“A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program”

notredame1[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve always loved Umberto Eco’s observation, from a text he delivered for the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina back in 2003, that “a medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

The carved statuary, the stone ornament, the careful placement of scenes: it was all part of an edited visual narrative that you could return to again and again, like a 3-dimensional comic book or a collection of film stills in the center of your city, a body of symbolic storylines and characters given architectural form.

At the time of these cathedrals’ construction, Eco explained, “manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, and the only thing to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of a cathedral.” Then, the sentence I quote above: “A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

notredame2[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve long been a fan of Eco’s writing, even as a kid growing up in a variety of houses where we seemed to always have a copy of The Name of the Rose stored somewhere in the family-room bookshelves. Well before I could even conceivably read such a thing in full, yet captivated by its original cover art, I’d flip through the book to find descriptions of imposing monastery walls or hidden courtyards, of mirrored libraries concealed inside stone towers. I even memorized, for no particular reason, the monastic hours that Eco enumerates at the book’s beginning.

It’s also a novel, I’d eventually see, full of superb lines: “As I lay on my pallet,” Eco’s monastic narrator at one point writes, “I concluded that my father should not have sent me out in the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things.” Or: “How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths.”

notredame3[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

But Foucault’s Pendulum—way too quickly dismissed today as a kind of hipster Da Vinci Code—is a novel I’ve read so many times I am embarrassed to admit the number. It’s a book I’ve obsessively traveled with, having read it now in Greece, Berlin, Warsaw, County Donegal, even Beijing. A mere ten days ago, I picked it up again here in New York City, for a variety of reasons, to give it one more spin.

So the news that Umberto Eco died yesterday was both sad and, for me, oddly timed; it’s also news I feel compelled to mention here, for both personal and architectural reasons.

In fact, I was thinking explicitly of Eco when I wrote a piece recently for Cabinet Magazine about rare-book thefts at a French monastery near the border with Germany.

Let’s start with the obvious: the fractal library in The Name of the Rose, a fictional architectural construct that belongs up there with other mythical buildings, from Kafka’s Castle to Daedalus’s Labyrinth or the Tower of Babel. The library, Eco explains, is a fortified architectural complex doubly protected by a weird system of mirrors and winds:

“The library must, of course, have a ventilation system,” William [the book’s non-narrating protagonist] said. “Otherwise the atmosphere would be stifling, especially in the summer. Moreover, those slits provide the right amount of humidity, so the parchments will not dry out. But the cleverness of the founders did not stop there. Placing the slits at certain angles, they made sure that on windy nights the gusts penetrating from those openings would encounter other gusts, and swirl inside the sequence of rooms, producing the sounds we have heard. Which, along with the mirrors and the herbs, increase the fear of the foolhardy who come in here, as we have, without knowing the place well. And we ourselves for a moment thought ghosts were breathing on our faces.”

What we would now call the building’s HVAC system was deliberately engineered to induce the aeolian illusion of other humans. It was a kind of super-sensory burglar alarm for spooking uninvited guests—spatial hauntings in surroundsound.

libraryrose[Image: The fractal stairs of the breeze-haunted library in The Name of the Rose; courtesy Twentieth-Century Fox/Columbia Pictures].

Or take the building that isn’t really a building in Foucault’s Pendulum.

One of that book’s minor characters mentions a house in Paris that is simultaneously more and less than it appears. Parisians “walk by” this house every day, Eco writes, but “they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, 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…”

Or consider Eco’s honeycomb of artificial caves beneath the French town of Provins, also in Foucault’s Pendulum and something I have also written about before.

There, an over-excited former colonel explains that “something” has been in Provins “since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels—real catacombs—extends beneath the hill.”

Some tunnels lead from building to building. You can enter a granary or a warehouse and come out in a church. Some tunnels are constructed with columns and vaulted ceilings. Even today, every house in the upper city still has a cellar with ogival vaults—there must be more than a hundred of them. And every cellar has an entrance to a tunnel.

In 1894, the colonel continues, two Chevaliers came to the village and asked to be taken down into the tunnels beneath a granary:

Accompanied by the caretaker, they went down into one of the subterranean rooms, on the second level belowground. When the caretaker, trying to show that there were other levels even farther down, stamped on the earth, they heard echoes and reverberations. [The Chevaliers] promptly fetched lanterns and ropes and went into the unknown tunnels like boys down a mine, pulling themselves forward on their elbows, crawling through mysterious passages. [They soon] came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered [one of the Chevaliers] into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high. The others then followed him down.

Eco excelled at these sorts of allegorical details: rooms that served to mask the presence of other rooms, a town built atop a subterranean twin of itself, a library that conceals a parallel, clandestine collection of books, another library somehow tucked inside its very walls, even an island lost on the precise border between today and yesterday.

[Image: Mont-Sainte-Odile; photo via Wikipedia, related to a marginal note, above].

Among many other reasons, Foucault’s Pendulum remains an amazing novel for revealing the seemingly endless extent of one’s own gullibility—that is, the often overwhelming need to believe in or to pursue something, to connect together things you think are signs or clues in fits of irrationality and inspiration, to give your life, your cause, your project, your movement its larger emotional meaning or narrative gravity; only to realize, in retrospect, that these were all just neutral facts of the world you temporarily and needlessly seized upon. They were there when you needed them—or it all made sense at the time.

In fact, the novel contains its own fantastic distillation of this argument in an early scene, set in a Milanese bar. The world, we read, consists of only four types of people: “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.” “And that covers everybody?” the book’s narrator asks. “Oh, yes, including us.” I’d risk copying the entire book if I continue on like this in any detail, but I particularly love Eco’s description of “lunatics.” It is an excellent cautionary tale.

A lunatic, he writes, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”

In any case, as my own tendency to over-re-read Foucault’s Pendulum undoubtedly shows, Eco’s books are perfect for people who are too willing to believe that truth can be found in reading—even if the stories they return to again and again are published not with words at all, but on the façade of a cathedral, in a theological sci-fi of intertwined saints, symbols, and landscapes.

Even if found in the narrative ornament of “a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program,” as Eco once wrote, these stories we tell ourselves promise a truth it is always wiser to question.

(If you are an American fan of Umberto Eco, there’s a good chance you read his work through the translations of William Weaver, who also passed away recently. Meanwhile, the quotation about cathedrals as TV programs was originally published on Al-Ahram, but is no longer on their site; Nettime has an archived version).

Brooklyn Vent

[Image: Disguised infrastructure; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In the novel Foucault’s Pendulum, two characters discuss a house that is not what it appears to be. People “walk by” this house in Paris, we read, but “they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, 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 door to the underworld; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Two days ago, Nicola Twilley and I went on an early evening expedition over to visit the house at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, with its blacked out windows and its unresponsive front door.

This “house” is actually “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator.” It is also a disguised emergency exit for the New York City subway.

[Image: Disguised infrastructure; photo by BLDGBLOG].

According to a blog called the Willowtown Association, “the ventilator was a private brownstone dating from 1847. The substation was built in 1908 in conjunction with the start of subway service to Brooklyn. As reported in the BKLYN magazine article, the building’s ‘cavernous interior once housed a battery of electrical devices that converted alternating current to the 600-volt direct current needed to power the IRT.'”

[Image: A view through the front door of 58 Joralemon Street; photo by BLDGBLOG].

It is New York’s more interesting version of 23/24 Leinster Gardens in London. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote last year, “the exit disguised as a brownstone leads to a grimy-lit set of metal stairs that ascend past utility boxes and ventilation shafts into a windowless room with a door. If you opened the door, you would find yourself on a stoop, which is just part of the façade.”

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

You’ll notice on Google Maps that the 4/5 subway line passes directly beneath the house, which brings to mind an old post here on BLDGBLOG in which we looked at the possibility that repurposed subway cars could be used someday as extra, rentable basement space—that is, “temporary basements in the form of repurposed subway cars,” with the effect that “each private residence thus becomes something like a subway station, with direct access, behind a locked door, to the subterranean infrastructure of the city far below.”

Then, for a substantial fee—as much as $15,000 a month—you can rent a radically redesigned subway car, complete with closets, shelves, and in-floor storage cubes. The whole thing is parked beneath your house and braked in place; it has electricity and climate control, perhaps even WiFi. You can store summer clothes, golf equipment, tool boxes, children’s toys, and winter ski gear.
When you no longer need it, or can’t pay your bills, you simply take everything out of it and the subway car is returned to the local depot.
A veritable labyrinth of moving rooms soon takes shape beneath the city.

Perhaps Joralemon Street is where this unlikely business model could be first tried out…

In any case, Nicola and I walked over to see the house for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the disguised-entrance-to-the-underworld is undoubtedly one of the coolest building programs imaginable, and would make an amazing premise for an intensive design studio; but also because the surface vent structures through which underground currents of air are controlled have always fascinated me.

These vents appear throughout New York City, as it happens—although Joralemon, I believe, is the only fake house—serving as surface articulations of the larger buried networks to which they are connected.

[Image: Two views of the tunnel vent on Governors Island; photos by BLDGBLOG].

The Battery Tunnel has a particularly noticeable vent, pictured above, and the Holland Tunnel also vents out near my place of work.

[Image: Holland Tunnel exhaust tower; photo via SkyscraperPage.com].

As historian David Gissen writes in his excellent book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments, New York’s ventilation control structures are “strange buildings” that have “collapsed” the difference between architecture and civil engineering:

The Holland Tunnel spanned an enormous 8,500 feet. At each end, engineers designed ten-story ventilation towers that would push air through tunnels above the cars, drawing the vehicle exhaust upward, where it would be blown back through the tops of the towers and over industrial areas of the city. The exhaust towers provided a strange new building type in the city—a looming blank tower that oscillated between a work of engineering and architecture.

As further described in this PDF, for instance, Holland Tunnel has a total of four ventilation structures: “The four ventilation buildings (two in New Jersey and two in New York) house a total of 84 fans, of which 42 are blower units, and 42 are exhaust units. They are capable, at full speed, of completely changing the tunnel air every 90 seconds.”

[Image: The Holland Tunnel Land Ventilation Building, courtesy of Wikipedia].

Several years ago a friend of ours remarked that she didn’t like staying in hotels near Columbus Circle here in New York because that’s the neighborhood, she said, where all the subways vent to—a statement that appears to be nothing more than an urban legend, but that nonetheless sparked off a long-term interest for me in finding where the underground weather systems of New York City are vented to the outside. Imagine an entire city district dedicated to nothing but ventilating the underworld!

[Image: The house on Joralemon Street; photo by BLDGBLOG].

This is a topic I will no doubt return to at some point soon—but, for now, if you want to see a disguised entrance to the 4/5 line, walk down Joralemon Street toward the river and keep your eyes peeled soon after the street turns to cobblestones.

(The house on Joralemon Street first discovered via Curbed).

Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city

My friend Robert and I finished reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us almost simultaneously – and we both noted one specific passage.
Before we get to that, however, the premise of Weisman’s book – though it does, more often than not, drift away from this otherwise fascinating central narrative – is: what would happen to the Earth if humans disappeared overnight? What would humans leave behind – and how long would those remnants last?
These questions lead Weisman at one point to discuss the underground cities of Cappadocia, Turkey, which, he says, will outlast nearly everything else humans have constructed here on Earth.

[Images: Derinkuyu, the great underground city of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Manhattan will be gone, Los Angeles gone, Cape Canaveral flooded and covered with seaweed, London dissolving into post-Britannic muck, the Great Wall of China merely an undetectable line of minerals blowing across an abandoned landscape – but there, beneath the porous surface of Turkey, carved directly into tuff, there will still be underground cities.

[Images: Derinkuyu, the great underground city of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Of course, I’m not entirely convinced by Weisman’s argument here – not that I have expertise in the field – but Turkey is a very seismically active country, for instance, and… it just doesn’t seem likely that these cities will be the last human traces to remain. But that’s something for another conversation.
In any case, Weisman writes:

No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath Cappadocia. Eight have been discovered, and many smaller villages, but there are doubtless more. The biggest, Derinkuyu, wasn’t discovered until 1965, when a resident cleaning the back wall of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people – and much remains to be excavated. One tunnel, wide enough for three people walking abreast, connects to another underground town six miles away. Other passages suggest that at one time all of Cappadocia, above and below the ground, was linked by a hidden network. Many still use the tunnels of this ancient subway as cellar storerooms.

I was excited to learn, meanwhile, that another – quite possibly larger – underground Cappadocian city, called Gaziemir, was only opened to tourists this summer (someone send me, please!), having been discovered in January 2007 (a discovery which doesn’t seem to have made the news outside Turkey).
So the next time the ground you’re walking on sounds hollow – perhaps it is… Whole new cities beneath our feet!
I was also excited to read, meanwhile, that these subsurface urban structures are acoustically sophisticated. In other words, Weisman writes, using “vertical communication shafts, it was possible to speak to another person on any level” down below. It’s a kind of geological party line, or terrestrial resonating gourd.
There were even ancient microbreweries down there, “equipped with tuff fermentation vats and basalt grinding wheels.”

[Images: Derinkuyu and a view of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Meanwhile, Robert, my co-reader of Weisman’s book, pointed out that the discovery of Derinkuyu, by a man who simply “broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another,” is surely the ultimate undiscovered room fantasy – and I have to agree.
However, it also reminded me of a scene from Foucault’s Pendulum – which is overwhelmingly my favorite novel (something I say with somewhat embarrassed hesitation because no one I have ever recommended it to – literally no one – not a single person! – has enjoyed, or even finished reading, it) – where we read about a French town called Provins.
In the novel, a deluded ex-colonel from the Italian military explains to two academic publishers that “something” has been in Provins “since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels – real catacombs – extends beneath the hill.”
The man continues:

Some tunnels lead from building to building. You can enter a granary or a warehouse and come out in a church. Some tunnels are constructed with columns and vaulted ceilings. Even today, every house in the upper city still has a cellar with ogival vaults – there must be more than a hundred of them. And every cellar has an entrance to a tunnel.

The editors to whom this story has been told call the colonel out on this, pressing for more details, looking for evidence of what he claims. But the colonel parries – and then forges on. After all, he’s an ex-Fascist.
He’ll say what he likes.
As the colonel goes on, his story gets stranger: in 1894, he says, two Chevaliers went to visit an old granary in Provins, where they asked to be taken down into the tunnels.

Accompanied by the caretaker, they went down into one of the subterranean rooms, on the second level belowground. When the caretaker, trying to show that there were other levels even farther down, stamped on the earth, they heard echoes and reverberations. [The Chevaliers] promptly fetched lanterns and ropes and went into the unknown tunnels like boys down a mine, pulling themselves forward on their elbows, crawling through mysterious passages. [They soon] came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered [one of the Chevaliers] into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high. The others then followed him down.

So a few quick points:
1) Today’s city planners need to read more things like this! How exciting would it be if you could visit your grandparents in some small town somewhere, only to find that a door in the basement, which you thought led to a closet… actually opens up onto an underground Home Depot? Or a chapel. Or their neighbor’s house.
2) Do humans no longer build interesting subterranean structures like this – with the exception of militaries, where, to paraphrase Jonathan Glancey, we still see the architectural imagination at full flight – and I’m referring here to things like Yucca Mountain, something that would surely be too ambitious for almost any architectural design studio today – because they lack the imagination, or because of insurance liability? Is it possible that architectural critics today are lambasting the wrong people? It’s not that Daniel Libeskind or Peter Eisenman or Frank Gehry are boring, it’s simply that they’ve been hemmed in by unimaginative insurance regulations… Is insurance to blame for the state of contemporary architecture?
And if you called up State Farm to insure an underground city… what would happen?
Or if you tried to get UPS to deliver a package there?

[Image: A map, altered by BLDGBLOG, of an underground Cappadocian metropolis].

In any case, underground cities are far too broad and popular an idea to cover in one post – there’s even a Stephen King story about a maze of tunnels discovered beneath some kind of garment factory in Maine, where cleaners find a new, monstrous species of rat – and I’ve written about these subterranean worlds before. For instance, in Tokyo Secret City and in London Topological.
While I’m on the subject, then, London seems actually to be constructed more on re-buttressed volumes of air than it is on solid ground.
As Antony Clayton writes in his Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London:

The heart of modern London 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.

Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that some of the underground cities in Cappadocia have not been fully explored. I also can’t help but wonder if more than two thousand years’ worth of earthquakes might not have collapsed some passages, or even shifted whole subcity systems, so that they are no longer accessible – and, thus, no longer known.
Could some building engineer one day shovel through the Earth’s surface and find a brand new underground city – or might not some archaeologist, scanning the hills with ground-penetrating radar, stumble upon an anomalous void, linked to other voids, and the voids lead to more voids, and he’s discovered yet another long-lost city?
It’s also worth pointing out, quickly, that there is a Jean Reno film, called Empire of the Wolves, that is at least partially set inside a subsurface Cappadocian complex. What’s interesting about this otherwise uninteresting film is that it uses the carved heads and statuary of Cappadocia not at all unlike the way Alfred Hitchcock used Mount Rushmore in his film North by Northwest: the final action scenes of both films take place literally on the face of the Earth.
In any case, I should be returning to the topic of underground cities quite soon.

Books cited:
• Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
• Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
• Anthony Clayton, Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London

(With huge thanks to Robert Krulwich for kicking off this post!)