Cold comfort form
A famous story about film-set design concerns Ronald Reagan, who, when he took office as president of the US, asked to go down and have a look at the war room, the one that featured in Dr Strangelove. Apparently he was disconsolate when told that it didn't exist, that it had been merely a figment of production designer Ken Adam's imagination.
Reagan's reaction perfectly displays the chasm between fantasy and reality in a field which evokes James Bond technology but, in fact, reveals the most stripped back, service-core aesthetic it is possible to imagine. This book is a substantial exploration of a world of curious non-architecture, a world immune from planning regulations, where style rarely came into it (there was little worry of blending in, unless it was to the ground); and which was, as a consequence, more or less Brutalist throughout its history.
That the word 'building' appears in the subtitle, and not 'architecture', is no accident. There is nothing here to equal the expressionistic Second World War bunkers of northern France extolled by Paul Virilio in his Bunker Archaeology, but there are a surprising array of monumental structures and communication posts that show how much money, time and effort was expended on this most idiotic of war games.
The Cambridge Regional Seat of Government 4, from 1963, must certainly be the most brutal of Brutalist structures to have been built in this country, a massive block of concrete with cantilevered, ominously hooded air intakes which cast long, deep shadows over the rough-textured concrete surface. The Nottingham one, from the same year, isn't bad either, setting up a ponderous rhythm of blind arcades.
There are extraordinary communications structures including Purdown in Bristol (1970), the Post Office (now BT) Tower in London (1963), part of a national microwave and radar network, and the oddly elemental pylon circle at RAF Chicksands, Bedfordshire. The closest the contents of the book come to sci-fi is RAF Fylingdales, the weird white domes which formed part of a controversial tripartite US early warning system with partner sites in Alaska and Greenland.Which brings us onto American stuff, which includes not only the dull barracks and posts in this country but a brief section on sites in the US. The specially constructed bank vault (which survived a nuclear test equivalent to 37,000 tons of TNT) shows where, in the ideologicial conflict, capitalism's true concerns lay.
But there is nothing here to compare with the fake German cities created (and incessantly rebuilt) in the Nevada desert (using German timber types, curtains and furnishings) by Erich Mendelsohn during the Second World War to test the effects of firebombing, which Mike Davis recently exposed in his book Dead Cities.
Despite the dramatic title, this is not a sensation-seeking book. Rather, it is a painstaking and meticulous study of the built legacy of an extraordinary period in our martial history. That its subject must include some of the dullest building ever seen in this country, however, does not make it dull itself.
The authors have written a very readable and comprehensive account, not just of the physical fabric of these structures but of the period from which they came.
Very concise sections on Cold War history, civil defence, the protest movement and CND, and the contingency plans for nuclear war, make for a surprisingly consistent and interesting book.
My enjoyment of it, however, was curtailed by the conspicuous lack of structures in London, which leads me to believe that the really interesting bunkers and networks are still very much part of the plan. The fact that Terry Farrell's MI6 building is featured here (just creeping in from 1989) does not comfort me.With the recent exercises in the City anticipating chemical or biological attacks, we can assume that there is some serious underground refurb going on for our beloved elite.
Edwin Heathcote is architectural correspondent for the Financial Times