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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.

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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. 

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