written by:
December 22, 2008

Paul Virilio's classic book of wartime architectural history, Bunker Archeology, is finally back in print with a fantastic new edition from Princeton Architectural Press. The book had taken on the feel of something like an urban legend—something of which many had heard but few had directly experienced—so it's good to get our hands on a copy.

9781568980157 large

In 1945, Virilio explains, World War II having finally come to an end, he "discovered" the sea as a 13-year old boy. Until that point, the Atlantic Ocean had been entirely inaccessible, transformed into a heavily fortified landscape by a new, concrete terrain of Nazi bunkers and machine gun nests, all of it surrounded by the ruined killing fields of modern warfare. "The discovery of the sea," Virilio writes on the book's opening page, "is a precious experience that bears thought. Seeing the oceanic horizon is indeed anything but a secondary experience; it is in fact an event in consciousness of underestimated consequences."

What follows from there is an unforgettable tour, verbal and photographic, of the French Atlantic coast—paying particular attention, architecturally, visually, and philosophically, on the abandoned Nazi bunkers that litter the landscape. The book, written in a strange but effective genre somewhere between personal memoir and architectural theory, makes for a broken reading experience, but not from lack of quality: There are so many insights, so many lines worth writing down, that one is almost constantly reaching for a pen or a Post-It note in order to take notes.

Virilio describes the architecture of these now-uninhabited bunkers, with their "semireligious character" and their oddly abstract geometry, as a new kind of funerary architecture: "A complete series of cultural memories came to mind: the Egyptian mastabas, the Etruscan tombs, the Aztec structures...as if this piece of artillery fortification could be identified as a funeral ceremony." They look "as though a subterranean civilization had sprung up from the ground." Then, in a stunning description, he adds: "You could walk day after day along the seaside and never once lose sight of these concrete altars built to face the void of the oceanic horizon."

But does one find poetry—or architectural insight—in something as horrific as an abandoned bunker? Virilio asks himself about the motivations behind such a project, wherein a writer could somehow look past the historical function of a building in order to see nothing but form. Simultaneously, though, he launches a sophisticated and intensely poetic look at the geography of World War II, at how different strategies of attack and defense led to new organizations of the European landscape—and, thus, new types of architecture, here titanic bunkers staring emptily at the sea. Among many other reasons, this approach is interesting because it looks at war from the standpoint of landscape design, even of landscape architecture. Seen this way, war becomes a complicated problem of design, so abstracted from the lives it destroys that it can be practiced as if it's a chess match, its true consequences obscured. But Virilio shows that there are spatial consequences of war, and that these spaces themselves have effects—preventing a 13-year old boy from seeing the sea, for instance, or transforming the entirety of a continent's coastal region into a kind of altar to destruction.

By refusing to recoil in horror from these ironic monuments, or even simply to ignore them as so many other shell-shocked by the experience of war had done, Virilio admirably shows how even the most challenging forms of architecture are open to historical debate and aesthetic interpretation. The book’s black-and-white photographs are poignant illustrations of his larger points. 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016
Monti catered to his mother’s love of cooking by giving her ample storage areas along the 70-foot long walnut wall-slash-cabinet. The refrigerator, kitchen items and other goods easily disappear into the wall when not in use. The nonporous, stain-, scratc
Sometimes the earthy colors and vivid grain of a wood like walnut is all you need to make a space.
February 02, 2016
renovated modern home in Austin interior kitchen
From California to Connecticut, these midcentury interiors still shine through thanks to the careful attention of architects and residents alike.
February 02, 2016
Outdoor dining area at a Saigon home.
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.
February 02, 2016