War Architecture/Bunkers & Paul Virilio | Monuments or Icons?

A recently published photo of Brockholes Visitor Centre, UK, designed by Adam Khan Architects, brought to my mind the controversial bunkers and “bunker archaeology” an article and later a book, written by Paul Virilio. Although bunkers were an important building element during the Cold War, WWI & WWII and an undeniable source of inspiration for theorists and designers, they have now largely become unwanted. But how much are they really littering the landscape?

The bunkers along the Swiss Border Line are proof of architectural camouflage par excellence; the 750k bunkers in Albania are currently a symbol of xenophobia built by their paranoid communist dictator Hoxha; few of the approximately 700 bunkers situated along the New Dutch Waterline have been transformed into waterside landmarks. Along these lines, urbanist and theorist Paul Virilio has extensively been recording the 1500 bunkers, which form a sophisticated defense system situated along the French shore of the Atlantic, the “Atlantic Wall”, rendering them as an important source of strategic thinking for the militaries [1].

According to Virilio, bunkers are “heavy gray masses with sad angles and no openings—excepting the air inlets and several staggered entrances”. Although his objective of observation was simply archaeological, the subject in question was the grandeur of the extraordinary structures and the value they inspire as ruins. Virilio's first experience with bunkers was when he was evacuated as a child in the port of Nantes, where Hitler had created his giant fence of bunkers along the Atlantic ocean, under the supervision of his chief architect Albert Speer . The concept of the “Atlantic Wall” at the time it was built, apart from being military equipment, it was also serving aesthetic purposes to eventually become a symbol of the Third Reich, just as the Greek and Roman ruins were symbols of these civilizations. In these terms bunkers are introduced as monuments, contributing to the international scene of monumental architecture by stigmatizing the dark period of the Third Reich. For Virilio, they have been a great source of inspiration and a life project. The analysis of spatial phenomena of such urban layouts reveal a whole new perspective of the war tactics and strategies, where he later became an expert on.

The ones along the New Dutch Waterline have certainly marked a military era when the Netherlands wanted to prevent an intentional flooding caused by their enemies. Those bunkers along the waterline have lately being subject to redesign to accommodate uses such as Bed & Breakfast, while several others have turned into exceptional landmarks that reveal not only the history of an era but their thick concrete layers too. In addition to the NDW, there are 750k bunkers in Albania as well, where two young architecture students, have already submitted an extended proposal to turn them into B&Bs in order to boost tourism along the coast and therefore the economy.

In Switzerland, one finds them along the Swiss Border Line that were built as a means of mostly air defense, that's why they are so well camouflaged. Most of them look like chalets, where others totally incorporate with their surrounding environment, making it hard for the eye to distinguish not only an opening but the structure itself due to their subterranean nature. Their design stems from the earth and in those terms they have become iconic. Just recall the secret headquarters of Batman, the Batcave!

Bunkers can nowadays deploy different statuses and become the starting point of a whole new era of not only redesign but recycling, renovation and sustainability of use & space as well. Following Virilio's archetypes, the Brockholes project shares ground with bunkers both by the way it engages and adapts to its surroundings and in terms of its layout on site, allowing for quite a unique visitor experience that renders the bunkers as a mere source of inspiration.

[1] Virilio's predictions about 'logistics of perception'-the use of images and information in war- (inWarandCinema,1984) were so accurate that during the Gulf War he was invited to discuss his ideas with French military officers (Wikipedia).

by Nastazia Spyropoulou