Bunkers, fall out shelters, war rooms, monitoring stations: our Cold War heritage needs protection
There are over 1,000 Cold War sites of interest strewn across the UK; including a myriad of surface level and underground nuclear bunkers, missile launch sites, airbases and monitoring facilities. A precious few, such as the Thor missile bases in Rutland and Northamptonshire, along with the Cambridge Regional Seat of Government (RSG) bunker, have been protected with listed building status. Others have been adaptively re-used through creative conversions, but the majority have been subjected to vandalism and continued decay through time and neglect.
These forgotten structures represent some of our most important examples of defensive architecture. Despite the battles of the Cold War being fought largely through the Space Race, consumerism and political propaganda, these bunkers symbolise millions of pounds of government investment. Constructed during a time of unprecedented technological advances, the facilities thankfully never saw active duty for their intended purpose in nuclear conflict.
Study of this typology is invaluable to understanding the history of architecture and our built environment. Having researched this theme of architecture’s role in the Cold War context, I believe the significance of these bunkers within our society is arguably more important than First and Second World War structures.
On the surface, historians, academics and architects have formed discussions around the work of Charles and Ray Eames, The Smithsons and Buckminster Fuller; over their design influences conceived during the period of anxieties over nuclear war. The iconic Brutalism movement, expedited by strong overseas relationships, is heavily linked with these top-secret, monolithic structures; intended to preserve the core of our national government in the event of an atomic attack. ‘At the height of the cold war, buildings such as the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank were designed like nuclear bunkers, although above rather than below ground,' wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey in 2004. The grade II Listed RSG bunker in Cambridge could be seen as a building of ‘Beton Brut’ beauty; had it not existed for its use in a post-apocalyptic built environment, it may well have been associated with the likes of Boston City Hall or The National Theatre in London.
There is however, a deeper, darker role of architecture during the Cold War. Tom Vanderbilt, American author of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, reveals these undertones though his cross-country fieldwork on the US atomic tests conducted in the Nevada Desert. The revelation that the American Institute of Architects acted as a government ‘consultant’ is just the tip of the iceberg. In the analysis of blast and fallout effects on test towns, de-classified film footage conveys the infamous images of shockwaves effortlessly tearing down a typical American home; with the residing mannequin family turned to dust. During the Kennedy administration of 1961-63, there was a call to arms for architects to assume the duty to protect the nation by integrating blast and fallout factors into building design. This unprecedented emphasis of protection against nuclear attack allowed architects to showcase ideas for nuclear fallout shelters in the domestic backyard, hospitals, office buildings and schools.
Delving into de-classified government files in the National Records of Scotland reveals a multitude of civil servant correspondence and meeting minutes that allude to this new defence role of architecture. Transatlantic exchange between the US and British governments indicate the sharing of atomic test reports, blast proof bunker design and domestic fallout shelter prototypes. Further evidence can be found in studies conducted by the Scientific Advisor’s Branch, civil defence policies and strategies and the Pilot Shelter Survey in 1964 carried out in Scotland and England to identify basement space available for use as fallout shelters.
Structures from this period have often followed similar paths since the end of the Cold War in Britain. Technology was advancing at an unprecedented rate, rendering these complexes obsolete virtually upon completion. As the political tensions eventually subsided with the fall of Communism in the early 1990’s, these sites fell into care and maintenance status before finally being decommissioned. Time would see them pass to local authorities, sold to the MOD or released on the open real-estate market for public purchase. Life beyond nuclear defence has seen a plethora of small-scale adaptive re-uses. Although important examples have fallen into states of abandonment and disrepair they have attracted followers of urban exploration and the intrigue of photographers that help raise the profile of these buildings.
The Estonian National Museum by young practice DGT is cleverly designed and constructed to adaptively re-use the site of a former Soviet strategic bomber airbase. The project was conceived through an international competition and aims to act as a catalyst for regeneration within the area of Tartu. Completed in 2016 the museum has already projected itself on the mainstream architecture stage; gaining recognition and dividing opinion with every published feature.
In Scotland there is a slow burning effort under way. A number of decommissioned, ex-government facilities are being actively restored and revived within communities. These are predominantly self-funded endeavours that rely on selfless volunteering. Examples include Barnton Quarry nuclear bunker, Gairloch Heritage Museum which is converting an anti-aircraft operations room, RAF Aird Uig on the Isle of Lewis, restoration of the Royal Observer Corps 28 Group and UK Warning and Monitoring bunker near Dundee and Cultybraggan nuclear bunker.
However, this is little protection or statutory support for preservation; these unique structures have found themselves in a state of purgatory. As Tom Vanderbilt pointed out in 2010, they are ‘too young to be valued as important historical monuments’ and yet ‘too old technologically to be used today’. It is clear further study is needed and this is backed by Devon DeCelles, designations officer at Historic Environment Scotland. ‘Sites and buildings of the Cold War period are complex and varied,’ he says, ‘and because some of them are still active or have been recently closed they are not well known to the public. We know there is a gap in our knowledge of buildings from this period in Scotland. Research is needed to address this gap as it will help raise our understanding of this fascinating period in our modern history.’
The Kirknewton War Room outside Edinburgh, demolished in 2003 without remorse or hesitation, should have been protected like the RSG bunker in Cambridge, which was saved from demolition by Historic England. Surely more of these structures across the UK can be considered for preservation with formal designation; in line with the doctrines we already applied to other parts of our historic landscape?
With North Korea conducting nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and the unpredictable President Trump provoking tensions in the form of heated tweets, we potentially find ourselves on the brink of a new stand-off. Whatever the outcome of this new phase on the geopolitical battlefield, we cannot ignore the architectural, historical and cultural significance of this existing Cold War bunker typology left in our built environment.
Sean Kinnear is an architect and Cold War researcher