When he was 25, urbanist, art critic and political theorist Paul Virilio happened upon the Atlantikwall, a series of nearly 1,500 military bunkers erected by the Germans on the French coast during World War II to ward off Allied incursion. It was 1958, and the structures had begun blending into the surroundings through familiarity: bikes were stowed there by sunbathers, for instance, and even a young Virilio found he'd failed to truly recognize the sturdy war huts he'd on occasion used as a beach cabana. But once he really looked, the squatty forts conjured cultural memories of "the Egyptian mastabas, the Etruscan tombs, the Aztec structures…as if this piece of artillery fortification could be identified as a funeral ceremony."
Virilio's 1975 book about his explorations was only recently translated into English and published by Princeton Architectural Press. The Morning News posts photos from the book along with Virilio's introduction, in which he shares his thinking on the odd fortifications, which point out into the Atlantic abyss. Virilio, it dawns on me, was doing "experimental geography," long before the term was invented: He ponders the placement of the bunkers (not "oriented toward a specific, staked-out objective" as such fortifications typically were, these "concrete altars" were "built to face the void of the oceanic horizon"), how such modern edifices came to be overlookably normal ("Why continue to be surprised at Le Corbusier’s forms of modern architecture? Why speak of 'brutalism'? And, above all, why this ordinary habitat, so very ordinary over so many years?"), and how they'd been modified over time, plastered with anti-German graffiti and later ads.
The essay concludes with Virilio entering one of the dark enclosures, lit only by a few stabbing shafts of sun slicing through the gun slots:
[T]he whole structure weighs down on the visitor’s shoulders. Like a slightly undersized piece of clothing that hampers as much as it enclothes, the reinforced concrete and steel envelope is too tight under the arms and sets you in a semiparalysis fairly close to that of illness.Read it.
Slowed down in his physical activity but attentive, anxious over the catastrophic probabilities of his environment, the visitor in this perilous place is beset with a singular heaviness; in fact he is already in the grips of that cadaveric rigidity from which the shelter was designed to protect him.