw the US facing a:

“virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are a product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr bin Laden’s own engineering background – and, 15 years back, a heavy dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.” (Wines, 2001)

The story, as traced by Josh Rothman (2011), of how Tora Bora came to be depicted as a sophisticated Bond villain’s lair is an instructive one – it tells us much of the fact/fiction interplay with our bunker imaginary, for the cave system came to be described in increasingly elaborate terms, and was ultimately said to feature its own hospitals, offices, bedrooms and hydroelectric power supply capable of sustaining 1,500 fighters. The trail starts with a 26 November 2001 New York Times article (Wines 2001) based on an interview with an ex-Russian soldier, Viktor Kusenko who had described his recollection of an elaborate cave complex at Zhawar featuring “iron doors” beyond which lay “a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order”. These were his recollections from the Soviet campaign against the Mujahedeen in the 1980s. The article then added “Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990’s” (allegedly drawing upon bin Laden’s civil engineering training). It also pointed out the 57 days of aerial bombardment and fierce hand-to-hand fighting effort required to capture the Zhawar fortress in 1986, and that even though the Soviets had eventually blown the place up, it had been restored within a year. It had then been blasted again by multiple US cruise missiles in 1998 after Al Qaeda linked American embassy bombings in Africa. On 27 September 2001 The Independent transposed the description of Zhawar to Tora Bora, portraying it as extant and virtually impenetrable. The Associated Press then syndicated the story around the US, and The Times (of London) produced a cut-away schematic of the Tora Bora lair, and its Ken Adam-like styling on 29 September 2001.

The US Government did little to dampen the elaborate and escalating speculation. In an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press on 2 December 2001 interviewer Tim Russert referred to The Times’ elaborate schematic, and its depiction of a multi-tiered complex replete with ventilation ducts, power plant, ammunition caches and entrances large enough to drive a car through. To which Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2001 – 2006) replied that the Tora Bora redoubt was but one of many such complexes to be faced – and not just in Afghanistan. This was not an off-the-cuff remark: Rumsfeld had announced in a Pentagon briefing on 11 October 2001: “A lot of countries have done a lot of digging underground. It is perfectly possible to dig into the side of a mountain and put a large ballistic missile in there and erect it and fire it out of the mountain from an underground post” (quoted in Wines 2001). The mountain bunker thus became equated with the War on Terror’s campaign against ‘rogue states’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

Therefore, in Autumn 2001 it seemed that the US was facing a villainous foe of cinematic proportions. The inflation of the story – the conjecture about how elaborate Tora Bora would be – started with historical fact, and seemed credible. However, once finally overrun by US Forces, Tora Bora proved to be far less sophisticated, as a US Special Forces Staff Sergeant put it when interviewed by the U.S.’s Public Broadcasting Service in 2002 about the battle for Tora Bora:

“…they weren’t these crazy mazes or labyrinths of caves that they described. Most of them were natural caves. Some were supported with some pieces of wood maybe about the size of a 10-foot by 24-foot room, at the largest. They weren’t real big. I know they made a spectacle out of that, and how are we going to be able to get into them? We worried about that too, because we see all these reports. Then it turns out, when you actually go up there, there’s really just small bunkers, and a lot of different ammo storage is up there.” (PBS 2002).

But the fear of (and corresponding faith in) underground fortresses remains a live issue in post-Cold War geopolitics. The Korean War (of 1950-1954) never officially ended, and North and South Korea remain frozen in a military standoff. When Rumsfeld was talking of underground lairs beyond Afghanistan, North Korea was likely to have been at the top of his list, and since 2001, the ‘rogue state’ status of North Korea has been bolstered (in US eyes) by North Korea’s nuclear programme, and in particular its claim in January 2016 to have successfully carried out an underground H-bomb test.

Writing in 2003, Barbara Demmick (a Los Angeles Times East Asia specialist) portrayed North Korea as the exemplar of Rumsfeld’s of rogue nations digging-in. She explains that the North Koreans started tunnelling after the Korean War – when US bombing destroyed most of their industrial base and infrastructure. In response, in 1963, North Korea founder Kim II Sung declared that “the entire nation must be made a fortress. We must dig ourselves into the ground to protect ourselves” (quoted in Demmick 2003). Demmick reports that, as a consequence of this, everything important in North Korea is now underground: with several hundred underground factories, and thousands of smaller facilities. The mountainous topography lends itself well to this – and makes North Korea the world’s most fortified (or bunkerised) country, its population of 22 million people, supporting the World’s fifth largest army. Demmick reports that 13,000 artillery pieces are secreted in mountain bunkers within the (supposedly) demilitarised zone.

The bunker as abject space of defeat

Jonathan Glancey (2011) declares that “no self-respecting dictator can bear to be without a bunker” – but it seems that the reality often falls short of the dream (or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves). Writing in 2011 in the aftermath of US Navy Seals finally tracked down Osama bin Laden to a nondescript residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan fellow Guardian journalist Steve Rose (2011) asks why “the world’s no.1 villain” ended his days “in a lair with no flair”, concluding that bin Laden’s downfall shows us that “life isn’t like a Bond movie”. It seems the narrative for the vanquished is that the bunker must become “the hole they dig themselves into” (all quotes from Rose 2011). Via this inversion of the hyperbole of the omnipotent modernist bunker, the abject bunker looks back to the era of the cave man. The leader who invests in such places – who feels the need for them – has already lost touch with reality and his people, he (or she) exhibits a reality denying “bunker mentality” (Bennett 2011). Originating in the representation of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker in May 1945, a potent political metaphor now exists, whereby vulnerable political leaders can be caricatured: see for example the dubbing of scenes from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s powerful dramatic account of Hitler’s demise, Downfall [Der Untergang] (2004), to reference contemporary leaders and their failings.

In keeping with this motif, (and additionally channelling the despotic collusion of both Marie Antoinette and Eva Braun) a 2013 profile piece on Asma Al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader, who is described as “as the country collapses around her…sheltering in a bomb-proof bunker…said to be obsessed with her weight and looks, [and] stocking up on luxury furniture, health products and food” (Bentley, 2013). Whilst this fits the trope wonderfully – it does rather gloss over the sophistication modern bunker building: a 2016 feature in the Times of Israel (Solomon, 2016) reports Syrian rebel sources claiming to have probed ‘Assad’s Neighbourhood’ an underground town beneath Damascus – a combined military and political command – extending seven storeys underground, and featuring a maze of (escape) tunnels extending to nearby mountains – with tunnels said to be big enough for vehicles, huge gates, and secure against chemical attack (recalling here the villain’s lair features ascribed to Tora Bora).  The rebel video even presents an animated 3D fly-though of the complex, some footage of rebel fighters driving and walking around the recently penetrated complex (from 37 mins into the following):

Meanwhile, in Iraq in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein commissioned Yugoslavian contractors to build him a duplicate a vast Cold War Belgrade bunker beneath one of his palaces to protect him against nuclear and chemical attack at a cost of £50 million. Construction took eight years, with the project completed in 1983. The palace above was destroyed by the US’ bunker busting bombs in the air attack of April 2003 – but the 20 metre thick concrete roof of the bunker held firm. After US Rangers cut their way in through the thick steel door, the bunkers’ fate lay in the hands of looters, and to be occupied by squatters. Oliver Poole (2006) presents his journalistic bunker hunting thus (combining the ‘downfall’ trope and a cross-reference to the truth-grounding familiarities of fictional bunkers in doing so):

“When US Rangers burst in as Baghdad fell there were still sheets on Saddam’s bed and the maps lay in the command centre. Saddam had already fled…Walking through the maze of corridors was like entering a post-apocalyptic film. Some of the fluorescent lights were still blinking, water from smashed pipes oozed over the carpet and wires hung from the ceiling. Torches picked out abandoned and torn chemical weapon protection suits amid the debris littering the corridors.”

And in Saddam’s case the abjection trope would prove to be further topped-off, by the fact that Saddam’s last refuge was a bunker-hovel – an adapted cellar, with room for one crouching occupant – as presented in this CBS News report from 2003:

Libyan dictator  Muammar Gaddafi’s cornering also played out the same way – his October 2011 capture after being found hiding in the confines of a storm drain in Sirte, his home town, a short distance from his family compound (and its bunker – which had been the subject of an RAF bunker-busting raid in August 2011 to deny Gaddafi his Sirte fall-back). This endgame – like that of Saddam – contrasts to depictions of his elaborate “underground fortress” (reportedly one of many) built beneath the vast Bab al-Aziziya military compound in Tripoli which was captured by rebels in August 2011. This complex is said to have tunnels extending for over a kilometre beneath the city, and – as Jessica Dacey (2011) reports – was built by Swiss bunker engineers in the 1970s and 1980s, modelled on the designs for Swiss civilian bunkers, and fitted out with Swiss ventilation equipment (manufactured by Luwa).

It’s a hallmark of the media age that reportage fresh from the 21st century battlezone is available near-instantaniously, and notable that one standard trope in the portrayal of the defeat of an enemy is to show laying bare of his bunkers. But there’s something else too that can be witnessed now on social media – a touristic urban exploration, as captured for example in bunker-hunting excursions reported on You Tube, specifically that of ‘SISTIC1’ who appears to have wandered many of the Gaddafi bunkers within a few weeks of their capture by rebel forces. SISTIC1’s 1st person POV video wandering around the undamaged bunker found in the Ben Ashour area of Tripoli feels, like a video game, but it isn’t: its carried out in an active warzone, with the very real possibility of lethal wounding by an encounter with a fighter or a looter around the next corner. But is this bunker hunting political or is it recreational, a timely instance of “dark tourism” (Lennon & Foley, 2000)?

Bunkerology’s origins lie in anti-nuclear protestors – like the ‘Spies for Peace’ activists of the 1960s, who sought to penetrate the secrecy of a state’s nuclear scheme – and to defeat it by gathering and disseminating systematic knowledge of its existence (see Bennett 2013). But the iconography of roaming grey-walled subterranean corridors in SISTIC1’s video is chilling because of how closely it chimes with adventure movies and video games, rather than because it unmasks the raw face of political power. Searching the long grey corridors of newly-discovered secret facilities are a ubiquitous feature of popular culture, a motif in every ‘shoot ‘em up’ video game since 1993’s DOOM. Indeed juxtaposing SISTIC1’s footage with a promotional video trailer for Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s 2016 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III plays, produces an uncanny effect: fact and fiction side by side. The fiction portraying a cast of modern day political leaders wandering, and animating very similarly styled light grey subterranean corridors of power, and the fact of SISTIC1’s video of the Ben Ashour bunker, an evacuated space, stripped of its people and purpose. Inevitably, the animated, populated fictional space feels more ‘real’, and the real space feels the more uncanny.

The fact/fiction interpenetration in popular culture makes it difficult for us to keep noticing the bunker in a critical political sense – cultural saturation tips the attention over into the theatrical, the touristic or the fantastical.




Bennett, Luke (2011). ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management.’ Culture and Organization, 17 (2): 155-173.

Bennett, Luke (2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31 (3), 502-521.

Bentley, Rick (2013) ‘Syrian dictator Basar Al-Assad’s wife Asma on luxury spending spree’ Daily Express, 2 September.

Dacey, Jessica (2011) ‘Swiss parts helped build Libyan bunkers’, Swissinfo.ch online feature (The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation), 29 August – at http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss-parts-helped-build-libyan-bunkers/31014136

Demmick, Barbara (2003) ‘North Korea has a deep, dark secret known by all’, Orlando Sentinel, 7 December.

Elden, Stuart (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34: 35-51.

Glancey, Jonathan (2011) ‘From Hitler to Gaddafi: dictators and their bunkers’, The Guardian, 27 August.

Hirschbiegel, Oliver (dir.) (2004) Downfall [Der Untergang], Constantin Film Produktion: München.

Lennon, John & Foley, Malcolm (2000) Dark Tourism. Thomson: London.

Poole, Oliver (2006) ‘Inside £50million nuclear bunker that couldn’t save Saddam’, The Telegraph, 12 January.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2002) Frontline: Interview: U.S. Special Forces ODA 572, interview transcript at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/572.html

Rose, Steve (2011) ‘Why did Osama bin Laden build such a drab HQ?’ The Guardian, 4 May.

Rothman, Josh (2011) ‘Bin Laden’s (Fictional) Mountain Fortress’, The Boston Globe blog, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2011/05/bin_ladens_fict.html

Solomon, Ari (2016) ‘Report: Assad built seven-storey underground war bunker’ 16 February: http://www.timesofisrael.com/report-assad-able-to-wage-war-from-underground-bunker/

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