16: Bunkers

Fortified bunkers, often underground, provided protection for officers’ quarters, stores and local headquarters.

PontavertNational Theatre 2

Bunker at Pontavert, near Reims;
Royal National Theatre (Denys Lasdun, 1975), Belvedere Rd

Architect’s Intention: These narrow slits allow light into the storage areas at the back of the National Theatre.

Effect in practice: The slits don’t allow enough light in so strip lighting has to be used at all times in the storage areas.

Visual effect: These are the only openings on the broad rear facade of the theatre complex, apart from the goods door. They are ineffective, functionally almost redundant, yet draw attention to themselves by being the only features inserted into the wall. It is as if being there, as they look, lies behind any significance they might have.

Phenomenological effect: Walking by these narrow, hooded light-holes makes one feel watched and insecure.

Discussion: The back of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre has been criticised as an after-thought. It consists of a sheer brick wall, with pre-cast concrete slabs in the lower portion, a large door for heavy goods vehicles and these light slits.

But, in such a carefully crafted building, perhaps this facade embodies a subtle eloquence. The light slits are the only feature of note on a very large element of the streetscape. The facade seems like an affront to what could be a bustling street. Its design would have been acceptable as a result of conforming to Modernist ideology. The references in the narrow openings to Modernist ideas on fenestration and deconstructing the act of looking would have helped a challenging design to be approved. Many, fairly obvious, arguments could have been used to demand more traditional fenestration, but they would have failed in the face of faith in the Modernist way.

But, because this faith was based on an ideological system that dismissed historical reference, it could allow the references of memory to seep through and express themselves. Modernism and memory here seem to be working in parallel as ideological systems. The first is a conscious structure of first principles and prescriptions for design, derived from sense perceptions such as Le Corbusier’s Grand Tour of Europe, whereas the latter is a subconscious ideology rooted in sense perceptions from the war and found among its survivors, in effect an ideology of survival.

One of the reasons for the importance of Le Corbusier seems to be that the trajectory of his career moved in parallel with the subconscious trajectory of survivors: from blinding white tabula rasa, to reconstructive concrete (as here), to colourful post-modern release. Here, the dysfunctional openings he prepares the way for Lasdun to use emerge as the same slits embedded in the memories of survivors, the same openings that allowed machine-guns to rake across so many advancing lines of teenage gun-fodder. Here, on what at first sight seems to be a nondescript facade, the two ideological structures meet, the one based on intellect, the other on memory.