City of Buried Machines

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

A story of buried digging machines made something of an unexpected splash over at New Statesman this week, quickly becoming their weekend’s most-read article.

It turns out that all those elaborate basements and artificial show caves built for Londons’ nouveau riche have led to an interesting spatial dilemma: contractors are unable to retrieve the excavation equipment they used to produce all those huge underground extensions in the first place, and they have thus developed a technique for simply abandoning their machines underground and burying them in place.

London is thus becoming a machine cemetery, with upwards of £5 million worth of excavators now lying in state beneath the houses of the 1%. Like tools invented by M.C. Escher, these sacrificial JCBs have excavated the very holes they are then ritually entombed within, turning the city into a Celtic barrow for an age of heroic machinery.

What will future archaeologists make of these interred devices, densely packed in earth and left behind in unmarked graves?

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

As we explored here on BLDGBLOG six years ago, deep below the mansions and row houses of the city’s wealthiest residents, colossal cave adventures are taking shape: massive swimming pools, TV rooms, personal gymnasia, full-scale cinemas, and whole subterranean flats are being constructed in order to side-step strict historic preservation laws on the earth’s surface.

Pioneered by firms such as the appropriately named London Basement, these massively expanded homes now feature “playrooms and cinemas, bowling alleys and spas, wine cellars and gun rooms—and even a two-storey climbing wall,” the Guardian reported in 2012. “It is leading to a kind of iceberg architecture, a humble mansion on the surface just the visible peak of a gargantuan underworld, with subterranean possibilities only limited by the client’s imagination.”

As the architect of one such mega-basement explained, “We analyzed the planning laws and realized that they cover everything about the surface of the ground, but nothing beneath it. There was nothing whatsoever that could stop us from drilling all the way down to the south pole.”

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

Those grand old piles you see lining the streets of Belgravia thus might hide vertically sprawling domestic labyrinths and basement mazes down in the soil and clay beneath their ever-growing foundations, as home ownership fractally expands downward into the planet by way of waterproof geotextiles and carefully buttressed retaining walls.

However, these vast catacombs are by no means uncontroversial and might yet see their era come to an end due to local frustration with the disruption caused by construction crews and because of ever-growing municipal fees and penalties.

Until then, though, this abyssal impulse is surely approaching the inevitable point where we will see a private home legally redefined as a mine, a site of excavation closer in spirit to the extraction industry than private housing.

(Thanks to Martin John Callanan, Peter Flint, Paul Black, and Nicola Twilley! Meanwhile, if you like this, you might also like Subterranean Machine Resurrections)

Star Wheel Horizon

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

After posting a project by Jimenez Lai back in January, Lebbeus Woods got in touch with an earlier project of his own, called Horizon Houses (2000).

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

In his own words, the Horizon Houses are “are spatial structures that turn, or are turned, either continuously (the Wheel House) or from/to fixed positions (the Star and Block Houses).

They are structures experimenting with our perception of spatial transformations, accomplished without any material changes to the structures themselves. In these projects, my concern was the question of space. The engineering questions of how to turn the houses could be answered by conventional mechanical means—cranes and the like—but these seem clumsy and inelegant. The mechanical solution may lie in the idea of self-propelling structures, using hydraulics. But of more immediate concern: how would the changing spaces impact the ways we might inhabit them?

These self-transforming, perpetually off-kilter structures would, in a sense, contain their future horizon lines within them, as they rotate through various, competing orientations, both always and never completely grounded.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

Each house in the series thus simultaneously explores the visual nature—and spatial effect—of the horizon line and the vertical force of gravity that makes that horizon possible.

As Woods phrases it, “Gravity is constantly at work on the materials of architecture, trying to pull them to the earth’s center of gravity. An important consequence is that this action establishes the horizon.” However, he adds, “in the absence of gravity there is no horizon, for example, for astronauts in space. It is from this understanding that Ernst Mach developed his theory of inertia frames, which influenced Albert Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity”—but, that, Woods says, “is another story.”

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Star House, seen immediately above and below, was what brought Woods to comment on the earlier post about Jimenez Lai; but the other “ensemble variations,” as Woods describe them, while departing formally from the initial comparison with Lai’s own project, deserve equal attention here.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The circular form of the Wheel House, for instance, literalizes the stationary-but-mobile aspect of the project.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

It also compels the house always to be on the verge of moving again, unlike the jagged, semi-mountainous points of the Block and Star Houses.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Block Houses appear to be in a state of barely stabilized wreckage following an otherwise unmentioned seismic event—which is fitting, as the rest of Woods’s descriptive text (available on his website) offers seismicity as a key force and generative parameter for the project. If the earth itself moves, what sort of architecture might embrace and even thrive on that motion, rather than—unsuccessfully—attempt to resist a loss of foundation?

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

To say that these buildings thus exist in a state of ongoing catastrophe would be to fixate on and over-emphasize their instability, whereas it would be more productive to recognize that each house rides out a subtle and unique negotiation of the planet—where “the planet” is treated less as a physical fact and more as a gravitational reference point, an abstract frame of influence within which certain architectural forms can take shape.

In other words, the urges and pulls of gravity might nudge each house this way and that—it might even pull them over into a radically new orientation—but the architecture remains both optically sensible against its new horizon line and, more importantly, inhabitable.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

Taken together, this family of forms could thus roll, wander, and collapse indefinitely through the gravitational fields that command them.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

For a bit more text related to the project, see Woods’s own website.

Book Tower

[Images: House in Venice, California, by Bureau AA; photos by Larry Underhill].

This small and breezy house in Venice, California, designed by Robert Choeff and Krystyan Keck of the Bureau of Architectural Affairs, was completed in April 2009.

[Image: House in Venice, California; photo courtesy of Bureau AA].

The house’s transparent polycarbonate cladding, used to “expose the interactions” of the building elements, makes the house function like “a structural X-ray,” we read in a recent issue of Mark Magazine.

Tight quarters, a tight budget and further restrictions—including a height limit and required setbacks—navigated the architects toward their design solution: a 54-square-meter trapezoid perched above the existing structure on steel stilts, topped by a roof deck with views in all directions.

I’m reminded here of Francois Perrin’s Guest House for an Anthropologist, itself also very biblio-intensive: both are houses of exposed wood and polycarbonate, with lots of things to read.

[Image: House in Venice, California, by Bureau AA; photo by Larry Underhill].

The interior of the house seems solidly locked in place: “the upper story has no doors,” we read, “and its only piece of freestanding furniture is the dining table. Lean work desks and kitchen counters hug the perimeter, and built-in storage spaces double, discreetly, as screens.” This includes the bookshelves.

“Where there isn’t cabinetry and Sheetrock,” Mark Magazine adds, “there’s a window.”

[Images: Courtesy of the Bureau of Architectural Affairs].

I would feel compelled to add curtains, I’m afraid, and I would probably be a bit nervous with all those books over my head during an earthquake, but with a few minor adjustments I might put in an order for one, too, please…

Single Hauz

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

Like an inhabitable billboard, the Single Hauz – by Poland’s front architects – proposes cantilevering domestic living space from a central mast. The house can then be installed above a variety of ground conditions, from the middle of a meadow to an urban core.
Personally… I’d put it in a lake.

[Images: The Single Hauz by front architects].

The cool thing is that I’ve actually spent the last 11 months of my life staring up at some of the Herculean billboard structures out here in Los Angeles; they tower over intersections on streets from Venice to Sepulveda and often seem as large as houses.
But how much weight could a billboard carry?

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

Could you build a house up there?
Could you use the mast-and-cantilever model for other types of architectural structures, whether those are single-family houses – whole cul-de-sacs lined with modernist billboard homes! – or even restaurants and public libraries?
The Single Hauz shows how beautiful the effect could be.

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

For more projects by front architects, check out their website (though I couldn’t find any information in English).

(With huge thanks to a commenter named munditia, who first pointed out this project to me).