Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

(De)territorializing the Home. the Nuclear Bomb Shelter as a Malleable Site of Passage

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

(De)territorializing the Home. the Nuclear Bomb Shelter as a Malleable Site of Passage

Article excerpt


This paper explores the worldwide unprecedented bunker infrastructure of Switzerland. Since the 1960s, the country has built hundreds of thousands of nuclear bomb shelters in family homes. Drawing on poststructural theories of social practice and ritual theory, the all-pervasive structures in the private sphere are analyzed as transitory spaces that coordinate the movement and connections between different milieus, regimes, and bodies. By studying the operational scripts of the authorities and the spatial arrangements and artifacts of the shelter, the paper argues that a sequenced set of "rites of passage" were to be practiced in order to guarantee a transition into the postapocalypse without any violations of norms, social roles, and affective regimes. However, this "territorializing" process launched by the state with the aim of engineering a "bomb-proof" society met with little success. By ignoring, distorting, or violating the constant prewar situation in their homes, Swiss people, as early as in the 1970s, started to undermine the shelter as an instance of concrete governmentality. Being traversed by various processes of "deterritorialization" the bunker lost its function as a locus of secured passage and transformed into a highly dynamic "empty space" that hides, till this day, residua for creativity and difference.


Nuclear bomb shelter, transitory space, rites of passage, (de)territorialization, affect, Swiss bunkers


Since the turn of the millennium, abandoned bunker structures of the Cold War era like nuclear bomb shelters, command centers, and weapon's silos have sparked an ever- growing interest among artists and photographs, archaeologists, the heritage industry, and the urban exploration subculture (Beck, 2011; Bennett, 2013, 2011a; McCamley, 2007; Ozorak, 2012; Roemers, 2009; Ross, 2004). According to Beck, the current fascination for these spaces is largely owed to their ambivalence, namely the capacity to oscillate "between the visible and invisible, architecture and engineering, ruins and rubble, violence and inertia, the spectacularly symbolic and the blankly dumb" (2011: 83). If we look at the Cold War period itself, the bunker acted in various realms as an equally absorbing and at times polarizing attractor. Technocratic experts of East and West put great effort in studying the effects of nuclear weapons and pondering over the structures intended to offer protection from them, especially at military sites, in economically vital industrial sectors, and for top civil and military personnel (Berger Ziauddin, 2017; Geist, 2012; Monteyne, 2011). Intense political and media debates evolved around the question of how necessary, effective, and viable shelter programs for the population were (Garrison, 2006; Rose, 2004; Steneck, 2005). Time and again, films, photos, and novels staged the nuclear shelter, implementing it as primal locus for the preservation of the nuclear family and patriarchic gender roles, as a place of leisure and sexual fantasy, but also as a gateway to savagery and the dissolution of society (Lichtman, 2006; McEnaney, 2000; May, 2008; Weart, 2012).

Despite the omnipresence of the bunker in popular culture, politics, and architectural discourse, only a small portion of the populace actually experienced what it meant to sojourn in such a space. In Germany, for example, until the end of the Cold War, protective spaces were available for no more than 3% of the population (Lemke, 2007: 79). Surveys in the US consistently reported that despite the media hype centered on "fallout shelters" in 1961/62, very few Americans actually ever built one (Rose, 2004). In Britain, a few people started to construct shelters themselves to counter the absence of government provision, but these shelters were very often more a political statement than a usable shelter (Deville et al., 2014: 193). It is therefore not surprising that Davis characterized the nuclear bomb shelter as an "imagined space" for most Westerners, made concrete mainly through the publicity surrounding a few exercises and the iconic popular culture function assigned to them (2007: 156). …

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