Bunker

BarbicanThe Barbican in London is a source of solace. Walking the grey, water-stained ramparts, I feel protected by its coarse solidity. The hard, excoriating drag of bush-hammered aggregate reassures rather than pains. This is a place – fittingly given its name – of defence, retreat and enclosure.  In my more oneiric moments, I imagine a dystopian city of hand to hand fighting – a Stalingrad for a future age – with the Barbican providing the last refuge for defiance and resistance. With a morbid eye, I see the walkways and towers pitted by shellfire revealing the twisted steel rods within.

Given its genealogy, such a role is not mere fancy. In a beautiful yet unsettling book – Bunker Archeology – Paul Virilio charts through image and essay his fascination with the Atlantic Wall: 1500 World War II bunkers built to deter an Allied landing.  The stark concrete of these observation posts, towers, firing slits and embrasures are progenitors for Brutalist architecture. And the setting – the French littoral of Normandy and beyond – is of, course, liminal.  Beaches are a ‘perfect example of marginal, in-between spaces, zones of liminality that hold a fascination for many that few other landscape forms do’ (Meethan, p.70). Or, more disturbingly, they function as a ‘space of defamiliarization…marked by rough borders and unsolid ground.’ (Burleigh and Jung, p. 246). This unease is identified by Virilio who records:

looking out over the void, over this moving and pernicious expanse, alive with menacing presences; in front of the sea Hitler rediscovered ancient terror: water, a place of madness, of anarchy, of monsters

BunkerSeveral of these bunkers are themselves liminal. Slumped into the beach like fallen, hamstrung beasts, the boundary between sand and structure is in constant negotiation. With each tide, each storm surge their material identity – like those of any ruin –  is simultaneously effaced and remade. The simile of beasts also suggests something further. There is a robotic anthropomorphism to many of these bunkers. The prow and aperture of a control tower juts like a jawline with an open mouth above – these are Easter Island statues recast for the modernist age.

This humanisation of military architecture is also apparent in Sophia Davis’ experiential account of a walk around the abandoned secret scientific research stations on Orford Ness in Suffolk: ‘the laboratories nestle into the shingle, crouching and hiding behind it in comfort from intruding eyes’ (Davis, p.147). Yet there is nothing, I feel, comforting in such anthropomorphic imagery. For does it not emphasise this ‘space of defamiliarization’? Using Fisher’s definition of the eerie –  ‘there is nothing present where there should be something’ (Fisher, p.61) – the sentries, observers and soldiers that inhabited these bunkers are gone yet their absence is re-imagined (literally re-incorporated) into the features and posture of the structures.

And if we re-align our gaze on these bunkers – a metaphoric twist of the kaleidoscope perhaps – we gain a final perspective on their liminality. In a blog on Paul Virilio and accidental utilitarian art, A Year in the Country observes how these bunkers ‘could be artefacts from an almost science fiction-esque future that never was, a form of hauntology possibly.’  Or to put it another way: this is a zone where past, present and future elide.

Now, if we retrace our steps to the Barbican (which, if anyone familiar with the area knows, is often more difficult than it sounds), I see its inherent ‘bunkerness’ as infecting not just the immediate City but a world far beyond that. In every organisation, there are stories of the silo mentality – ascribed variously to individuals, departments, offices and divisions.  But surely, ‘bunker mentality’ is a far more apt term? The buttresses of these fortresses may be material – another office, a different floor – but equally they can be spatially ethereal, signified by a turn in the corridor perhaps or a different desk alignment on an open plan floor. And just as a different style or cut of uniform alert the bunker inhabitants to the presence of an alien, so here the signifiers are equally distinct. Professional jargon, acronyms, attire (the creatives in jeans, the management in suits?) serve as the poker ‘tells’ that warn the wary observer of our origins and organisational provenance.

But what do these fortresses protect; what do our bunkers defend us from? Virilio argues that just ‘as the eighteenth-century bastion materialized the ballistic systems of rudimentary artillery’ (Virilio, p.39), the bunker’s ’rounded or flattened angles, the thickness of its walls…its armor plating, iron doors, and filters’ were designed to hold up under a new climate of ‘shelling and bombing, asphyxiating gasses and flamethrowers’. However, for us, surely change is the threat our organisational bunkers are designed to repel.  That is the ‘climatic reality’ jeopardising the brightest jewel in our barbican’s strong room: namely the culture of our particular organisational tribe. What we are often mistakenly protecting is ‘how we do things around here’; that nebulous amalgam of values, beliefs, behaviours and norms.  New technology, processes, ways of working are, or so we perceive, the fire, poison and artillery that assail and threaten to change us. And so we construct our metaphorical bunkers.

Yet history shows that such an approach is flawed. For Virilio, the remnants of the Atlantic Wall serve as ‘funerary monuments’ (Virilio, p.29) and the sobering reality is our own bunkers threaten to bury not preserve us. They deter, repel and beat back – they are symbols of closure. But in an increasingly complex and volatile world, survival depends on open innovation and collaboration. And just as Virilio’s bunkers were often built with no foundations, our own bunkers are similarly constructed on mere sand. So, let’s join hands and leave our chthonic shelters, ammunition stores and dressing stations to emerge, eyes blinking, by the open seas and far horizons of our progressive futures. It is the beach, not the bunker, that will save us.

 

A Year in the Country. (2016) ‘Paul Virgilio’s bunker archaeology and accidental utilitarian art’, A Year in the Country, 18 August 2016. Available at: http://ayearinthecountry.co.uk/week-3352-bunker-archives-4-paul-virilios-bunker-archaeology-accidental-utilitarian-art/ (Accessed: 21 October, 2017)

Burleigh, P. and Jung, S. (2010) ‘The Beach as a Space of Defamiliarisation’, Journal of Visual Art Practice, 9(3), pp. 245–257.

Davis, S. (2008) ‘Military landscapes and secret science: the case of Orford Ness’, Cultural Geographies, 15, pp. 143–149.

Fisher, M. (2016), The weird and the eerie. Repeater Books.

Virilio, P. (1994), Bunker archeology. Princeton Architectural Press.

Illustrations

Day, M. (2010) Balmedie Dunes. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/whoisthatfreakwiththecamera/6647864153/in/photolist-b8s3pt-3ESGu-gaKgg4-qnAGZE-qE5Q3h-ajc41C-3ESG6-ahtV3F-fesFje-RJBaBy-5d97Z8-3JtukF-dVd1fP-8hFfLP-9m2ksu-4RZX85-4MrUP-3bjge-cFnkJ1-g22hse-9m2knq-6Qw1Xo-6QvUZw-UhmhgF-6UuLf-8sMzha-jvEFxN-dmfkK2-e8Pgz-9m2kpj-e8PgC-6kVBaK-hcgHU-dNVbQZ-dmfvcE-5M8yxK-5FMyw-njAqfb-e8PgA-7w7A7T-73eV6J-4vhJem-yrhYMA-bREwKD-yc5RgV-3mrzoA-FhDLD-yuifa6-xwzDis-9N7fY2 (Accessed: 21 October, 2017). Link to Creative Commons Licence.

Rodwell, I. (2017) Barbican, London

 

Time

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My innovation friend, Tom Lilley, perceptively observed that ‘many of the liminal zones I encounter on the job are actually temporal – the present and future rubbing up against the weight of the past’.   Tom noted the organisational archives/trophy cabinets lined with artefacts and photos that embody the company’s history.  At one extreme, this might be a plane suspended from a ceiling; or a full-sized running track.   I relished the observation and it set me thinking.  Such displays create an uncertain temporal zone that blends past and present – sometimes in a complementary and mutually illuminating way; sometimes with a jarring discordance worthy of the most free of free jazz improvisations.

David Boje, with reference to Walmart, identifies the dilemma with the strategic journey narrative: how ‘to appear to be the same over time, and to appear to be different, reflecting shifts in innovation and the environment’ (Boje, 2008: 10).  The relationship between past and present is uneasy and infected with suspicion.  It is also rarely stable.

I recall visiting a financial services company HQ with a striking museum in its foyer: information boards, old signs, uniforms and photographs that charted its 200 year plus history.  To an employee it symbolised an epic narrative: adversity countered, challenges surmounted, growth assured.  To a business partner or customer, it symbolised reassurance, solidity, longevity: your money, your relationship is safe with us.

I was intrigued to learn that several years previously when the company underwent a substantial rebrand, the incoming CEO had removed the display.  The decision reflected the neat ambiguity in Tom’s phrase – the ‘weight of the past’.  Rather than representing comforting solidity, here weight signified a burden – a rock roughly bound to the chest dragging you to the bottom of the competitive lake.

Perhaps it also shows how organisations try to suppress the narratives that fail to fit with the current conception of self.  The rebrand – even encompassing a new name and logo – was designed to exorcise these stories from the past.  But as ghosts may often resist exorcism, so do stories.  They may be driven to the shadows yet they show remarkable resilience and fortitude.  Locally, the company is still referred to by its old name – the company’s story is also one of the region and so even more difficult to erase.

So why the decision to reinstate the display? You might point to a fresh CEO with a different view of the past.  Or, you might assume that several years after the rebrand, the old stories no longer had the power to influence; they had been subsumed by new stories of modernity and the future.  Or, perhaps, it was accepted that the shadows could never be dispelled nor the stories fully exorcised and so it was only fit they should be allowed back in over the threshold.

Someone else talking about time, once observed

‘Far away, across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell’

So maybe this was one softly spoken magic spell that could never be broken.

References

Boje, D. (2008), Storytelling Organizations. London: Sage