York Cold War Bunker
Designer unknown (1961)

York’s Aztec Temple

Within a red-brick residential complex just off the busy Acomb Road, partially hidden within a green meadow, is the Cold War Bunker.1 Opened in 1961, just a year prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the bunker was closed in 1992 and left to decay until English Heritage acquired, restored, and opened it to the public in the year 2000.2 The building is an extraordinary 20th-century addition to the long tradition of military architecture in York, which interestingly often sees these buildings turned into heritage sites like in the case of the Clifford’s Tower. The (once-white) green “semi-secret” building is accessible only through steep concrete stairs, which gave it the nickname “the Aztec Temple”.

Green bunker on hill with stairs
Fig. 1: York Cold War Bunker, 1961. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

The bunker was one of 12 headquarters of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC), a civil defence organisation founded in 1925, and part of a constellation of 26 nationwide bunkers meant to chart nuclear explosions and monitor nuclear fallout during the Cold War (1947-1991).3 It stands on a green meadow which was formerly an orchard, while also tearing through the fabric of its residential neighbourhood, embodying the spirit of a time in which every day was constantly torn by the threat of a nuclear disaster.

View of room with map on table from raised walkway
Fig. 2: interior view of the Cold War Bunker. Photo: © Nilfanion, 2014.

After being acquired by English Heritage, the bunker became accessible only through private tours. The visit is meant to offer a look into the daily life of the nuclear post centred around the daily ROC volunteer experience. The tour takes the audience through a selection of rooms starting from the canteen, home to the volunteer quarters, to the operation room, which was the “heart of the bunker”.4 The anachronistic military decor of the bunker rigidly followed national standards, from the building’s plant to its palette. The colour scheme inside the bunker, in fact, was meant to influence the mood of the staff: for example, the blue walls of the operation rooms were thought to increase concentration. The operation room’s “sci-fi-esque” appearance, with its outdated phone booths and screens, clashes with the unbearable awareness of living during a new wave of wartime nuclear threat, presenting the audience with the paradoxical apex of a building that embodies both a historicized past and an unfolding present.

This unassuming green building offers an important opportunity for reflection on humanity’s fragility in the face of catastrophe. The technology of the bunker, which is now fully outdated, was never the most modern: the bunker would not have survived a direct nuclear attack even in its heyday and in case of a miraculous survival to a contiguous blast, it would only protect and sustain the volunteer crew for 30 days.

Row of chairs and desks with tables of data
Fig. 3: interior view of the Cold War Bunker. Photo: © Nilfanion, 2014.

A visit to York’s Cold War Bunker two years into a global pandemic which began in March 2020 and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, is not for the fainthearted. The semi-secret building breaks through the soil or maybe dives deep into it, standing like a monument to humankind’s unpreparedness for its own evils. My father was born in the 1950s and he often tells me about the Cold War, and how his generation painfully coexisted with the nuclear threat. However, his stories always end with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), which symbolises the end of the Cold War. Standing in front of the bunker, with an ongoing pandemic and a war in the present and a climate crisis that seems inevitable, it is hard to imagine the fall of our own “Berlin Wall.” Maybe what my dad’s generation and mine have in common is the urgency to scramble towards solutions for insurmountable, man-made problems, and this bunker is part of a tapestry of monuments that reminds us of that.

Leaving the bunker, I successfully let the business of Acomb Road and the tranquillity of the residential neighbourhood lull away these thoughts. The ease of my distraction makes me wonder if the numbing peacefulness of this little residential pocket of York was partly why it was chosen to house the bunker.