Flakturm Archives or the Panopticon in Reverse

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The Flak Towers or Flakturm were large concrete bunkers, with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the roof, built during the Second World War by the Germans. According to the documentary Hitler’s Secret Bunkers by George Pagliero, Hitler took personal interest on their design and even made some sketches for it. It has been said that the towers were constructed in a mere six months, due to an urgent need of protection. Taking the Augarten Tower in Wien as the start point for his proposal, Léopold Lambert designed an archive project for the [un]restricted access competition which took place in August 2012 with the aim of re-envision the future of decommissioned military space. Lambert wrote:

This project undertakes to design archives within one of the Flakturm, former Second World War anti-aircraft towers in the center of Vienna. The idea of constructing an archive within a bunker is not a neutral one. The defensiveness of this building allows, both symbolically and literally, to host and protect goods against the alteration of the externality —whether it is time or a more direct antagonism. Many civilizations of the past have been annihilated, not only physically, but absolutely as any form of their production has been also destroyed with them. The recent history would have still seen several tragic examples of ethnical cleansing directly linked to processes of cultural destructions.

We have seen other examples about using bunkers to protect data, but what we find really interesting about this project is that it proposes an archive for books. And we immediately wondered… what if Guy Montag had found himself in front of the Flakturm Archives while he was working?

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“There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves”
― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

In the theater play Almansor that he wrote in 1820, Heinrich Heine made the following tragic prophecy: “Where we burn books, we will end up burning men.” And maybe this is not fiction. Both Ray Bradbury and Heine, were talking not only about books, but about the human condition. As Léopold explains, on May 10th 1933, the Nazis who recently reached the head of the executive and legislative power in Germany burnt thousands of books including Heine’s, which did not fit within the spirit of the new anti-Semitic/anti-Communist policies they were willing to undertake. About a decade later, they industrially killed eleven millions people [including six millions Jews] in what remains as the darkest moment of mankind’s history: the Holocaust.

It is clear that book burning is not reduced to the physical object, the main purpose of totalitarian governments which have ended burning books is to burn ideas and ideals. The books which advocated ideas have to be suppressed in order to substitute thinking. In most of the cases, the books destroyed are irreplaceable and their burning constitutes a severe loss to cultural heritage, as happened with the obliteration of the Library of Baghdad, the burning of books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty, and the Nazi book burnings, among others, as we can see on this list of book-burning incidents. About this issue, Léopold Lambert explains that in 1992, at the beginning of the three years long siege of Sarajevo, the Serbian army deliberately bombed the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina thus destroying more than a million books, including many unique documents precious to Judaism and Islam. The attack on Bosnian culture was fundamentally complementary of the thousands of assassinations —very often by snipers— of the Bosnian people themselves during these three years of war [1992-1995] as the latter was based on the supremacist will of a culture over another.

These dystopian but real events are the main driving force behind the idea of creating the Flakturm Archives. The will to store books within a gigantic bunker constitutes, of course, a literal gesture of protection for the books, but more importantly it influences the imaginary of its visitors on the importance of the books physicality and spatialization. The main concept behind the Flakturm Archives also reminds us about different references; from Umberto Eco’s labyrinthine medieval library which at the end of the book The Name of the Rose is burned and totally destroyed, to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four [Chapter 4], where the so-called “memory hole” is used to burn any book or written text which is inconvenient to the regime.

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The drawings of the Flakturm Archives can be also related to Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione, with its enormous vaults with stairs and mighty machines. Richard Wendorf wrote about Piranesi’s ruins that they are visual reminders of a monumental past, a past so present that contemporary sensibility must accommodate rather than attempt to obliterate it. Léopold Lambert’s project has this kind of sensibility: he’s reminding us a terrible past with its wars and libricides, but at the same time, proposing new ways to avoid repeating the same mistakes. He ends saying:

The Flakturm Archives are designed, not to diffuse the violence contained within this military structure, but to attempt to reveal it. War architecture —military structures or buildings which have been partially destroyed— has indeed this value; it expresses the violence which lies within each building, it reveals the systematic oppressive power through which architecture subjectivizes the bodies. Once this violence expressed, one can begin to actively adapt to it and appropriate it. The playfulness that the building proposes through its experience is a direct consequence of such appropriation. In this regard, the archival space is constituted by the inside world that is hermetically contained by the bunker tower. Its vertical organization of open slabs, complemented by the numerous stairs, offers to the body a terrain that can only be appropriate through efforts. This dimension of the project allows a global interest on the physicality of things, whether the latter are humans, books or architecture.

It is also interesting but not strange if you know Léopold’s blog The Funambulist, that he choose the flakturm in Augarten, the only one with the round plant, which is also a clear reference to the panopticon.

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The panopticon is based on the principle that visibility is a trap and the person becomes a object of information, never a subject in communication. It can be say that the project Flakturm Archives is a panopticon in reverse. The different levels, bridges and platforms allow the possibility of infinite and endless views of the books. Paraphrasing Foucault, here the books are the object of a kind of surveillance and induce the feeling of an immanent state of conscious and permanent visibility. But what we understand about this project is that this principle works in reverse: beside the powerful structure of the military architecture of the Flakturm, there is also the power of people taking care of the books.

Foucault stated that “The Panopticon is a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.” Maybe this is the kind of “power” we need in the current times, to avoid the manipulation of knowledge. The same manipulation which has been part of human history, that is so contradictory that we have been able to see how a dictator as Saddam Hussein [a political figure who was anything but democratic] wrote several essays about “democracy” and how his politically perverse speeches were the promises of freedom and security which masked the reality of repressive regimes. Only the access to books, to knowledge and the free exchange of history and ideas, will allow us to learn how to not do the same mistakes again… or at least, to try it.

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We want to write this post as a brief homage to “all the writers and citizens who struggled to salvage the manuscripts, which still speaks to the strength of dialogue, even in book-burning times.”* Because as Ray Bradbury wrote, “There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

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* Quote taken from the article Burning Books: Sarajevo’s Library Twenty Years on and the Fragility of Cultural Heritage.

[1] Header picture taken from Flak Towers in the Augarten.
[2] The complete project Flakturm Archives can be visited on Léopold Lambert’s web-site.
[3] All the projects presented at [un]restricted access competition has been published here.
[4] More info about the Flak Towers on the book The Flak Towers in Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna 1940-1950 [Schiffer Military Aviation History] by Michael Foedrowitz.


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