On the Legacy and Mythology of Bunkers
September 29, 2011
All photos: Paul Virilio, “Bunker Archeology” / Princeton Architectural Press
In 1941, Hitler ordered the construction of the first bunkers which were to become the building blocks of a vast Nazi defensive system that stretched the latitudinal limits of the German Empire, from Scandinavia to Spain. Built under the supervision of the Führer’s chief architect Albert Speer, the extensive chain of fortifications, called the Atlantic Wall, still stands as one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary infrastructural and engineering achievements. Yet, as the BBC reported a couple weeks ago, many of these bunkers have become endangered, made vulnerable by years of exposure to the threats of weathering, sinking sands, and vandalization. Read more.
The Germans developed a highly standardized system of building which yielded a complex network of concrete structures and gun emplacements distributed across 800 miles of French coastline. This grand mobilization consumed staggering amounts of natural resources, including 17 million cubic metres of concrete and 1.2 million tons of steel, not to mention the 3.7 billion Deutschmarks in construction fees which helped bankrupt the Third Reich by the end of the war. Despite these extensive measures, Hitler’s iron-clad wall was breached in a single day.
After years of post-war neglect, the bunkers gained notoriety with the publishing of Paul Virilio’s first full-length work, Bunker Archeology, essentially an essay in which Virilio melded his idiosyncratic obsessions–expressed through a lucidly descriptive prose that is further enhanced by stunning black-and-white photographs– with the history of Western warfare. For Virilio, the bunkers are not representative of Speer’s official Neo-classical aesthetic, but rather, embody the “homogenization of conflict” whereby the ballistics of total war, charged by the current of history, necessarily absorb all political, cultural, spatial and geographical landscapes. The geopolitics of a Germanic Europe and the architecture of the continent’s great military heritage were combined in seductive, dynamic concrete forms.
Writing in The Guardian, J.G. Ballard asserted that Hitler’s bunkers served as the predecessors for the Brutalist architecture which was to spread across Britain and the continent in the post-war period. Similar to the concrete residential blocks produced by the European architectural vanguard of the 1950s and 60s, the blockhouses, “left behind by a race of warrior scientists obsessed with geometry and death,” were drained of all mystery and emotion, otherworldly structures reduced to barefaced pessimism. Walking along the beaches of Normandy, Ballard sees in the abandoned bunkers the last vestiges of modernism slowly receding beneath the sands.
Although similar sites in Germany and the Netherlands have been registered as landmarks and subsequently marketed as tourists attractions, the French state has resisted all attempts at preserving the remnants of the Atlantic Wall. This can, perhaps, be attributed to national shame provoked by humiliating defeat and years of occupation, but also to the collective dishonor of a people who, though mostly by force, collaborated with their Nazi captors. As the BBC notes, many French industrialists, companies and, it must be noted, architects such as Le Corbusier prospered with the advancement of the war machine. After the last of the German troops were evacuated, these same titans of industry were needed to rebuild France and were thus absolved of their previous wrongdoings.
Yet many of these post-war sentiments are giving way to a younger generation’s enthusiasm for a more inclusive history, wherein all the features of a country’s complex and multifaceted heritage are on display, and, conversely, their general apathy of the past as expressed by the extensive graffiti obscuring the sides of the bunkers and the building of new homes atop the bodies of stranded blockhouses (for example, Blockhaus 62). Regardless, the bunkers themselves are witnessing a wave of new interest, with small self-organized groups petitioning for the rescue of these submerged monuments. It remains unlikely that the French cultural mission will be given over to such interests, and the fate of the sculptural blockhouses remains uncertain. Certain, however, is their legacy as tangible evidence of a world whose politics and modes of warfare are long gone. As Virilio wrote, “The bunker has become a myth present and absent at the same time: present as an object of disgust instead of a transparent and open civilian architecture, absent insofar as the essence of the new fortress is elsewhere, underfoot, invisible from here on in.”