Subterranean Builders’ Guide

In the underground-themed issue of Rassegna, mentioned earlier, author Nicola Sinopoli offers a brief subterranean builders’ guide to bringing architecture underground. “There are now no technological limitations that could stop us from colonizing the underground,” he declares, providing a short catalog of useful construction materials in the process.

[Image: The Gotthard Base Tunnel in Sedrun, Switzerland; photo by Brian Fulcher, Walnut, CA, courtesy of Engineering News-Record‘s 2006 “Year in Construction” recap].

Sinopoli’s purpose is to point out “some of the new materials that chemistry and physics have offered this new world of construction.” And this goes beyond mere drilling equipment—which Sinopoli does not, in fact, cover—to encompass things like high-density buckled polyethylene membranes that are “impervious to organic bacteria and mildews that may be in the ground,” and that serve “as an effective barrier against radon, a radioactive gas sometimes found in the earth.”

We see flexible geocomposite mats, fiber-optic lighting technologies, a wide variety of grass turf for roofs, and self-ventilating, anti-humidity wall panels, all of which allow “colonizing the underground,” as Sinopoli puts it.

Cases, membranes and buckled plates protect the building from the infiltration of water and roots; woven and non-woven geotextiles, geocomposites, geomats and synthetic monofilaments stabilize and drain the land; and ultra high yield reflective films convey natural light inside the new underground spaces

He specifically focuses on issues of water and humidity, citing “an exciting array of innovative products in the field of green roofs and facades, where we now have an endless selection of materials for waterproofing and draining, water storage systems, draining sublayers, watering systems, hydrosowing systems and a panoply of plants modified in their deepest nature to adopt to any climate imaginable. The plants are often the fruit of an ingenious union of botany, genetics and new materials research. As if that weren’t enough, we have found that natural earth is an excellent insulator from heat and cold.”

The idea that “colonizing the underground” will be made possible at least partially through the use of genetically modified plants is pretty fascinating. This extends engineered biologies—future crops and oxygen gardens, perhaps even crypto-forestry—into the earth’s subsurface. Speleonauts living inside an architecture of growth chambers three miles underground, shining UV lights at specialty plantlife bred specifically to produce a breathable atmosphere, researching new anthropological directions in the deep.

It’s not much of an exaggeration here to say that gardening will be as important to the future of underground living as tunneling equipment.

[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG of documents in the Underground Space Center Library archive at the Canadian Centre for Architecture].

Sinopoli suggests that building underground is, for all intents and purposes, a solved problem: “If anything,” he quips, “we should explore what effects living and working in underground or almost underground spaces might have on behavior and quality of life. Sociologists will give their answers to this.” This is what I have earlier called psychology at depth, or the unanticipated psychiatric implications of living underground.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG of documents in the Underground Space Center Library archive at the Canadian Centre for Architecture].

I should note, however, that Sinopoli’s article is less about moving into scifi mega-cities inside the earth than it is about making things like underground shopping malls and even suburban basements more safe for everyday use. Nonetheless, over-ambitiously applying these same techniques in the outright construction of artificial caverns on a continental scale is, for me, simply too interesting to pass up.

Indeed, I’m reminded of Jeff Long’s scifi-horror novel The Descent, in which armed military units lead an invasion of the underworld, heading downward into the earth, Jules Verne-like, but with machine guns, hydroponic agriculture, UV klieg lights, and truckloads of instant concrete. They “approached the subplanet the way America approached manned landings on the moon forty years ago,” Long writes, “as a mission requiring life support systems, modes of transportation and access, and logistics.” The Army Corps of Engineers gets involved, “tasked to reinforce tunnels, devise new transport systems, drill shafts, build elevators, bore channels, and erect whole camps underground. They even paved parking lots—three thousand feet beneath the surface. Roadways were constructed through the mouths of caves.” It takes days at a time to get anywhere in Long’s underworld; there are outbreaks of “tropical cave disease,” we read, and claustrophobia.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG of documents in the Underground Space Center Library archive at the Canadian Centre for Architecture].

In any case, at this point, Sinopoli suggests, questions of architectural style can re-enter the picture. Indeed, “there are questions about the consequences of underground building on architecture and its language. That’s a discussion still waiting to be had.”

We can assemble a subterranean builders’ guide, in other words, and solve the problem of constructibility; but when it comes to architectural form, if we hope someday to move beyond mere underground shopping malls—for instance, Montreal’s overwhelmingly anti-climactic “underground city“—then there is still an awful lot of work to do.


5 thoughts on “Subterranean Builders’ Guide”

  1. and then there's the 'everyday underground' – in the outback opal mining town of Coober Pedy, South Australia, where residents famously live under the earth in remodelled disused opal mine shafts…

    Coober Pedy, South Australia – underground catholic church

    Coober Pedy, South Australia – underground boudoir

    as the town somehow provides 90% of world opal supply, there are plenty of abandoned excavations –
    an entire 'earthy' vernacular has evolved there, a unique construction knowledge-bank informed by the material ecology of the 120 million year old 'eromanga' sea bed, since long exposed to the scouring winds of human intervention…

    the opal fossils of south australia

  2. This continental underground, of course, is a necessary stage between our present and the distant future most thoroughly described in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

  3. Helsinki also has a large underground city, mostly developed from bomb shelter construction after WWII, but now with it's own city plan, it's growing alot. I blogged about it here.

  4. Very good article, as usual. As an architecture student find this issue most intreresting and I actually made my way into the school whith a proposal for an underground city in the desert. Dystopia. No. Subtopia. Yes.

  5. While I like the idea of a subterranean aspect to my living space when done appropriately, though I can understand the reluctance for people to think that moving into a landscape composed of tunnels is the way to go for our homes, however it would be a marvelous way for cities to reclaim land that is currently dedicated to cars and trucks by engineering tunnels through which they'd travel rather than surface streets which not only use valuable space but can be dangerous and actually work against the smooth flow of our transportation as they're so often in conflict with our pedestrian needs. Also, in the case of earthquakes, or other disasters, tunnels are typically safer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.