Bunker mentality

Design byHugh Aldersey-Williams

These must be the January sales of the peace dividend ("Everything must go"). Once people camped outside Greenham Common; now they get to see inside. At least, the artists Jane and Louise Wilson do. They made video footage, photographs and models from their visits to the now deserted American air base. In some shots, judiciously placed floodlights give a Spielbergian drama to the vacant spaces. In others, the drabness is overwhelming.

Gamma is the latest in a series of explorations of identity and environment that stems in part from the Wilsons being identical twins (the work that brought them to attention four years ago was a video record of the two, made to look as similar as possible, responding to questions under hypnosis). The artists' blurb makes out that "the bland look of the office-style architecture and furniture contradicts the actual function and significance of the place". But of course it doesn't. It is its direct expression. The "function of the place" was to be not so much the hot seat in a shooting war as the bureaucratic locus of its avoidance. The waiting game is played out as office routine. In the ultimate demonstration of Parkinson's Law, work is created in order to fill a hopeful infinity of time. The place was apparently deemed too dull to serve as a James Bond location.

Le Corbusier took inspiration from military aircraft and battleships, as did many architects. But the military's own building has been ignored even by that champion of non-architectural architecture, Robert Venturi. This is an omission, though it is easy to see why it happened. The ostensible distinction of military building is that it is functional; its crime for architectural historians is that it is not functionalist.

In Our Man in Havana, engineering drawings of the parts of a vacuum cleaner are famously misunderstood to be plans for a military base. But it would take an even greater idiot than the one Graham Greene sent to Cuba to make such a confusion in life. The buildings are not functional like machine parts. They do nod to the conventions of architecture even if they avoid its isms. Some, such as missile silos, are shaped by their function, but most are rectangular blocks. Pinewood stands in for the American base in Dr Strangelove. Although there are a few give-aways (the vegetation is all wrong), it works because the studios have that same low-rise, purpose-built look and that same essential placelessness.

In the Wilsons' exhibition, only the hangar once used to store nuclear warheads has any pretension to architectural grandeur. Or perhaps this is how we see it now that such structures have inspired an architectural style, one that returns to its source in the case of Norman Foster's air museum at Duxford. Military examples of architecture qua architecture are rare. There are two contrasting exceptions, both by America's mid-century power architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill: the soaring expressionism of the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, and the machine-age refinement of the Marine Gunnery School in Illinois.

But the trend is towards domesticity. At Lakenheath in Suffolk, for example, you can see the functional concrete bunkers and Nissen huts, but what strikes you from behind the wire fence are the typical modern terraced houses and the golf course. (There is also an elegant steel water tower, better than many a concrete tower on civvie street.)

The seemingly random scatter of buildings that distinguishes a military base from any old suburb or campus (or the plans for a vacuum cleaner) is a recent thing. Order deserted military architecture when warfare went airborne. In earlier times, geometry was a key to defence. The ante-bellum forts of Georgia and the star-polygon walls of fortified Palmanova testify to that. Barracks and forts of the 18th century are now admired for their classical purity - in the Caribbean, British naval edifices, erected without adaptation exactly as they would have been in Plymouth or Portsmouth, now ravaged by hurricanes and creepers, make romantic ruins. In their time they were functional, too. Perhaps Greenham will one day be an English Heritage site.

In all honesty, it's a stretch. Many of the Wilson twins' images show environments that are no more potent than backstage in any large building - a theatre, a station, an office block. It is the fixtures and fittings that betray them, although maybe not in the expected way. The furniture - fibreglass chairs, cheap contract desks - is shoddier than that of any editorial office. One could believe that the military is positively parsimonious.

It's only in the absurd veneer of symbols and language that there is pomp and circumstance: the red and blue arrows you must follow on the floor of a decontamination chamber; the ludicrous cliche of the stylised stencil lettering, used not because it is more legible or part of some corporate identity, but because it is faster to apply in an environment where there's now plenty of time to kill. Action Man-style, they bark out their preposterous cryptic messages -

two-man policy

no lone zone

- on the doors of a mysterious room recreated by the Wilsons. The military swagger is no thicker than a coat of paint.

"Gamma" continues at the Lisson Gallery, 52-54 Bell St, London NW1 5DA (0171-724 2739) until 1 April

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?