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Friday, March 06, 2009

AE11: New Wave Bunkers

Hearing the word "bunker," one most likely thinks of the Cold War, of protecting oneself and one's valuables from destruction, specifically nuclear destruction. Cold War bunkers ranged from individual shelters buried in one's suburban backyard to the US government's many real or mythological subterranean vaults for the storage of everything from arms to money. With the Cold War long over and the term bunker taking on purely historical connotations, the transformation of those facilities, and the revitalization of the idea of subterranean fortifications for other purposes, is leading to a plethora of what I'm calling New Wave Bunkers.

The Federal Reserve Communications and Records Center (Mt. Pony) in Culpeper, Virginia is one such government bunker, a facility for the storage of currency in the case of a mass catastrophe on US soil. It also housed the "central switching station of the Federal Reserve's Fedwire electronic funds transfer a a steel reinforced concrete building with lead-lined radiation-proof steel shutters that can seal the bunker off from the surface in a matter of seconds."

[Images from Mt. Pony sales brochure | image source]

Recently the cold war-era facility was transformed into the Library of Congress - Packard Campus, designed by San Francisco's BAR Architects with Smith Group and SWA Group. Housing the Library's Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division in the 415,000-sf (38,550 sm) facility, the architects extended the existing grass-covered facility to include more spaces incorporating natural light, mainly in the new hemicycle portion overlooking a circular pond.

[Library of Congress - Packard Campus, photographs by Doug Dun | image source]

The interior is hardly bunker-like, owing to the fact that most of the storage facilities are housed under the earth berms, with areas bathed in light intended for employees and visitors. Storing temperature- and humidity-sensitive film and other materials that degrade over time, the new facility offers protection, not from explosives (I'm sure the building can take a beating, nevertheless) but from the elements. Of course how this or any facility can protect valuables from the march of time is difficult to say; that's probably a losing exercise (or one for a potential profession, where people and machines continuously backup data on various media -- Google's doing it already), but one that will probably be tackled by a government and/or corporation someday.

[Library of Congress - Packard Campus, photograph by Doug Dun | image source]

Actually the Svalbard Global Seed Vault can be seen as such a bunker targeting the ravages of time, but in this case it is again human-inflicted conflict that is doing the damage. "Ensuring that the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops is preserved for future generations," the seed vault in the permafrost of Norway's mountains takes the current and continued destruction of biological diversity as the impetus for its existence. It's a depressing but unfortunately true scenario that is playing out, like the destruction of biological species in the name of human progress.

[Svalbard Global Seed Vault, photographs by Mari Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault | image source]

The vault itself (the architectural design is by Peter W. Søderman MNAL of Barlindhaug Consult) is marked by a concrete prow jutting from the mountain. The narrow opening leads to a tunnel that continues deep into the permafrost and to the three underground chambers for storage of the actual seeds. The rather small 1,000-sm (10,750-sf) facility uses the mass of the earth and the cold climate -- having taken into account climate change scenarios in the final location of the vault -- as a backup for the maintenance of below-zero conditions; electrical means maintain the temperature currently.

[Svalbard Global Seed Vault, drawing by The Directorate of Public Construction and Property | image source]

The Seed Vault is science fiction come to life. It presupposes the possibility of a dreadful future, but it tackles such with a certain optimism, that the diversity of plant species today are worth saving. It is highly practical, yet it is also strange to think that, for example, the reintroduction of a particular vegetable in an area devastated by human or natural disaster in the future will entail a transaction. It might not entail a purchase of the seed, per se, but here they are treated as commodities, isolated from their natural context onto a shelf, much like a store.

[Svalbard Global Seed Vault, photograph by Mari Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault | image source]

Another recently completed New Wave Bunker is the United States Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), an over-budget and long-delayed entrance on the east side of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Plans for the large 580,000-sf (54,000-sm) complex actually started before September 11, though the decision to bury it three stories underground may have come about from the attacks on that day, not just as goals to be invisible and to not structurally disturb the 140-year old building.

[US Capitol Visitors Center | image source]

Designed by RTKL, the CVC is basically a massive pre-function space, spiced with exhibition space and an auditorium for a film on the building's history; additional facilities for Congress are also part of the total square footage. The building allows thousands of people to be in a secure and surveilled location before heading into the Capitol, instead of wandering about the grounds or the rest of DC. The Center allows more people to visit the Capitol in this sense, as frustrated visitors probably won't mind the air conditioning over the old prospect of sweating it outside.

[US Capitol Visitors Center, | image source]

The CVC is a bunker to protect tourists, the government and its buildings from terrorists. The bunker no longer protects what it contains; it protects what moves through and is at the end of the flow of circulation that it dictates. The bunker is but a security screen for those moving from point A to point B. The more I think about it the more I'm inclined to believe that the decision to bury the building underground is to mask its massive size, so contemporary architecture does not compete with the neoclassical Capitol, not for reasons of security. Burying buildings underground for defense against those who want to destroy something no longer makes sense. A diversity of small weaponry and delivery of threats has made large-scale protection misguided. These New Wave Bunkers show how the decisions to build underground have more to do with climate, the fragility of human creations and making security and surveillance invisible.

[Unique Cave Home | image source]

Postscript: I couldn't resist including this cave for sale outside St. Louis, Missouri. It's certainly not in the league of the other three projects here, but it is an interesting take on "shelter," where a 15,000-sf (1,400-sm) house was built inside an existing cave. (Yes, the house is bigger than the Seed Vault.) Here novelty is the most likely the name of the game, though the thermal mass of the rock certainly helps with heating and cooling. Unfortunately the inside is a hodge-podge of drywall and Home Depot fixtures, lacking any creative response to the fact the house is located in a cave.


  1. As far as bunkers are concerned you may want to have a look on Leo Fabrizio's photographic work.
    Have a nice day !

  2. This is all so interesting for me, living in Israel, where "bomb" shelters are below ground, on the ground, and now even in each new apartment.
    And a friend here just down in the woods made her little home in a cave. Now it is illegal to live in caves, i.e. sleep in them.
    Come on over and do some bunker research for an article!

  3. oh i do have to say i despise the white house...

  4. To me, "bunker" is not in the slightest a musty, outdated term. Rather, it calls to mind Bunker-Busters and other fine postmodern killingry!

  5. Delpolo - Thanks. His photos are remarkable, reminiscent of Virilio's bunkers shots along the Atlantic Wall.

    Dina and eBohn - Your points show how my take is very US-centric. If I would have extended my thinking further I probably wouldn't have stated that underground safety is no longer tenable or that bunkers are historical remnants. I hope this doesn't mean I'm becoming culturally ignorant!

  6. I find this post especially pertinent in regards to the dynamic characteristics of each type of bunker described in this post. The first question I have considers which architectural elements of the original Federal Reserve Communications and Records Center were preserved in the adaptation that exists today. While I applaud the architect’s willingness to revise an outdated architectural form, I have to question whether or not this project is technically considered a full renovation rather than an adaptive reuse. The recyclable qualities that are inherently associated with adaptive re-use are not commonly affiliate with renovation. I imagine that the construction elements that make a “nuke proof” bunker actually nuke proof would be extremely large in size and not easily capable of renovation. Also, what qualities of the Reserve bunker’s structural elements are in any way applicable to the programmatic needs of a library? At first glance, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (see image at right) looks like an unbelievable project. Its simple diagrammatic design is clearly correlated to the function of the system. As the design of the structure is clearly magnificent, I have to question the practical relevance of a building like this. As you mention yourself, in the even of a global meltdown or catastrophic geothermal collapse, what good is a giant population of plant seedlings going to do? In other words, while the architecture of the vault is effective in its protective qualities, beautiful design, and responsiveness to its surroundings, it is important to question whether the building needs to exist in the first place. While an architect is obviously not going to pass up a job opportunity, it is part of the architect’s role to question the intentions of a project and bring the most out of an assignment. Regarding the Capital Visitor’s Center, I have to wonder whether the underlying reason for subterranean construction is safety related. After looking at the images, I can’t imagine the addition providing too much protection from terrorist attack. I see the design choice having more to do with appropriating programmatic elements in relevant spaces without disrupting the function of the adjacent Capital Building. As you mention in your post, the reason to construct below ground might have to do with the architect not wanting his building to compete with the Capital Building itself. This is obviously the case. The visitor’s center to the Capital Building is just that, the visitor’s center. Any attempt to contend architecturally, spatially, or figuratively was never an option.

  7. Reading about bunkers reminds me of Israel too, I lived there for a few years in my 20’s and we had a leisure room in a bomb shelter where we would watch TV and hang out. Using them as a storage area is quite an interesting idea – imagine if the world and all of us were obliterated one day, who is going to be around to discover these things?


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