Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Concrete Multivalence: Practising Representation in Bunkerology

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Concrete Multivalence: Practising Representation in Bunkerology

Article excerpt

Noticing bunkers

"I would hunt these grey forms until they would transmit to me a part of their mystery ... why would these extraordinary constructions, compared to seaside villas, not be perceived or even recognised?" (Virilio 1994, page 11)

So wrote Paul Virilio in the summer of 1958, declaring his new bunker-hunting hobby and pondering the cultural invisibility of the ruins of the abandoned giant concrete coastal fortifications of the Nazi Atlantikwall.

This paper will consider the ways in which once secret and 'unknowable' military bunkers have over the last fifty years become increasingly accessible to perception and representation by 'bunkerologists' (a term I will use here to denote enthusiasts who seek them out as an object of study and fascination).

A broad notion of bunkers is adopted in this paper, one which might make some professional archaeologists bristle. In conventional usage by social theorists and (lay) bunkerologists, bunkers encompass modern-era defensive structures built in stone, brick, or concrete. Some were big, many were small, some above ground and some underground. Weapons silos, block houses, pillboxes, air-raid shelters, secret government citadels, and Royal Observer Corps (ROC) fall-out monitoring posts would all fit comfortably within the definition. And all of these structures have their enthusiastic hunters.

The physical remains of these structures lie abandoned across the United Kingdom (and elsewhere across the world, but this paper is confined to the UK). The number of structures may surprise you (unless you are a bunkerologist): in 1945 28 000 pillboxes were vacated. In 1991 1500 ROC monitoring posts were abandoned (Lynch and Cooksley, 2007, page 19). During their operational lives these modest structures, distributed across the UK's hilltops, coasts, and transportation arteries were, by law, secret, and enquiry into their design, role, or any other aspect of their meaning was prohibited.

But the end of the Cold War produced a sudden shift in the meaning of many of such places. These now purposeless 'nonplaces' (Auge, 1995), in their dereliction, became accessible, 'available', and 'knowable' for the first time to a 'lay' audience and the communities where they were situated, thus presenting the opportunity (as a recent Readers' Digest documentary on Cold War bunkers put it) to "discover the secrets you were never supposed to know; travel to the places you were never supposed to go" (Croce, 2008).

Leaving room for representation

This paper is part of a wider investigation into the ways in which bunkers are rendered meaningful by the attention of 'enthusiasts', a term which I adopt from Geoghegan's work on the geographies of enthusiasm, and in particular her work on the meaning-making practices of industrial archaeologists (Geoghegan, 2009).

My concern here is with bunkerology's practices of representation. In a previous paper for this journal I explored the representational practices of online urban exploration forums concerned with bunker hunting (Bennett, 2011a) and outlined the 'taxonomic' modes of representation that appeared to be dominant within that online community. In an associated paper I examined how that online practice of representation was structured: in part by the software architecture and taxonomic conventions of the forum's underlying system, but also by the normative control enacted by the forum's moderators (Bennett, 2011b).

In these studies I showed that within the online community of bunkerologists, 'valid' and 'invalid' ways of performing bunkerology could be identified (at least as regards writing up and circulating online accounts of bunkerological expeditions). Building upon this, I argued against a portrayal of urban exploration (of which I take bunkerology to be part) as 'free-form' in its meaning-making practices and/or purely concerned with the prediscursive, embodied 'joy' of the physical performance of exploration. …

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