As military architecture, the concrete bunker would seem to be a relic of an era before megatonnage and asymmetrical warfare. Ruins of these structures dot the coastlines of countries that served as 20th-century theaters of war (and even those that weren't, such as the once-heavily fortified Northern California coast).
Europe's problems today may not match the threat of the last global war, but it struggles to maintain its economic union in the face of proposed austerity measures and the resulting mass protests. It also contends with the ongoing circumstance of mass migration, newly intensified by this decade's wars and displacements that accompany the Arab Spring. Two recently graduated students from the École Spéciale d'Architecture have explored the formal qualities of the concrete bunker while imagining a subversive new venture that critiques the European political response to the immigration question.
On a web site prepared for their diploma project, Hugo Kaici and Felix de Montesquiou propose the Northern European Migrants Organisation, or NEMO Project. The context of the project is a peculiar convergence of responses to the political climate in Europe in the wake of migratory flows, the structural remains of World War II bunkers on the coast of Northern France, and a sardonic critique of minimalism in the service of political ideology.
Like many natives of France's northwest coast, Kaici and Montesquiou each had strong associations to the bunker typology before conceiving the project. Kaici was raised in Dieppe, where a concentration of structures forming the Atlantikwall—the enormous coastal expanse that where the lines of Nazi fortifications built to prevent an Allied invasion—remained, providing the setting for childhood games of hide-and-seek and graffiti art alike. Montesquiou was raised in Paris but while studying in Calais, where the ruins of Festung Europa also remain along coastal sites, he likewise found those hulking forms oddly "sculptural, massive, and beautiful."
The seeds of the concept came to Kaici and Montesquiou in 2009, when Nicholas Sarkozy finally terminated plans for the Sangatte 2 immigration centre in Calais. Sarkozy had always dealt with the immigration nexus of Calais—only 42 kilometres from the English coast—with a heavy hand; he had shuttered the original Sangatte in 2002 while he was Interior Minister, and suppressed the subsequent pop-up shelters known as the "Sangatte jungle." Kaici and Montesquiou's indignation over Sarkozy's reactionary gesture—which made it illegal for local citizens to "aid" illegal immigrants, which would ultimately serve to embolden the often brutal international mafias dedicated to human smuggling—sparked the idea for a conceptual architectural response to the situation. "Facing this situation, we reacted and tried to connect the migrants to the bunkers which we already wanted to work with," says Kaici. "This is when we decided to design an illegal immigration base," adds Montesquiou.
The historical convergences bearing upon these personal experiences influenced the specific choice of architectural form. "As we always wanted to work on the German bunkers on the French coast, we decided to reverse the idea of the Atlantikwall to facilitate the migration of those wanting to reach England. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the site we choose was one of the most fortified by the Germans. This is why the infrastructure is disguised as an abandoned bunker," says Montesquiou.
Further research yielded the somewhat surprising design legacy of the bunkers. When Hitler closed the Bauhaus in 1933, its faculty and students dispersed internationally, many going to America and Tel Aviv. But a number, such as graphic designer Herbert Bayer, stayed on to work with the Reich. The heavy-engineering program Organisation Todt (OT) increasingly required designers and laborers to fulfill the Nazi's totalizing vision for the built environment, and whether through conscription (Lilly Reich) or voluntarily (Kurt Kranz), Bauhaus alumni designed for the OT.
In some cases the result was a bunker typology with "loads of details not necessary to a military program," says Montesquiou. "Inside they are really sculptural. For NEMO we wanted to reprise the vocabulary of the bunkers and keep everything really minimal." Montesquiou was working in the office of John Pawson during Sangatte's coup de grace, an experience which also generated concepts for the minimal forms. "We designed with attention to Golden sections and classical proportions. The architecture is minimal, the services provided in the infrastructure are only those we thought essential to a migrant in transit. But at the same time we tried to incorporate details to humanize this very brutal building."
True to the bunker mentality of their adopted architectural forms, the spaces present their own austerity measures. Though no longer prisms of reinforced defense, NEMO's program is absolutely minimal, with absolutely no superficial function, and simultaneously grandiose. Beyond designing the oblong massings and interiors themselves—complete with media rooms (Qadaffi's on the telly) and temporary lodging nooks adorned with naked lady posters—Kaici and Montesquiou created a conceptual service model for illegal immigration as subversive as it is slick. "We wanted to play with the confusion between the true and the false; although the idea is totally mad and unrealistic, we tried to stage the project into reality. We used photorealistic renders, and an ultracommercial approach."
This thoroughgoing concept extends to tickets that one can book virtually for the migration, with amenity options such as "speedy boarding," "fake passports," and "English lessons." Since presenting their diploma project (and winning top prize for it), the broad disorder of global events this summer has only furthered NEMO's relevance. As Montesquiou asserts, "We wanted to play with the confusion between the true and the false; although the idea is totally mad and unrealistic, the project is already staged in a mad reality."