What is now a vast, unoccupied area enjoyed by cyclists and hikers in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France was once the Alpine extension of the Maginot Line, built to protect France from German and Italian invasion in World War II. The French spent years planning the construction of 2.8-metre-thick reinforced concrete structures, strong enough to withstand bomb blasts, in anticipation of attack from the south east.
Completed in the 1930s, the bunkers provided soldiers with shelter and security for months at a time but, with most of the conflict occurring further north, they barely saw action. As a result, the bunkers remain largely unaltered from their original designs. While some are being used to grow mushrooms, as wine cellars and for guided tours, the majority have been left to rot, dissolving slowly into the French countryside as they are weathered by the elements.
Discovered by Max Leonard, a writer and avid cyclist, while riding through the Alps, the bunkers posed questions of their existence and history, prompting the writer – supported by the photographer Camille McMillan – to devote eight months to exploration and documentation, resulting in a book: Bunker Research.
Here, Avaunt presents an exclusive photo essay, annotated with Leonard’s recollections of the making of Bunker Research.
Bunker Research came to life after years of cycling around the southern Alps, seeing the abandoned concrete WWII installations on the hills and asking, why? It seemed incredible that this playground for hikers and cyclists was once so strategically important. Camille McMillan, a photographer who lives in the Pyrenees, joined me in documenting them.
Understanding the bunkers meant understanding that this border between France and Italy had not always been peaceful. The city of Nice and its surrounding county have only been French since 1860, and the mountains in the back country are both a sporting paradise and a military conundrum, full of channels, weak points and redoubts.
The squat shapes of the bunkers contrast starkly with the soaring peaks around them. Some look like UFOs, just landed from an alien planet, yet others seem to exist in harmony with these incredible landscapes.
As they decay the installations leave increasingly incomprehensible remains. This was at an altitude of 2,600m and we’d almost got the hire car stuck in a snowdrift on the track to this spot. Sometimes the whole project felt like a gigantic piece of land art, something dreamed up by Richard Long.
After World War II the French/Italian border was redrawn, and some of the opposing Italian bunkers are now stranded in France. Their design is distinctively different. Each site had its own atmosphere and feeling, but the Italian bunkers were uniformly darker and more oppressive.
We called this project the search for the hidden history of modernism in the mountains. But the bunkers’ moment in modern architecture has yet to be fully investigated. The unprecedented use of huge quantities of concrete in World War II pushed concrete – previously associated with progressiveness, light and space – into a darker place. Bunkers are the missing link between modernism and brutalism.
Most of these bunkers never came under sustained attack and the Alpine Line was never breached. The worst fighting came at the end of the war as the Germans retreated and entrenched, and the Free French found themselves firing upon their own positions. Perhaps nowhere else in Western Europe are there such eerie battlefield scars.
This was on a knife-edge ridge between two plunging valleys, above a black run at a local ski resort. We were lucky that it had been the worst winter for snow this millennium. Less lucky was that the Camille’s vertigo was too bad to let him climb to the top. There is at least one photo in the book that isn’t his, but I’m not saying which.
After the war, most of the bunkers were decommissioned. Some were eventually used as storage space or even as mushroom farms. A couple have been turned into museums, but most are now derelict. Local people must accommodate them and live around them, knowing they will always be watched over by these reminders of conflicts past.
Nature is now reclaiming these sites, and they are slowly disintegrating. What else can be done? How, precisely, do you remove a structure with concrete walls almost three metres thick that was designed to withstand massive explosions? Natural forces will achieve what people cannot: with every passing year, every freeze and thaw, the bunkers are inching ever closer to dust.