Tuesday, August 8, 2017

How a nuclear bunker proves lack of imagination

If a vacationer wants to suffer a bit,  possibly a desire caused by the absence of work-stress, there exists a special kind of attraction, underground and shutting out all the glory of the landscapes or cities that attracted the tourist in the first place.
In Paris, there are tours of "les egouts" for that purpose, underground tours of the cavernous sewer system. In New York it simply is the subway system in general and in Ottowa there is temporarily a disco show in the new subway tunnels. But then, there is something that takes the cake and is quite a propos in face of heightened tensions with North Korea: a tour of a former nuclear bomb shelter.
Entrance to the center of emergency government (Photo: Philipsen)

The abandoned bomb shelter, now the Museum of the Cold War,  tells as much about how poorly humans imagine the future, as it gives insight on how archaic our ideas of what is essential really are.

This isn't just any nuclear bunker, it is what was designed to be the shelter for Canada's leaders at the height of nuclear fears, in the early 1960s. It is where the top government officials would go to govern  whatever is left above from deep below after a nuclear attack on the country that elected them.  An idea that is from the onset silly. The fretting about how many seats the conference room has with tele-conferencing options for those stuck in their sparse rooms makes it ridiculous, although it is interesting to see that they could already do video-conferencing then.
Canadian civil defense poster

Above ground a lovely riparian landscape and a small town named Carp look innocent enough to provide camouflage. The bunker in question is named Diefenbunker, a clever twist on the name of Canada's 13th prime minister named John Diefenbaker who had commissioned the project. A man who is said to have never visited his project once he realized that the prime minister's quarters had only a single bed and that his trusted wife had to stay out. This, too, a fundamental moral conundrum sowing another seed for the collapse of the entire concept.

In Carp on a beautiful August sun a typical Saturday unfolds with its large farmers market on the fairgrounds, Alice's Village Cafe getting ready for a busy day and a brisk wind rustling the leaves of a grove of trees behind Main Street opening up to a view of meadows and pastures.

Diefenbunker is very close to all that, just on the northwest edge of town, far enough west of Ottawa so that nuclear outfall from the capital wouldn't get here under normal wind-conditions.
Idyllic country life above (Photo: Philipsen)
The bunker's above ground facilities masquerade as farm vernacular, a trick that may work for the naked eye in the completed state. But burying 32,000 tons of concrete for the four level 100,000 sf facility didn't go unnoticed at the time of construction and the facility was unmasked in newspaper articles just around the time it was fully operational. It is likely that the Soviets would have established the coordinates much earlier.

What was considered essential to be operational is telling, too. Of course, designed in the late fifties, men were most important and the role of women was limited to being secretaries and nurses who had their own color-coded quarters. Maybe more surprisingly, the most secured space in the entire system was designated for Canada's, wait for it: gold reserves.Yes, an especially deep bunker for storing gold! The idea was that a Canad reduced to being a nuclear wasteland, would need something to barter with others that had been luckier. Back than currencies operated on the gold standard and gold doesn't take kindly to radiation. Voila!
The bunker entrance masquerading as a farm structure
(Photo: Philipsen)

There was 30 days worth of fresh food stored in the bunker at all times and after that there would have been army rations for a while, and after that, who knows? There were water supply tanks and complicated air filters and decontamination procedures for those arriving late. Those who would have died underground would have been stored in coolers alongside the food.

But a prolonged stay until the surface would be livable wasn't possible. Also, being only some 70' deep, the bunker would fail to withstand conventional bunker busting bombs that penetrate first and then explode.

Given that the whole thing was for the elite, it was designed amazingly sparse. All spaces including the Prime Minister's quarters have all the charm of a boy-scout camp or a windowless elementary school from that same period, whereby it isn't sure whether the schools, also often designated as shelters, copied from Diefenbunker or the other way round. Either way and in both cases it is astounding to which extend the deeply human longing for beauty and comfort was ignored. Only the mess room provided the smallest token of attention to the dependency of the human mind on daylight and nature: a large painting on one wall shows the landscape above ground, acting as a "window".

Instead, there was reliance on finicky technology: The mainframe computers, the communication devices and the video conferencing could not make up for the fact, that such a bunker would drive people crazy in a short while. Even though the bunker was never really tested, apparently there were not even practice exercises, it was still used by the army as a facility and actual humans worked here until 1994.
Mainframe computers in the technological heart of the bunker
(Photo: Philipsen)
The Carp bunker (along with 50 smaller installations across Canada) was a colossal waste of money but the C$ 14 admission fee are worth every penny if one wants to learn how not to solve a problem and how not to design for actual people. It is good that Canada declared it a National Historic Site. The US president should visit it before talking about "fire and fury".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Chilling Artefacts

The Prime Minister's bunker office
(Photo: Ottawa Citizen)

The entry to the gold vault (Photo: Philipsen)

The "window" in the mess hall (Photo: Philipsen)

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