“Tropical Green” runs 9-10 February 2006, down in sunny Miami: “The two-day Tropical Green conference will be an invaluable experience for architects, interior designers, developers, city planners, politicians, and voters in search of learning the ways of 21st century design that will both help the environment and their wallets.” Check it out.

It’s funny, meanwhile, but I’m reading The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, even as I post this, and his descriptions – written in 1962 – of a flooded, neo-tropical London have totally changed my conception of what “a tropical city” actually is.

In Ballard’s novel the sun has developed a kind of astrophysical Tourette’s Syndrome, and it’s started scorching the planet with radiation storms and UV bursts. This has melted the icecaps, raised the ambient global temperature to 120º+ and forced everyone to move to northern Canada and Siberia.

London has become a kind of backed-up toilet of silt and Jurassic vegetation, “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past.” Huge iguanas lumber around in the heat. Buildings left and right are collapsing, their lower six floors immersed in polluted seawater, “miasmic vegetation… crowding from rooftop to rooftop.”

The city is fossilizing.

As Ballard writes: “A few fortified cities defied the rising water-levels and the encroaching jungles, building elaborate sea-walls around their perimeters, but one by one these were breached. Only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles was life tolerable.”

[Image: The Drowned World‘s rather unimpressive cover…].

So the story goes that a research biologist is touring this neo-tropical London, boating from hotel to hotel across fetid lagoons, recording the types of plants that infest the city. Meanwhile monsoons are coming up from the south, everyone is dying of skin cancer and no one can sleep. The intensity of the sun’s radiation is making everything mutate.

In between some eyebrow-raising moments of bad pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy – the surviving humans find themselves psychologically regressing down the totem pole of evolution toward… something or other; it’s all very psychedelic and 2001 – there are some cool descriptions of these new urban tropics:

“Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the rooftops of the submerged buildings, smothering the white rectangular outlines… Narrow creeks, the canopies overhead turning them into green-lit tunnels, wound away from the larger lagoons, eventually joining the six hundred-yard-wide channels which broadened outwards toward the former suburbs of the city. Everywhere the silt encroached, shoring itself in huge banks against a railway viaduct or crescent of offices, oozing through a submerged arcade… Many of the smaller lakes were now filled in by the silt, yellow discs of fungus-covered sludge from which a profuse tangle of competing plant forms emerged, walled gardens in an insane Eden.

Anyway, one could analyze the metaphors and all that – Ballard uses the word “competing” twice in the examples above (is he projecting a neo-Hobbesean vision onto Nature…? etc.) – but one could also find something better to do.

And, of course, one could also attend the sustainable design for tropical cities conference in Miami – and tell them you heard about it on BLDGBLOG…

The Corn Pile

[Image: Mark Kegans, for the New York Times].

Government subsidies for agriculture in the U.S. are running an estimated $22.7 billion for 2005. These subsidies keep farmers out of bankruptcy, yet they also artificially sustain the market in certain crops, leading to literal mountains of excess grain in the American heartland; this over-supply then depresses the global market price for those grains, making them unaffordable to grow in developing countries, where people actually need the nutrition (and income).
As the New York Times reported last week, Iowa has just made it through a banner year for corn production, “harvesting its second-largest corn crop in history” – and this has produced, yes, “the mega-corn pile.”

[Image: Mark Kegans, for the New York Times].

“Soaring more than 60 feet high and spreading a football field wide, the mound of corn behind the headquarters of West Central Cooperative here resembles a little yellow ski hill… At 2.7 million bushels, the giant pile illustrates the explosive growth in corn production by American farmers in recent years” – an excess capacity that has not only lowered the global market price for corn but has inadvertantly produced these strangely Aztec grain-sculptures, otherwise known as corn piles.

[Image: Mark Kegans, for the New York Times].

Due to subsidies, of course – not to mention “a large overhang of grain from last year, coupled with soaring energy costs and two Gulf Coast hurricanes that stymied transportation, and a severe drought that distorted prices” – this could be “the most expensive harvest ever for the federal government.”
It’s a good thing it’s so useful; as the New York Times says, these farmers “could always build a ski lift on the hill.”

What’s more interesting for me here, however, is not the complicated ins and outs of government farm subsidy programs – to which the Times article is an adequate introduction – but the landscape effects those subsidies have.
Not only are specific landscapes being overproduced – fields of corn vs. fields of wheat; fields of barley vs. fields of sunflowers; etc. – along with all the colors, smells, and sounds those landscapes entail – but the genetic variety of a given region has been artificially determined by the U.S. government.
My point is simply that there seems to be a whole unwritten history of: 1) agricultural micro-evolution as it is affected, or even guided, by government policies, where certain species fare better than others simply because the U.S. government likes them; and 2) the idea of a subsidized landscape.
What would happen, for instance, if it turned out that the head of the Department of Agriculture simply loved sunflowers – or lavender, or cotton? Landscapes of aesthetic usability. Landscapes that just look cool.
Or is the lower Mississippi, as reconstructed and back-levee’d by the Army Corps of Engineers a kind of subsidized landscape? Bought and paid for by Congress?
Or would it be landscapes we already have far too many of and therefore we have to subsidize them – lawns, for example, or mulched playgrounds on hills? You get paid by the government to construct and maintain them.
The national lawn quota of 2006.
Or it’s like a Don DeLillo short story: there’s a subsidy for airport runways only we’ve run out of airports to connect them to, so an entrepreneur goes out to South Dakota and buys up land, and he starts building unusable expanses of subsidized runways, prehistoric concrete geometries of overlapping rectangles – and he’s paid for it. More than he put in. He profits.
No one ever uses his runways.
It’s a kind of aviation landscape subsidy cartel.
Or a car park subsidy… No wonder there are so many.

Suburban earthworks

With genuine excitement I discovered the photography of Sergio Belinchón today, and excerpts from his series “Suburbia” (2002) appear both above and below.

This is the earth immediately before the suburbs arrive, a planet stripped of its identity, prepared to accept housing, made ready for sprawl and subdivisions, human development; soil scraped down to rock, topography tilled, erased clear and reset back to graveled virginity so it can host our lawns and cul-de-sacs.
The earth as passive medium.

Like something between a Michael Heizer earthwork and a kind of pre-Aztec, sacred desert landscape – the Nazca lines, perhaps, ritually repaved – one could be excused for wishing that this preparatory stage could somehow last forever.
An endless topographical sculpture we could somehow also live within: forever moving earth from one lot to another; forever rearranging the labyrinth of abstract forms; forever exploring new combinations of infrastructure.
Yet even after the houses arrive, that’s what these suburbs continue to be; the earthwork doesn’t go away. These sewered tumuli and landscaped berms are just buried by grass and driveways.

To live in the suburbs is to live in a monumental earthwork sculpture. We just tend, after a certain point, not to see it.

In a recent review of Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History, Witold Rybczynski reminds us that any argument about America being choked to death by limitless, amnesiac sprawl while Europe is sitting pretty amidst history-rich urban density (an argument I make all the time), is actually totally flawed.
That argument – my argument – ignores the built reality.
“Yet haven’t high rates of automobile ownership, easy availability of land, and a lack of central planning made sprawl much worse in the United States?” you might ask.
Well, most Americans seem to be “unaware that suburbs now constitute the bulk of European metropolitan areas, just as they do in America. We marvel at the efficiency of European mass transit, but since 1950, transit ridership has remained flat, while the use of private automobiles has skyrocketed. Just as in America.”

[Image: From Rybczynski’s review, at Slate].

Quoting Bruegmann: “Most American anti-sprawl reformers today believe that sprawl is a recent and peculiarly American phenomenon caused by specific technological innovations like the automobile and by government policies like single-use zoning or the mortgage-interest deduction on the federal income tax. It is important for them to believe this because if sprawl turned out to be a long-standing feature of urban development worldwide, it would suggest that stopping it involves something much more fundamental than correcting some poor American land-use policy.”
Last month, the New York Times Magazine published an article on Toll Brothers, a real estate development firm based in suburban Philadelphia whose ugly, boring, uninspired and wasteful “luxury homes” are now universally known as McMansions.
In the process, companies like Toll Brothers “have, over the past few years, transformed the American home into a corporate product” – a corporate product that sells remarkably well. “At the moment, one in four new homes in the United States is built by a large publicly traded home builder, but this ratio will probably change significantly. Several Wall Street analysts and most of the big home builders seem confident that their companies will be responsible for half of all new homes in the United States within 10 years and perhaps more (as the industry consolidates).”
I, personally, find this a bit depressing.

If Toll Brothers’ homes could be just 10% more energy-efficient – passive solar, for instance; just 10% less resource-intensive – smaller lawns, or perhaps lawns differently planted; made of just 10% more renewable materials – fewer PVCs; then the environmental, political, and even biomedical repercussions of the now global suburban lifestyle could be reduced accordingly.
But nope.

“Where (and how) will the next generation of Americans live?” the New York Times Magazine asks. “The big builders need to know, because they intend to build those places.”
Which means at least three things to me: 1) Toll Brothers and their ilk – as evidenced by Belinchón’s photographs – have very clearly replaced Robert Smithson as the leader of the American earthworks movement (not that art historians will notice this); 2) “the next generation of Americans” is totally screwed, frankly, unless all the young PBR-drinking hipster idealists go into green real estate development; and 3) if Robert Bruegmann is right, the next generation of Europeans is screwed along with them.
Well: 4) number 2) also applies to architecture bloggers.
In the meantime, before those future suburbs arrive, before roof trusses are framed and foundations are poured, we’ll be treated to the intoxicating and Heideggerian sight of more monolithic earthworks, more abstractions of tilled gravel, more smooth berms, fake hills, and geometric manmade canyons.
A world plotted, sold – and temporarily existing as sculpture.

(Sergio Belinchón discovered via Artkrush; Witold Rybczynski’s review discovered via Dan Polsby [thanks!]).

At Random

A whole host of things to waste your lunch-break on:

<1> Photographer David Allee – whose image “Blue Lagoon” appears above – has a show coming up at Princeton.
Allee’s photographs have studied, among other things, “the intrusive otherworldly effect of artificial light on man-made environments.” As Metropolis further explains: “Working with a large-format Linhof Technikardan camera, he positions himself in front of apartment buildings, houses, and gardens that are bathed in the overflow of floodlights from sports and recreation facilities. Using shutter speeds of two to three minutes, Allee subjects his film to the kind of intense light that turns night into an unnatural day…”

<2> Some Finnish bunker archaeology and post-military landscape exploration – old bastions, train yards, abandoned towns, even a “sea fortress” – at Kimmo Nummela’s Silent Wall.

This site includes a tour of the unsubtly named “toxic suburb of Alakiventie.”

<3> Reading this put me in a strangely good mood: “the devastation from the Gulf Coast hurricanes is serving as a strong reminder that possible disasters could lay waste to cities and states across the country.”
Wow. What kind of disasters?
“Officials in California worry about the collapse of aging levees in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, which might allow surging seawater to contaminate much of the state’s drinking water supply. A major concern in Seattle is the seismic vulnerability of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a busy elevated highway in such peril that weight and lane restrictions were imposed on buses and trucks. In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, there is the recurring danger of a volcanic eruption at Yellowstone National Park, while in Florida, attention has turned anew to cleaning up Lake Okeechobee, which sends polluted water into nearby rivers during heavy rains and floods.” Etc.

[Image: “A major earthquake near Stockton, Calif., where Highway 4 serves as a levee road, could be disasterous.” David McNew/Getty Images].

But at least I’ll be around to see what’s next, I suppose, after civilization. After the human. I’ll take notes, hiking through flooded cities like a modern-day Crusoe, crawling over concrete skeletons of collapsed highway flyovers, slowing dying of skin cancer. Grilling squirrel meat next to leaking power plants. My teeth falling out. I’ll meet heavily armed women wearing animal fur bikinis and – wait a minute – what –

<4> “Small clouds of dark matter pass through Earth on a regular basis,” the New Scientist reports. Those clouds “may be remnants of the first structures to form after the big bang.”

[image: EurekAlert!].

These are structures made entirely of dark matter, however, and they look like “flattened spheres or cigars with diameters about 4000 times the distance between the Earth and Sun.” And if that sounds nuts, remember that there could be “a million billion of them drift[ing] around the large dark matter halo that is thought to enclose our galaxy. Such a cloud may float through Earth every 10,000 years in an encounter lasting about 50 years… Their relatively wispy densities mean they could only nudge our planet out of its normal orbit by less than a millionth of a metre per second. Still, they may leave behind observable signatures.”

<5> Continuing BLDGBLOG’s recent cosmology theme, here is a photograph of “star-forming pillars in a region known as W5 in the constellation Cassiopeia.”

[Image: Spitzer Space Telescope].

“Nestled within the dusty pillars are hundreds of embryonic stars,” says the New York Times, and yet these shining pillars “probably represent [only] the densest, most fecund remnants of a larger, cloud. [Note: that stray comma is the NYT’s]. It is being eroded by radiation and winds of particles from a ferociously bright star just out of the top of the picture.”
That photograph is also just an infrared version, taken from a section of this –

– which I’m sure you’ve seen. If not: it’s the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula – but even they are fading! Everything ends.

<6> And, man, is this entry getting depressing: the marshes of Louisiana are dying.

[Image: “Dead oak trees signal a marsh in danger ” Lori Waselchuk/NYTimes].

They’re breaking up into so-called “marshballs” and other “marsh debris” – but why? “The questions are complicated, and the answers turn on a number of factors, including the region’s geology, the ways people have engineered the flow of the Mississippi River, and the marsh-killing activities of the oil and gas industry.”

[Illustration: Al Granberg, New York Times].

This comes less than a week after we read that “[r]estoring Louisiana’s vanished wetlands, or even maintaining those that remain, will be impossible, according to an expert panel convened in 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences to consider a major proposal for wetlands restoration in the state. The panel says the time has come for state and local governments, businesses and citizens to start talking about which wetland areas can be preserved and which must be abandoned, a process it called ‘managed retreat.'”

[Image: “A view of canal systems that link oil fields south of New Orleans.” Lori Waselchuk/NYTimes].

But some people don’t want to retreat – that would be un-American. Dan Walker, for instance, a geologist with the National Academy of Sciences, says that, quote, “If we don’t draw this map, nature will.”
And we can’t let that happen.
For a more sustained look at the ins and outs of imperial hydrology see BLDGBLOG’s first post on Hurricane Katrina, Chapter 1 in John McPhee’s The Control of Nature – and, why not, Floating islands gone wild.

<7> BLDGBLOG has already reported on a new Russian utopia, but here’s one in South Korea: New Songdo City.
“New Songdo, a free-enterprise zone where English will be the lingua franca, is often called the largest private real-estate development in the world. When completed in 2014,” the New York Times says, “it is estimated that this $25 billion project will be home to 65,000 people and that 300,000 will work there. Amenities will include an aquarium, golf course, American-managed hospital and preparatory schools, a central park (like New York’s), a system of canals (like Venice’s) and pocket parks (like Savannah’s), a self-described patchwork of elements gleaned from other cities.”

[Images: Kohn Pederson Fox Associates].

A “patchwork of elements gleaned from other cities”? Yep – that means it will also look like every other city…
So it may not be utopia, but it is ubiquitous – and this is where it gets freaky: “A ubiquitous city is where all major information systems (residential, medical, business, governmental and the like) share data, and computers are built into the houses, streets and office buildings. New Songdo, located on a man-made island of nearly 1,500 acres off the Incheon coast about 40 miles from Seoul, is rising from the ground up as a U-city.”
Thomas More meets Minority Report.
And for more images of New Songdo, stop by Metropolis. Also, see BLDGBLOG’s Singapore Bio-utopia. (And more on this topic soon).

<8> I’ve hit the wall here; but I have about a hundred other links to add so I’ll come back for those. Till then –

Filaments of space-time

[Images: Density plots of matter in space – whorled lattices of knots and self-intersection – from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics].

At the University of Durham, UK, there’s a group of scientists and computer programmers who call themselves the Virgo Consortium for Cosmological Supercomputer Simulations – a name which leads me to wonder who is cosmologically simulating a supercomputer, and why.
But the purpose of the Virgo Consortium is to use “cosmological simulations” to study “the large-scale distribution of dark matter, the formation of dark matter haloes, the formation and evolution of galaxies and clusters, the physics of the intergalactic medium and the properties of the intracluster gas.”
So what’s this got to do with BLDGBLOG…?
Some comments at the end of a recent post made me think of images I’ve seen of intergalactic structure – what the universe looks like: webs of stars in space, huge arc-bubbles of light colliding with themselves in glowing, superskeletal networks, filling space like translucent caulk.
But when I went to find those images again I realized you can actually watch entire films, simulated fly-throughs, of the quantum void, passing through vaults of gravitational foam, and those interstitial spaces seemed perfect for a quick new post.

[Image: “Surrounding and stretching between galaxies, there is a rarified gas that is thought to posses a cosmic filamentary structure… This material is called the intergalactic medium (IGM) and is mostly ionized hydrogen (i.e. a plasma).” These images show “the formation of a galaxy cluster.” Structure, it seems, is really a compression or tightening – a focusing – of the surrounding medium. From Craig Booth/The Virgo Consortium].

So the Virgo Consortium, which I’ve mentioned, is a partner of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, and among its tools are a Cosmology Machine and a Sun Grid Engine, both of which surely sound like something straight out of the novels of China Miéville.
Some of the images and simulations these institutes produce, however, are so intensely beautiful that simulations of the universe could perhaps be seen as something of a niche market for starving artists, a new genre of self-expression. Rather than writing novels – you simulate the cosmos. Over and over.

[Images: From the Millennium Simulation; time advances as you go down till “structures are abundant in the universe manifesting themselves as stars, galaxies and clusters.” (Images by the Virgo Consortium)].

So the following short films either take you flying through the universe for all too brief an instant, or they show structure crystallizing out of the universal void-plasma. Either way, enjoy: film 1; film 2 (which seems to portray the universe as a kind of malfunctioning television set); film 3; film 4; and – I like this one – film 5, a kind of slow, hypnotic, black-and-white cosmology as filmed by Jean Cocteau.

[Image: Cosmic filamentary structure – buttresses of light – foregrounded against gravitational darkness: Max Planck Institute].

[Image: A Warholian depiction of the universe: Max Planck Institute].


I was at a talk the other night listening to a nervous grad student present a paper about knots when, for whatever reason – I was thinking about Michael Heizerwham!
An idea came to me:
The eccentric son of a billionaire takes his share of the family fortune and moves to Utah. He buys loads and loads of land, tens of thousands of acres – and, with it, huge digging machines.
This includes state of the art tunnelers, taken straight from the oil industry.

[Image: Create 3D].

For the next forty years, one thousand feet below the surface of the earth, he carves every knot known to mathematics, straight through the Jurassic bedrock. They form tunnels, loops, topology; big enough to walk through.
The man makes his way down the list, one by one, carving, tunneling, blasting.
Smooth and toroidal, they are negative sculptures, a textbook in knot theory. They can be studied. Mathematics can be derived from their curves. In two hundred years they will be declared a National Park.
At night, when the man can’t sleep, he walks the knots, lonely, underground, sometimes humming.
The knots reverberate.

Churches of the void-grinder

In 1999, Swiss architect Mario Botta was commissioned to design a model of Francesco Borromini’s Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, in Rome.

Called San Carlino, Botta’s model – part building, part sculpture – was erected near Borromini’s own birthplace, on the shores of Lake Lugano, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Borromini’s birth.

The work was dismantled in 2003.

The project was made using 35,000 wood boards, each of which was cut, milled, and sanded, then assembled with the rest to reproduce the exact internal volume of Borromini’s church.

Well, half of Borromini’s church.

The interior, in other words, was carved out of this colossus of wood; the space of the church was milled, excavated from the stacked material.
This virtual walk-through gives a nice, if badly lit, sense of the abrupt edge Botta designed for the model –

– because as you can see from Botta’s own sketch, below, he effectively cut the church in half; measured the internal volume down to the scale of centimeters; then reproduced that void using 35,000 specially cut boards.

Certain photographs I’ve seen are actually quite astonishing; the freshly cut boards in the earliest photographs all but glow compared to the coal-black exterior, and the blue skies of Lugano add a surreal backdrop to the unexpected sight of the semi-sacred hollow.

I have to admit, however, that when I first saw those photographs I did not understand what I was looking at. My first reaction was fairly predictable, I suppose, and that was to picture a huge milling-machine, built to the exact volume and measurements of Borromini’s church – a kind of void-grinder several stories high, whirring with precise blades and abraders, like some massive (perhaps consecrated) mining machine.

That would, of course, be ridiculous; but it got me thinking.

I wondered if you could precisely measure the interior space of Notre-Dame, for instance, then build or program an industrial-scale grinding machine to those exact specifications. A kind of inside-out abrader. A void-grinder. You could then park that thing in front of a mountain and lo! Three hours later the exact internal dimensions of Notre-Dame – the hollows and side-chapels, the soaring interior of cross-vaults – have been carved, in real size, into the granite surface of the Teton Range.

You can walk into that hollow, light a candle, and be damned if it doesn’t look exactly like the real thing…

In fact, you could do this for any cathedral on the planet. Measure its exact interior volume, using lasers perhaps, and then use those measurements to fabricate a grinding-machine. Then choose your target: the interior of Chartres, for instance, could be carved into the quartz-belted strata of the Canadian Rockies. The interior of St. Paul’s whirred and abraded into the mountains of Bamiyan, where the Buddhas once stood.

You could even map out, to the millimeter, the internal volume of every cathedral, mosque, and temple in the world, and then program that into a robotic rock-milling machine. You then send that machine to the moon where, over the course of two generations, it carves the exact, to-scale internal voids of beautiful sacred architecture into the lunar surface.

From the earth it looks as if small caves are appearing on the moon, like sink-holes or new craters – but you take out your telescope, walk into the backyard with your friends, look up, and, there, hollowed out, void-black on the moon, are hollow reproductions of Chartres Cathedral, Salisbury, Hagia Sophia, Angkor Wat.

Future lunar expeditions go torchlit through those caves, re-breathing tanked oxygen: what were these things…? What built them…?

Silicon Gardens

Pruned has been posting some great things lately, but yesterday’s feature just blew me away: it’s a tropical garden by artist Marc Quinn, whose flowers “are immersed in twenty-five tons of liquid silicon kept at a constant temperature of -80˚ Celsius.” (Though that should read silicone – the same material used in breast implants…)

The silicone has the effect of freezing time: the flowers, though dead, will never decay. (Till someone turns the refrigerator off).
They’ve been mummified. An entire landscape has been mummified.

As Quinn himself explains, using all lowercase and some interesting punctuation: “those who visited the installation found themselves, thanks to mirrors, in a garden of infinite beauty and immortality. an enviroment created by plants from various continents -asia, africa-europe- and from different seasons, beauty that doesn’t decay. a perfect image beyond botany itself. these flowers will last forever, but obviously they are dead. the installation in a 3,20 m x 12,70 m x 5,43 m stainless steel refrigerator (-20°C) is technically made of flowers frozen in a silicon oil. (which stays liquid to – 80°C and doesn’t chemically react with the flowers)”

The landscape has been embalmed.
The mind reels.
Could you embalm a riverbed, for instance, to freeze that hydrology in place, its weeds, and erosion, its gravel? Or – here’s the thing: could you go round embalming natural plantlife everywhere – say a developer is encroaching upon some (relatively) untouched hills in the Cotswolds, but here you come, carrying your silicon-embalming tools, hitching up your trousers, and you freeze 5’x5’x5′ cubes of the natural landscape. In place.
Museums of the remnant landscape.
Once all the houses are finally built and everyone moves in, kids find themselves playing beside cubes of mummified plantlife. Garden cubes. Landscape fossils. Embalmed landscapes.
Silicon gardens.
(The trick would be to do this for millions and millions of years, like a landscape time-capsule: here, for instance, outside the BLDGBLOG head office, would be small Jurassic shrubs frozen in liquid silicon; in the middle of the Sahara you’d find tropical orchids, locked in cubes, older than the Himalayas – remnant landscapes preserved…)

London Topological

[Image: Embankment, London, ©urban75].

As something of a sequel to BLDGBLOG’s earlier post, Britain of Drains, we re-enter the sub-Britannic topology of interlinked tunnels, drains, sewers, Tubes and bunkers that curve beneath London, Greater London, England and the whole UK, in rhizomic tangles of unmappable, self-intersecting whorls.

[Images: The Bunker Drain, Warrington; and the Motherload Complex, Bristol (River Frome Inlets); brought to you by the steroidally courageous and photographically excellent nutters at International Urban Glow].

Whether worm-eaten by caves, weakened by sink-holes, rattled by the Tube or even sculpted from the inside-out by secret government bunkers – yes, secret government bunkers – the English earth is porous.

“The heart of modern London,” Antony Clayton writes, “contains a vast clandestine underworld of tunnels, telephone exchanges, nuclear bunkers and control centres… [s]ome of which are well documented, but the existence of others can be surmised only from careful scrutiny of government reports and accounts and occassional accidental disclosures reported in the news media.”

[Images: Down Street, London, by the impressively omnipresent Nick Catford, for Subterranea Britannica; I particularly love the multi-directional valve-like side-routes of the fourth photograph].

This unofficially real underground world pops up in some very unlikely places: according to Clayton, there is an electricity sub-station beneath Leicester Square which “is entered by a disguised trap door to the left of the Half Price Ticket Booth, a structure that also doubles as a ventilation shaft.”

This links onward to “a new 1 1/4 mile tunnel that connects it with another substation at Duke Street near Grosvenor Square.”

But that’s not the only disguised ventilation shaft: don’t forget the “dummy houses,” for instance, at 23-24 Leinster Gardens, London. Mere façades, they aren’t buildings at all, but vents for the underworld, disguised as faux-Georgian flats.

(This reminds me, of course, of a scene from Foucault’s Pendulum, where the narrator is told that, “People walk by and they don’t know the truth… That the house is a fake. It’s a façade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”).

[Image: The Motherload Complex, Bristol – again, by International Urban Glow].

There is also a utility subway – I love this one – accessed “through a door in the base of Boudicca’s statue near Westminster Bridge.” (!) The tunnel itself “runs all the way to Blackfriars and then to the Bank of England.”

Et cetera.

[Images: The Works Drain, Manchester; International Urban Glow].

My personal favorite by far, however, is British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell’s December 1980 piece for the New Statesman, now something of a cult classic in Urban Exploration circles.

[Image: Motherload Complex, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

“Entering, without permission, from an access shaft situated on a traffic island in Bethnal Green Road he descended one hundred feet to meet a tunnel, designated L, stretching into the distance and strung with cables and lights.” He had, in other words, discovered a government bunker complex that stretched all the way to Whitehall.

On and on he went, all day, for hours, riding a folding bicycle through this concrete, looking-glass world of alphabetic cyphers and location codes, the subterranean military abstract: “From Tunnel G, Tunnel M leads to Fleet Street and P travels under Leicester Square to the then Post Office Tower, with Tunnel S crossing beneath the river to Waterloo.”

[Image: Like the final scene from a subterranean remake of Jacob’s Ladder (or a deleted scene from Creep [cheers, Timo]), it’s the Barnton Quarry, ROTOR Drain, Edinburgh; International Urban Glow].

Here, giving evidence of Clayton’s “accidental disclosures reported in the news media,” we read that “when the IMAX cinema inside the roundabout outside Waterloo station was being constructed the contractor’s requests to deep-pile the foundations were refused, probably owing to the continued presence of [Tunnel S].”

[Image: Motherload, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

But when your real estate is swiss-cheesed and under-torqued by an unreal world of remnant topologies, the lesson, I suppose, is you have to read between the lines.

A simple building permissions refusal might be something else entirely: “It was reported,” Clayton says, “that in the planning stage of the Jubilee Line Extension official resistance had been encountered, when several projected routes through Westminster were rejected without an explanation, although no potential subterranean obstructions were indicated on the planners’ maps. According to one source, ‘…the rumour is that there is a vast bunker down there, which the government has kept secret, which is the grandaddy of them all.'”

[Image: The Corsham Tunnels; see also BLDGBLOG].

Continuing to read between the lines, Clayton describes how, in 1993, after “close scrutiny of the annual Defence Works Services budget the existence of the so-called Pindar Project was revealed, a plan for a nuclear bomb-proof bunker, that had cost £66 million to excavate.”

All of these places have insane names—Pindar, Cobra, Trawlerman, ICARUS, Kingsway, Paddock—and they are hidden in the most unlikely places. Referring to a government bunker hidden in the ground near Reading: “Inside, they tried another door on what looked like a cupboard. This was also unlocked, and swung open to reveal a steep staircase leading into an underground office complex.”

[Images: The freaky stairs and tunnels, encrusted with plaster stalactites, of King William Street].

Everything leads to everything else; there are doorways everywhere. It’s like a version of London rebuilt to entertain quantum physicists, with a dizzying self-intersection of systems hitting systems as layers of the city collide.

[Image: Belsize Park, from the terrifically useful Underground History of Hywel Williams].

There is always another direction to turn.

[Image: The Shorts Brothers Seaplane Factory and air raid shelter, Kent; photo by Underground Kent].

This really could go on and on; there are flood control complexes, buried archives, lost rivers sealed inside concrete viaducts – and all of this within the confines of Greater London.

[Images: London’s Camden catacombs – “built in the 19th Century as stables for horses… [t]heir route can be traced from the distinctive cast-iron grilles set at regular intervals into the road surface; originally the only source of light for the horses below” – as photographed by Nick Catford of Subterranea Brittanica].

Then there’s Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh, Kent…

[Image: Main Junction, Bunker Drain, Warrington; International Urban Glow].

And for all of that, I haven’t even mentioned the so-called CTRL Project (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link); or Quatermass and the Pit, an old sci-fi film where deep tunnel Tube construction teams unearth a UFO; or the future possibilities such material all but demands.

[Image: Wapping Tunnel Vent, Liverpool, by International Urban Glow; a kind of subterranean Pantheon].

Such as: BLDGBLOG: The Game, produced by LucasArts, set in the cross-linked passages of subterranean London, where it’s you, a torch, some kind of weapon, a shitty map and hordes of bird flu infected zombies coughing their way down the dripping passages – looking for you