Memento mori

You can always rely on the military to make a right mess of a place. Sometimes it’s incidental, sometimes it’s intentional and often its downright consciously genocidal. The US military in Iraq have probably been responsible for all three categories of mayhem.

Unfortunately, their appalling adaptive reuse of the archaeological site of Babylon


(Photo labanex)

as a military base pales in comparison to their destruction of the historic city of Fallujah which can only be described as a war crime.


(Photo labanex)

In fairness, it must be said that Sadam Hussein’s treatment of the Babylon site was little better,


(Photo labanex)

replacing original ruins with his mickey mouse “restoration” – dictators have a tendency to ignore the ICOMOS Burra Charter principle “do as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it usable, but otherwise change it as little as possible so that its cultural significance is retained”

But militaries also build on an enormous scale, and they always have throughout history. We tend to forget that the Great Wall of China was a military installation


Part of Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, UK. (Photo bluemoose)

as were most of Europe’s numerous castles. The Maginot Line, inexplicably restored by the French after WW2, is still partly in working condition – if that can be said of something that never worked. What could it be adaptively reused as? A very large wine cellar perhaps? As one of history’s most expensive and laughable failures it could be regarded as the prototype for the US attempts at developing a missile shield.

Yet strangely enough, in one of those contradictions that confound observers, the US military is among the world’s best practitioners of building deconstruction, the skill of careful demolition to ensure the maximum reuse of the buildings materials.

And of course entire military bases can be adaptively reused although usually they are simply removed and the land turned over to housing.

An extraordinary exception is the Chinati Foundation in the remote west Texas town of Marfa. Although there are times when it seems every declining community in the world fantasises about a destination museum led revival, the Chinati Foundation is undoubtedly one of the most unlikely success stories.


Cats love art. (Photo Mr Frosted)

Minimalist sculptor Don Judd purchased the redundant army camp, Fort D.A. Russell, in 1979 and began converting its buildings into a museum for minimal and installation art.


(Photo informedmindstravel)

(Photo trixie skips)

(Photo salut aimee)

Despite its remoteness and Judd’s death before the completion of the project, it has survived and prospered partly because of Judd’s sympathetic approach to the the long term display of works


(Photo Mr Frosted)

and an ascetic built and natural environment


(Photo informedmindstravel)

that provides little distraction to the careful contemplation of the art works.


(Photo jabzoog)

It would be hard to imagine a destination museum that contradicts the Bilbao model so completely. Architects must look at it and weep in the same way that artists weep with rage when confronted with the unsympathetic monstrosities that self indulgent superstar architects inflict on them.

On the other hand Marfa now has a Prada store nearby


(Photo jabzoog)

to ensure that the isolation doesn’t make art world black packers feel too cut off from conspicuous consumption.

But museum conversions can’t solve every problem. Some military installations remains so threatening that even after half a century of abandonment they cannot be digested by their surroundings.


(Photo dblackadder)

The Vienna flakturm (flak towers) are a case in point. Built by the Nazis during the Second World War as platforms for the flak guns defending Vienna from air attack, they have proved too strong to demolish. If the destruction of the most symbolic built culture is an essential military tool in the process of subjugation, so too is the building of new symbolic buildings. Hitler intended the flaksturm to be reused as war memorials after he had achieved world domination and in some sense that is how they remain, sullenly resisting most attempts at adaptive reuse.


(Photo scope II)

One has even been converted into an aquarium


(Photo timbrighton)

with a surrounding plaza,


(Photo pokpok313)

a climbing school on one wall and a Lawrence Weiner art installation on the top


(Photo watz)

and yet its essential brutalism remains.


(Photo jvhemert)

Others stand like grotesquely overscaled follies in parks where they can now only be regarded as memento mori, the Roman Et In Arcadia Ego writ very large.


(Photo weisserstier)

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