The Bunker and Modernity

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At the end of R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (1928), a shell hits the underground dugout where the whole play has been set and the structure collapses slowly, burying the body of a newly killed young officer. Sherriff used the metaphor of crumpling underground space, falling concrete and failing architecture to memorialise a social terminus, the eclipsing of a generation. Published one year before, in 1927, Le Corbusier’s seminal book Vers Une Architecture contained a chapter entitled ‘Architecture or revolution’ whose final line stated, ‘revolution can be avoided’. Architecture could achieve this civilising and socially constructive state, the Swiss architect argued, by grasping the potential of technology to realise new, lightweight structures, detached from and raised above the ground, highly glazed to dissolve the threshold between outside and inside space.
Yet if Sherriff’s scene dramatized an end-point, the architecture used to articulate the metaphor proved more enduring. The buried and semi-buried bunker, bulwark since the early eighteenth century against increasingly sophisticated forms of ordnance, emerged in increasing number throughout the twentieth century and across a series of scales. From the household Anderson shelter to the vast infrastructural works of the Maginot and Siegfried lines, or the Atlantic Wall, its latest proliferation took place during in the nuclear shelters of the Cold War.
From these perspectives, the bunker is as emblematic of modernity as the department store, the great exhibition, the skyscraper or the machine-inspired domestic space. It represents the reverse of the preoccupations of early architectural modernism: a vast underground international style, cast in millions of tons of thick, reinforced concrete retaining walls, whose spatial relationship to the landscape above was mediated through the periscope, the loop-hole, the range finder and the strategic necessity to both resist and facilitate weapons systems. This talk discusses the bunker’s significance and, in doing so, excavates some of the relationships between the physical artefact, its implications and its enduring metaphorical and physical presence.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jun 2016
EventConflict and the City (Heritage Council of Ireland) - Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Duration: 31 May 201601 Jun 2016 (Link to conference details online)


ConferenceConflict and the City (Heritage Council of Ireland)
Internet address

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