Psychology at Depth

As published by Science and Mechanics in November 1931, the depthscraper was proposed as a residential engineering solution for surviving earthquakes in Japan.
The subterranean building, “whose frame resembles that of a 35-story skyscraper of the type familiar in American large cities,” would actually be constructed “in a mammoth excavation beneath the ground.”

Only a single story protrudes above the surface; furnishing access to the numerous elevators; housing the ventilating shafts, etc.; and carrying the lighting arrangements… The Depthscraper is cylindrical; its massive wall of armored concrete being strongest in this shape, as well as most economical of material. The whole structure, therefore, in case of an earthquake, will vibrate together, resisting any crushing strain. As in standard skyscraper practice, the frame is of steel, supporting the floors and inner walls.

My first observation here is actually how weird the punctuational style of that paragraph is. Why all the commas and semicolons?
My second thought is that this thing combines about a million different themes that interest me: underground engineering, seismic activity, redistributed sunlight through complicated systems of mirrors, architectural speculation, disastrous social planning, etc. etc.
In J.G. Ballard’s hilariously excessive 1975 novel High-Rise – one of the most exciting books of architectural theory, I’d suggest, published in the last fifty years – we read about the rapid descent into chaos that befalls a brand new high-rise in London. Ballard writes that “people in high-rises tend not to care about tenants more than two floors below them.” Indeed, the very design of the building “played into the hands of the most petty impulses” – till “deep-rooted antagonisms,” assisted by chronic middle-class sexual boredom and insomnia, “were breaking through the surface of life within the high-life at more and more points.”
The residents are doomed: “Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them.” One of the characters even “referred to the high-rise as if it were some kind of huge animate presence , brooding over them and keeping a magisterial eye on the events taking place.”
My point is simply that it doesn’t take very much to re-imagine Ballard’s novel set in a depthscraper: what strange antagonisms might break out in a buried high-rise?
Living underground, then, could perhaps be interpreted as a kind of avant-garde psychological experiment – experiential gonzo psychiatry.
I’m reminded here of the bunker psychology explored by Tom Vanderbilt in his excellent book Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America.
In the midst of a long, and fascinating, tour through the 20th century’s wartime underworlds, Vanderbilt writes of how “the confined underground space becomes a concentrated breeding ground for social dysfunction as the once-submerged id rages unchecked.” Living inside “massive underground fortifications” – whether fortified against enemy attack or against spontaneous movements of the earth’s surface – might even produce new psychiatric conditions, Vanderbilt writes. There were rumors of “‘concretitis’ and other strange new ‘bunker’ maladies” breaking out amidst certain military units garrisoned underground.
What future psychologies might exist, then, in these depthscrapers built along active faultlines?
Perhaps the only way to find out is to build one.

20 thoughts on “Psychology at Depth”

  1. Oh dear… Gives a whole new meaning to being “pinned down,” don’t it?

    Geoff wrote: “My second thought is that this thing combines about a million different themes that interest me: underground engineering, seismic activity, redistributed sunlight through complicated systems of mirrors, architectural speculation, disastrous social planning, etc. etc.”

    Add to that another thought: this might be the first “scraper” of any kind that would appease our local NIMBYs. “Look, Helen! A ‘skyscraper’ in reverse — you can’t see it from anywhere else in the city — perfect!”

    Regarding underground fantasies, I think I’d prefer Gaiman’s Neverwhere — at least those folks have the Tube and aren’t …pinned into place.
    Sorry, corny pun…;-)

  2. Perhaps effective against earthquakes if the building has plenty of surrounding earth to support it, but think about it within a scheme of dense urban development. And what about, among other things, pumping sewage up thirty floors, water tables, bedrock, and in the inevitable competition for deepest building in the world…magma.

  3. Gray Brechin’s *Imperial San Francisco* has a section entitled “Financial districts as inverted minescapes,” that describes how technological innovations in mining made during the latter part of California’s Gold Rush led to the skyscraper. Brechin writes, “Ventilators, high-speed safety elevators, the early use of electric lighting and telephones, all were demanded and paid for by the prodigious output and prospects of the [mines].” He quotes a reporter who envisions a building to dwarf those built at the time: “Imagine [the mine] hoisted out of the ground and left standing on the surface. [The viewer] would then see before him an immense structure, four or five times as large as the greatest hotel in America, about twice or three times as wide, and over two thousand feet high.”

    Then sixty years later the skyscraper gets put back underground.

  4. As so often happens, the French were first with their disastrous, mostly underground, Forum building at Les Halles in the early 80s. They are still trying to work out how to fix it.

  5. The image Tom Edwards posts a link to above would be of Ponte City in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, Africa’s tallest residential building.

    Another link here to a photo of the same building by Luke Wolagiewicz in foto8 magazine http://www.foto8.com/ei8ht/previews/v5n4/index2.html
    “Standing at more than 560ft, the 54 storey Ponte City was completed in 1975 […]. It was then developed as a spectacular, high-class living space, including six penthouses each with a sauna, bar and rooftop area. During the 1980s and ’90s […] Ponte City and Hillbrow became notorious, run by hardened criminals and ruthless drug dealers. At one point, in the mid-1990s, the situation became so volotile that there was a proposal to convert the building into a high-rise prison. [The building’s] most outstanding architectural feature is hidden from outside eyes:a gigantic cylindrical shaft piercing right through the building’s 54 floors […].”

    OK, so this structure towers above ground rather than being below surface, but the images give a good idea of what an underground version might look like?

    Also, JG Ballard strikes again?

  6. The image of the groundscraper does bring to mind ponte city’s cylindrical core. Ponte city is a 54 story residential building, built in 1975 in Johannesburg. It’s visible decay results from the segregation of Johannesburg’s city centre at the end of Apartheid in the 90’s, Ponte city changed from a modern lifestyle paradigm to a dangerous and dirty Babylon ghetto.

    Norman Ohler, a German writer set a 2002 novel in the building, Stadt des Goldes. “Ponte sums up all the hope, all the wrong ideas of modernism, all the decay, all the craziness of the city,” he said of the tower. “It is concrete fear, the tower of Babel, and yet it is strangely beautiful.”

    We can probably make the same comment about the depthscraper.

  7. The University of Minnesota and the University of Illinois are both quite proud (I’m not sure why) of underground campus buildings. The U of M’s engineering building and the U of I’s main library. Of course, neither campus is especially prone to earthquakes, so that wasn’t the justification.

  8. This idea can’t help but remind me of the city of Zion visualised in the finale of the Matrix trilogy as seen here: http://www.matrix-architekt.de/bilder/desktop/zion.jpg (can I post others links’ or is that bad form?) In the film of course the pressures of being the last few thousand surviving humans concentrated their sense of community somewhat and the class conflicts of Highrise were avoided but perhaps not the orgiastic intensity I have lived in a small tower with just such a central void. The amount detail of others lives which you can observe both visually and by echoed audio is astounding. The voyeur’s dream.

  9. For underground lit, you might try E.M. Forester’s short story The Machine Stops. Same Brit social dynamics as High Rise, only written in 1909.

    An excerpt:

    “The truth is,” he continued, “that I want to see these stars again. They are curious stars. I want to see them not from the air-ship, but from the surface of the earth, as our ancestors did, thousands of years ago. I want to visit the surface of the earth.”

    She was shocked again.

    “Mother, you must come, if only to explain to me what is the harm of visiting the surface of the earth.”

    “No harm,” she replied, controlling herself. “But no advantage. The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no advantage. The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it, and you would need a respirator, or the cold of the outer air would kill you. One dies immediately in the outer air.”

    “I know; of course I shall take all precautions.”

    “And besides—-“

    “Well?”

    She considered, and chose her words with care. Her son had a queer temper, and she wished to dissuade him from the expedition.

    “It is contrary to the spirit of the age,” she asserted.

  10. The name ‘Depthspcraper’ seems to be a bit of a non sequitur, if this is the inverse of a skyscraper. I mean, skyscrapers aren’t called ‘heightscrapers’. Perhaps the name ‘mantlescraper’ would be more appropriate a name?
    Still, a very intereseting design. I quite like the concept of inside-out upside-down architecture. A good drainage system would have to be in place to get rid of all of the saliva from tourists spitting down it though.
    Whilst I’m commenting for the first time, I just thought I’d say that as an apspiring architect (that said in the very early stages, but still, I do aspire), I find your blog very interesting. It’s well written and you seem to somehow always pick a good subject matter.
    Thanks.

  11. I worked for a large architect’s firm in Tokyo about 12 years ago. Most of my colleagues on the floor where I worked were engaged on the same project but were very coy about talking to me about what it was they were designing. It transpired the project was for the self-defence ministry and included one building, sited in central tokyo, which had 30 underground storeys…

  12. Appears I came to this post a few years after the flurry of comment activity- but great post and loved the comments discussion too. Lots of interesting tips and references from other (apparently) underground aficionados.

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