A bisected pillbox on the bank of a dyke opens a way through the sometimes impenetrable memories of war to a future of broader horizons
It is not the most beautiful or obviously inspiring location in Holland, Europe, or the world, and yet the dot on the map at Culemborg where Bunker 599 broods alongside the lugubrious waters of the 13th-century Diefdijk, and faces the relentless mechanised roar of the Amsterdam-Maastricht motorway,is poignant, and oddly moving.
This reinforced-concrete bunker, erected in early 1940 as part of Holland’s defences against military invasion, has been split in two − cut through by steel wires like some giant, and untypically hard, Dutch cheese − and now acts as a framed viewpoint for passers-by who, stepping down from the roadway, pass through its mournful bulk out onto a wooden jetty, set between timber piles, to the very edge of the dijk, and a view across the motorway, electricity pylons and flat levels stretching away into an infinitely big sky.
There is no meaning here other than stopping to stare. Certainly, the remodelled Bunker 599 catches the eyes of walkers and cyclists. It is at once, or so it seems, a large-scale contemporary sculpture, or, perhaps − seen from a distance − some Neolithic standing stone. And just as those ancient and ineffable monuments draw us to them, as if magnetically, so this split concrete bunker, reconceived by Rietveld Landscape, with Atelier de Lyon, commands attention. Walkers, this way, if you please. Cyclists, dismount.
passers-by are invited to enter the bunker by steps
A part of the poignancy lies in the fact that, like its many sibling bunkers, pillboxes and canal-side defences, Fort 599 did nothing to stop the Germans from invading Holland in May 1940 and occupying the country in a few days. For all its ingenuity, the extensive system of water defences built from the mid-17th century to 1940 was unable to hold up an enemy who simply bypassed it. German paratroopers were dropped in their thousands on the other side of the 85 kilometre long Dutch Waterline, while the Luftwaffe reduced much of Rotterdam to rubble, threatening the same treatment for Amsterdam and other key cities unless the Dutch surrendered. They had no choice. So, all the ingenuity that went into the creation of a vast waterworks designed to flood the eastern Netherlands and so hold back invasions by Spanish, French and German armies, was ultimately to no effect.
Even then, the defences were shored up again after the Second World War, as if they might restrain the might of the Soviet armed forces at the outbreak of a much-feared Third World War. Holland may have fought brilliantly against the Spanish in the 17th century, but − especially because of its flat geography − it was to be no match for the sheer might of Napoleon and, later, Adolf Hitler. And, yet, today, the trade borne by all those articulated lorries thundering along the A2 motorway in view of Bunker 599 is a symbol of a Europe at peace, of boundaries pushed aside, of infinite possibilities.
This, too, is something to contemplate while looking through the fissure Rietveld Landscape have excavated through the warless concrete bunker, out into that level economic playing field, that boundless sky.
the project collides abstract form and historical relic to evocative effect
Unlike the German Atlantic Wall bunkers built by the Todt Organisation as a defence against the Allied invasion of mainland Europe, the Dutch fortifications seem, if not innocent, unthreatening. One bunker − Fort Hoofddijk − is now a part of the botanical garden at the University of Utrecht, while others serve as cafés and bed-and-breakfast hostels.
Their picturesque quality, and, of course, their historical importance, was fully recognised in 1999 when a central, regional and local government masterplan was drawn up to re-imagine the Dutch Waterline, old and new, as a kind of national park, or trail. The Hungarian-born, New York artist, Agnes Denes, was charged with overall artistic control, and now the plan is unfolding, over a 20-year period from 2000, the length of this haunting, and, for many visitors to Holland, still unexpected military landscape.
Bunker 599 is just one of the ‘strategic interventions’ Rietveld Landscape have made across Holland. The practice, which was founded by Ronald and Erik Rietveld in 2006 and has recently been renamed RAAAF (Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances), came to international attention at the 2010 Venice Biennale. Its project there, Vacant NL, was a strangely compelling study of 10,000 empty government buildings − an enormous number in a small country − with imaginative ideas of what could be done with them: the Dutch government has been listening.
For this year’s Peace of Utrecht Festival, RAAAF unveiled its Secret Operation 610. This proved to be another meditation on defence, its impact on the landscape and its possible futility against overwhelming odds. Again, it is hard to know quite what to make of this RAAAF project, and yet there is something strangely thrilling in the sight of the most unexpected think-tank studio you will ever have encountered emerging on caterpillar tracks − in the guise of some monstrous Cold War warrior, Captain Condor space vehicle, or giant mechanical crow − from an abandoned F-15 military jet interceptor hangar at Soesterberg airbase. The jet black machine trundles in sinister fashion along a concrete runway that never saw Cold War aircraft taking off in anger with a circle of Delft university engineers inside its belly working on their ‘CleanEra’ project, a quest for ‘no noise, no carbon, just fly’ aircraft of the future.
Architect: RAAAF and Atelier De Lyon
Photography: Courtesy of the architect