Between 2013 and 2015, American photographer Adam Reynolds documented Israel’s ubiquitous bomb shelters. As he explains in his new monograph Architecture of an Existential Threat, out now from Edition Lammerhuber, “Israelis are required to have access to a bomb shelter and rooms that can be sealed off in the event of a chemical weapons attack.” Due to this law, there are “approximately one million bomb shelters, both public and private, found throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories.”
Like the Cold War missile silos of the United States, or the bunkers that popped up all over Albania during the reign of Enver Hoxha, these shelters are designed for a speculative apocalypse. Since its formation in 1948, Israel has been in an ongoing conflict. Still the longterm, Earth-shattering war that these shelters foretell has yet to arrive. As a large number of the bunkers are mamad, or mass-produced safe rooms attached to homes, they are often transformed into domestic space. One of Reynolds’s images shows a child’s bedroom, stickers dotting its reinforced concrete and a dreamcatcher dangling from the air vent.
“Bunkers and shelters are a dreary reality throughout the country, because in Israel threat and exceptional situations are a part of everyday life,” writes Austrian journalist Danielle Spera in one of the book’s essays. “This is why attempts are being made to give these shelters the appearance of normality.”
Reynolds has also photographed the coastline of the Gaza Strip, as well as decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) sites beneath the Great Plains of the United States, a series recently shared on the New Republic. Architecture of an Existential Threat includes shelters converted into gyms, classrooms, community centers, mosques, conference rooms, and synagogues. There is a train station in Sderot constructed to survive rocket fire, a hospital in Tel Aviv with its own underground air filtration system, and a humble concrete drainage tube in Nitzan with benches on its walls. Water-storage tanks, blast proof windows, and sleeping cots recall this architecture’s purpose.
“Many of the shelters I heard about by word of mouth from friends and acquaintances in Israel, or I’d ask about a specific type of repurposed shelter — like the pub shelter,” Reynolds told Hyperallergic. Access was not difficult as he concentrated on public bomb shelters, an infrastructure maintained by the city government. His goal was the offer a geographic, and cultural, representation of the bomb shelter in Israel. Revamped shelters in Haifa, site of a 2006 war, reflect recent conflict, while those south of Jericho are abandoned and decayed. Rarely are any people in the frame, and those who appear are distorted by a slow shutter speed, as in a shot of a dance studio where women in black dresses blur in the mirror.
As Reynolds stated, “On the conceptual level, I know how politically polarizing Israel is for many people, and by focusing on the spaces and not the people it allows for reflection and contemplation for the viewer on a more personal level, and not necessarily tied into the whole issue of Israel.” What’s captured instead is the collective anxiety and dread reinforced by these doomsday spaces hidden in plain sight.