The cradle rocks above an abyss
Cycling through the whisper quiet pine tree groves of Rendlesham forest in Suffolk we came to the edge of the decommissioned American Airforce base of RAF Woodbridge. Beyond the razor topped fences, amongst the rapidly encroaching cryptoforest weeds and scurrying rabbits stands a huge armada of sullen and stained reinforced concrete boxes. These former vast bomb proof hangers for the prowling A-10A Thunderbolt II squadrons of the USAF now lurk like squat sealed mausoleums and recall a translated segment from the Epic of Gilgamesh,‘there is a house where people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed liked birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness’.
Armoured hangers 2012, © Sarah Wainwright.
Monolithic and impenetrable in their armoured mass, the forms brought back cold war memories of a book I picked up as a child in a school jumble sale, the optimistically named Survival Option by Ivan Tyrrell. The paperback is a sobering 1982 civil defence manual for living through nuclear winter in the UK. It contains handy guides to improvising underground shelters, filtering air and learning the skills necessary to scrape out a cancerous existence in the ashen fallout drenched snowy wastelands of irradiated Europa. In retrospect it is shrouded in the posturing ghosts of NATO and the Warsaw pact, under the raptor gaze of destructive missiles poised to reshape the very surface of the earth. Tyrell bravely declared that the strategy ‘represents an effort to create a barrier against which the great lunacies of the world can break’. The bunkers at the airfield are of course vastly more rugged than any hand crafted suburban basement void.
Although the UK had a limited programme of distributed shelter, the landscape is still punctured by a number of formidable empty structures. Many of these silos are now patiently documented at the excellent Subterranean Britannica site, which is a resource for modern day bunker hunters. The fascination with the militarised cave echoes the work of theorist Paul Virilio who in his research investigated the myriad of Nazi fortifications that formed the marching Atlantic Wall of occupied France. For Virilio the occupation of normal space by weapons manipulated the environment into a state of perpetual fragmentary terror, he wrote that the sepulchral mounds formed ‘a rupture between violence and human territory’. The enormity of the malevolent form-works were dressed in the language of Pluto’s underworld death cults and too much to humanely comprehend.
The redundant USAF shelters are thus transformed into stark sculptural entities, the solid plasticised boxes eerily reminiscent of Turner Prize winning works by artist Rachel Whiteread. Whiteread is perhaps most famous for her 1993 House project, a hefty concrete cast of the entire inside of a battered London Victorian terrace property. The result comprised of a dense textured mass which unveiled the subtle intricacies of city life, cleverly inverting a private realm and conveying a considerable weight of intimacy to the viewer. Whiteread was also notoriously awarded the K Foundation art award for worst artist of the year as Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty railed against the wider entrenched creative establishment. House was effectively a bold sarcophagus for English urbanism. Critic Andrew Graham-Dixon said of the work ‘house is a paradox made concrete since it is a monument made out of void space, a thing constructed out of the absence of things. Being a dwelling in which it is not possible to dwell, a building that you cannot enter, it has the character of a tantalus.’ Whiteread’s domestic grey megalith was an archaeological excavation of identity and a monochrome memory palace. In this light the bunkers too can perhaps be regarded as blunt markers to a past now lost to us.
Whiteread’s House 1993, photograph by Matthew C (some rights reserved).
It is easy to fall into gothic hyperbolism when considering the bunkers, viewing them as grim cenotaphs for an atomic age or Vorticist totems wrapped in the lethal architecture of Kali’s radon shadows. Will we ever champion these brutal shapes with the same passion as Martello towers or Norman keeps? Or, will the stigma of Armageddon vanquish these charnel houses from our collective memory to remain as mysterious as the jet black monolith in Asimov’s 2001 or cast aside like Borges’ ‘ruined (…) fire god’s sanctuary’?