From a military area to a wonderland: In a forest between Cologne and Frankfurt, nature took back what was taken from her by building a bunker. Photo © Julia Berlin
Once upon a time there was a bunker ...
by Sophia Walk
Mar 12, 2014

Once upon a time there was a NATO ammo bunker. For many years it lived a solitary life hidden from view. Like the 14 other bunkers around and about, it simply sat there in the municipal forest outside Montabaur, between Cologne and Frankfurt. The bunkers spent their days as silent recluses. Wanted by no one, nature started to reclaim what had been taken from it when the site was originally constructed. Surrounded by green meadows and now functionless, the forgotten bunkers lived happily ever after.

Many fairytales like this could be written. The bunkers and hangars once built for military purposes are now cloaked in an aura reminiscent of fairytale forests or sci-fi comics. Former military zones tend to be in special places, usually in sparsely-populated districts, meaning that architects and artist alike face a new task when it comes to addressing these edifices.

Bunkers and hangars as a new task for conversion

Bunkers and hangars are part of a building typology where the architecture is almost entirely defined by the purpose. Once the troops whom the structures served have redeployed, the military function ceases to exist. Good examples of how architects and artists approach such buildings are the newly used bunker “b-05” in Montabaur, the landscaping intervention with “Bunker 599” nr. Utrecht, and the “Secret Operation 610” mobile research center, likewise just outside Utrecht.

While architecture today is often expected to address the context, this was certainly not the case when it came to designing military installations such as bunkers or hangars. The idea was to cut out the outside world altogether when inside such buildings, severing any link between the two.

There’s a bunker in the forest

In 2005 architect and designer Jan Nebgen and his wife Leisa Brubaker discovered the former NATO ammo dump in a forest nr. Montabaur. In honor of the year they found it, they called the bunker complex “b-05” and transformed the former military grounds into exhibition rooms for art and culture. b-05 has already been the venue for shows of works by contemporary artists such as Matthew Barney, Jannis Kounellis, Thomas Demand and film director Werner Herzog. The b-05 is destined to give internationally active artists, architects, and designers a platform in the heart of Europe – in the form of spaces for exhibitions, interventions and as a place where the different disciplines can interact. The plan is to expand the project in coming years. Architect Jan Nebgen explains that the given structures are to be used and not just serve as a backdrop. The b-05 project thus continues to involve the original built structures. A completely run-down hall for trucks was modernized from the bottom up and is now home to the b-05 café – complete with a large patio. When developing the complex, the focus has been on integrating the buildings into the countryside and nature, such that they do not take a front seat in the long term.

A sliced bunker changes how we see the countryside

The “Bunker 599” project near Culembourg, south of Utrecht in the Netherlands, has nothing of a fairytale conversion about it. Here, the intervention entails landscape architecture. In 2010, Dutch artist Erick de Lyon joined up with landscape architects from Rietveld Architecture Art Affordance (RAAAF) to develop a concept for slicing Bunker 599 in two. The massive concrete volume was sliced down the middle, as if bisected or dissected, such that you can now walk through it. The fissure is emphasized by a path that takes up the new space and, leading from the dyke passed through the bunker and culminates in a jetty over an artificial lake. Bunker 599 is one of 600 bunkers that form the “New Dutch Waterline”, built between 1815 and 1940 (when Bunker 599 was erected) to create a military line of defense. With their “Bunker 599” project, Atelier de Lyon and the landscape architects at RAAAF sought to highlight the potential of this military landscape and render the structures accessible to the public. The intervention is destined to offer a new insight into historical buildings and countryside such as this. Compared to other bunkers nearby, that are still intact, Bunker 599 attests clearly to the underlying principle RAAAF wished to present. The trivial change to the bunker radically alters our perception of a region that was once used for military purposes.

Like a creature from a sci-fi comic

In Soesterberg, to the northeast of Utrecht, you likewise feel as if you had stepped into a sci-fi comic: On the grounds of a former Cold War air base a black monster, resembling a kind of caterpillar, carpet-crawls at a shockingly slow pace across the former runway. Five meters high, the black creature’s steely brutality is meant to bring to mind the fears of the Cold War. At the same time, in the midst of the countryside it seems graceful, edges its way on its crawler tracks over the seemingly endless runway. This art installation by RAAAF and Studio Frank Havermans, the object above all functions as a mobile research station that can house 10 persons. At present, students from Delft Technical University are conducting research here into sustainable air travel. The beast overnights in the former airplane hangar, and the latter’s original use is therefore retained.

Complexes and buildings erected for military purposes references not only past historical events and store history. They also offer the potential to tell other stories. Stories that are as different as the venues themselves and speak of more than just war and destruction. At times, they resemble a fairytale as in bunker b-05. At others, they change the countryside and its perception, as in bunker 599. Or they become the backdrop of a game with the spirit of the place, as with the air base at Soesterberg. Once the military has withdrawn and left the buildings originally erected for their purposes, the story has by no means come to an end.

The former purpose of the bunker should remain visible after the conversion. Photo © Julia Berlin
Where once munitions where stored by the NATO, exhibitions are taking place today. Photo © Julia Berlin
From the bank, a narrow path leads through the "Bunker 599" and becomes a runway in the adjacent artificial lake. Photo © Allard Bovenberg
At the point where the bunker was cut, on closer inspection, the traces left by the cutting tool are visible. Photo © Allard Bovenberg
The intervention at Bunker 599 seem brutal, but provides a different perception of this former military landscape.
Photo © Allard Bovenberg
Just like a spider the research station "Secret Operation 610" is crawling on the runway of the former military airport. Photo © Michiel de Cleene
Ten researchers find a place in "Secret Operation 610". Corresponding to the genius loci, they research to sustainable aviation. Photo © Michiel de Cleene
The research station Secret Operation looks almost graceful as it sneaks out of the hangar of the former air base. Photo © Michiel de Cleene