Berlin’s Bunkers

Swedish architect and author Fredrik Torisson profiles Berlin’s bunkers…

Berlin is full of bunkers. Some are more visible than others and some have even become topography rather than buildings.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Obsolete bunkers are relics that tend to remain standing regardless of circumstance; being difficult to demolish is as much a part of their nature as their ability to be camouflaged is, which makes them a series of half-invisible and more or less eternal relics.

As a building typology, they have always fascinated with their secret nature – the fact that they theoretically could extend in infinity, right underneath your street, much like the catacombs of Rome or Batman’s cave.

Bunkers are largely a product of the last century: advancements in theories of camouflage and technological progress made them possible, and the evolution of bomb planes made them essential.

World War II and the Cold War demanded an endless array of bunkers, air-raid shelters and other protective structures. The now peaceful Berlin is left to contend with all of those heaps of armed concrete. In by far the most cases, demolishing them would entail blowing up a couple of blocks in each direction.

Some underground bunkers have been filled over and forgotten. Hitler’s Führerbunker belongs to this category. This was located underground close to the Speer-designed Neue Reichskanzlei (The New Chancellery) building, which was destroyed by the Red Army when they conquered Berlin. The Red Army attempted to blow up the Führerbunker as well, but it proved too strong to destroy.

In 1959, the East German government made a renewed attempt at demolishing it, but finally resorted to burying it after removing all visible signs of it. In the middle of the 1980s, parts of the bunker were uncovered during the construction of residential buildings in the area, but these were destroyed or buried again.

Right from the end of the war, there were fears that the site of the Führerbunker would become a neo-Nazi shrine. There has been a continuous collective effort to forget its location and not only leave it unmarked, but also to keep its surroundings unspectacular and anonymous. In 2006, however, a plaque was set up at the site to dispel any legends revolving around the Führerbunker.

The conscious effort to understate and to forget the Führerbunker is an effort to speed up time, to artificially let the bunker and its site fall out of memory unmarked. Under normal circumstances, this a lengthy process, but here it has been accelerated with the assistance of bland architecture and anonymity.

The surroundings are a conscious anti-monument dedicated to de-dramatising the historic site, and the plaque itself is an indication of the precariousness of ignoring something: it might be unremembered, but it might also evolve into a legend. Speeding up history is not without its risks.

There are many forgotten or sealed underground bunkers in and around Berlin. Another example is the Bunker 17/5001 – the nuclear explosion-proof war headquarters of the East German administration, located in close vicinity to the village Prenden.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Completed in 1983, the bunker could accommodate 400 people for up to 14 days. The bunker could more or less withstand a direct nuclear hit and was allegedly the most advanced bunker of the Eastern Bloc outside the Soviet Union.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bunker became useless as a defence system, and the West German Bundeswehr sealed it in 1993 after removing and selling the diesel generators. Bunker 17/5001 was repeatedly broken into and stripped of its copper wiring and other valuable scraps, and over time its location became a public secret.

In 2008, the bunker was opened for visits for a short period of time. Through a temporary arrangement, visitors with hardhats could climb in through a ventilation tunnel and wander around with a guide. After this, the bunker was hermetically sealed.

Preserving the bunker was quite simply without economic feasibility. The refurbishment necessary to make it safe for tours and tourists would cost well above a million Euro. By sealing the bunker, it would remain intact for future generations to open up. The sealing here was a method of preservation, a time-capsule, intended to slow time down rather than speed it up. Almost every structure remaining from East German times in Berlin has met a similar fate. If there is any pattern, it is that relics are deemed too costly to preserve and the only alternatives available are destruction or burial.

Other bunkers were hidden in plain sight, camouflaged to resemble ordinary buildings. As these are often too solid to demolish, they are simply left in place, sometimes becoming part of the topography of Berlin. This is the case with the Fichtebunker in Kreuzberg. Originally a gasometer which supplied the streetlights of Berlin with gas from the late 19th Century, the Fichtebunker was converted to an air-raid shelter during World War II.

The bunker was constructed to protect 6,000 people, but as Berlin was gradually destroyed during air-raids, more and more citizens sought cover there. Towards the end of the war, the bunker sheltered up to 30 000 people during air-raids. After the war, the bunker served first as a prison, then a hostel and finally a storage space for supplies till the end of the Cold War.

The Fichtebunker was another structure too solid to be demolished and too expensive to be altered. In the end, it was sold to an investor who decided to treat the bunker as a topographic element, and simply constructed a little gated townhouse community on top of the bunker. The residents have access to the bunker below, which has become a cellar, or catacombs underneath their daily lives. This is a somewhat exaggerated example of how cities always have evolved, new constructed on top of the old – from essential defence structure to catacombs in just a few decades.

Photo courtesy of the author

Another illustrative example of a bunker that became topography is the Sportpalast-Bunker, where a Modernist housing block that stretches towards the bunker simply straddles the construction as a bridge would a natural obstacle like a canyon or a stream. The two, the housing block and the bunker, make a very strange couple indeed.

The Sportpalast-Bunker has been refurbished as a memorial site and is now used by a nearby school for education on the history and atrocities of the National Socialist years as well as a venue for the school’s art exhibitions.

Yet another example of adapting bunkers is the Hochbunker in Reinhardtstrasse. This was originally built to resemble a building from the air, and was recently converted by art collector Christian Boros to house an art collection, a vault of of sorts. The inside of the bunker was converted into a private art gallery and Boros built his own house on top of the disused bunker. The bunker here becomes the basement of the house, protecting the collection.

Bunkers’ static nature contrasts with Berlin’s otherwise dynamic history – hence, the discrepancy between a relic’s life and the speed of history becomes more obvious in these rigid relics which cannot be destroyed or manipulated beyond their original intention. The bunkers’ context is manipulated to either accelerate or decelerate time while the object remains fixed and intact. The city of Berlin bends around the bunkers as it attempts to (re)write its history.

In reality, the bunkers are some of the only fixed points in Berlin’s architectural history. Based on these points and how the rest of the city (r)evolves around them, one could read a version of the city’s history.

This article is an excerpt from ‘Berlin- matter of memory’, an exploration and analysis of Berlin in the 21st century. It presents two parallel images of the city: its relics as an image of what Berlin is, and its monuments as an image of what Berlin is aspiring to transform into. Through a series of essays focusing on relics and monuments, contemporary Berlin is connected to its past as well as its future. The book is also a discussion of the fundamental difference between relics and monuments and the rewriting of history through monuments to create a past for the future. You can purchase the book here.

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