Sunday, December 6, 2009

Digging In: Inhabited Landscapes of War

Last Sunday I went to Dover to do some not particularly thorough research in advance of FAT's design studio. I'm ordering most of the images I took into a photo-essay which I will post up here shortly. The following thoughts though focus exclusively on the cliffs and their history as a landscape of defence.

Dover's white cliffs are geology as ideology, a landscape supposedly embodying a myth of heroic English resistance. There is a way though that they more literally house a history of defence. They are inhabited with a network of tunnels that have acted at various points as cannon emplacements, hospital wards and war rooms. These tunnels occasionally pop out of the cliff face as ad-hoc bits of buildings with an incongruously domestic scale. Balconies, greenhouses and Pallladian arched windows hint at submerged buildings deep within the cliff.

Sometimes they are more substantial, like this one complete with HVAC ductwork sticking out - an air-conditioned cliff - which looks like a fragment of some Victorian railway viaduct. There's a touch of Planet of the Apes about it, as if a landslide has buried some former trainshed. Or, perhaps, that the cliffs are an elaborate piece of camouflage formed from plaster of paris and fake grass propped up by a rickety timber framework.

Image: Section through the Secret Wartime Tunnels.
(Images and info via)

In fact the cliffs are riddled with carved out spaces created over centuries by war and capable of housing 4000 troops. Somewhere within them is the Regional Government centre, built during the cold war in the event of nuclear attack. Radar masts and pre-radar sound mirrors dot their surface, while tele-communications thread through the limestone below.

The cliffs also house the remarkable Grand Shaft, a 140 foot deep staircase directly connecting the former cliff top barracks to the town below. This entire section of the cliff is known as the Western Heights, an interconnected series of earthworks and defences begun in the middle ages, expande
d massively during the 18th century and achieving its most fabled role in the 1940's.

The cliff as secret, inhabited fortress also reminds me of the remarkable photographs of camouflaged US aircraft factories in the second world war. Here an entire Lockheed factory was disguised as a landscape by a series of vast stage set paintings of fields, dotted with three dimensional mock ups of far
ms and trees. Underneath this elaborate cover the factory went about its business.

(This image and more via)

Here, perhaps, is also an unlikely seedbed for all those post-war architectural fantasies of serviced landscapes: Archigram's unbuilt Monte Carlo scheme - a casino and entertainment complex disguised as a hill, Reyner Banham's Un-House, Superstudio's inhabited buildingless environments.

(Archigram. Plan of Monte Carlo Entertainment Centre via)

It exists more overtly in the gadgetry of high-tech architecture. Foster and Roger's early Team 4 house in Creek Vean included a hidden room in the hillside overlooking the Cornish coast. Not only does this mysterious, insular, space appear like the glazed bubble over a Lancaster bomber cockpit, but it is a room literally buried into the ground, a fortress of privacy and seclusion.


A bit of further reading has revealed some inaccuracies in this post, for which I apologise. Dover Castle and the Western Heights are two distinct places entirely, although you wouldn't realise that from reading the above. While the castle is perhaps the quintessential image of Dover, the Western Heights on the other side of the harbour are home to far more ambitious fortifications in the form of the Citadel and the Drop Redout, two enormous 18th century fortresses embedded within the landscape of the cliff.

In fact, the Western Heights form a sort of inversion of the cliffs on which the castle sits, an enormous but invisible counterpoint. It is a truly fortified landscape where the entire cliff top has been sculpted into a system of defence. It is a schedule ancient monument although large sections of it have been destroyed. The Citadel itself - a pentagonal fortress - is now a Young Offenders Institution.

You can view it here.


Blaize said...

So, are these places still accessible? Are there tours of the interiors? (*Adds another thing to the list of what she would like to do if she ever goes to England.*)

Charles Holland said...

Yes, parts of them are Blaize. If you follow the link in the post I think it takes you to some stuff about which bits are open. The shaft has recently been restored although I didn't go in it - hence no pictures. There are tours of the old subterranean hospital wards I believe.

Blaize said...

Troglodyte hospitals. This also revivifies my desire to go to Matera, Italy.