Seismic Suburb

[Image: Screengrab from Stuff showing the test-suburb, a kind of seismic Operation Doorstep].

An empty suburb of Christchurch, New Zealand, abandoned after the 2011 earthquake, was bombed from below last autumn, as a series of carefully timed underground explosions set off an artificial earthquake. The controlled seismic event was part of a closely studied experiment to test how soil liquefaction could be reduced or even eliminated by better geotechnical design.

As Next City explains, it was a 70-year old former resident of the neighborhood named Martin Howman who kicked off the event, triggering the buried necklace of explosives beneath his own street and the houses of his neighbors.

“As he pressed the buttons,” Charles Anderson writes for Next City, “a piece of Howman’s old neighborhood, long since abandoned, jumped and jostled just like it had the day of the 2011 quake. Cameras inside the homes showed floor boards shaking and kitchen benches being thrown from their foundations. Drones hovering above captured images of roof tiles being shaken loose and shock waves thudding through the earth. Signs had been placed throughout the wider area to reassure passersby that the sounds were just science in action. Many gathered at a safe distance to watch the spectacle unfold.”

In video footage of the event, small clouds of dust can be seen bucking upward from the roofs of houses to drift away in a light breeze as the soil continues to jolt and shudder.

Stuff reported at the time that Howman’s initial response to the near-total abandonment of his neighborhood after the 2011 earthquake was that “he might buy a tractor and some cows and revert the land back to dairy farm”—but, instead, he stuck around just long enough to see the empty streets transformed into a seismic research facility like something out the work of Lebbeus Woods.

Recall, for example, the ideas behind Woods’s film treatment, Underground Berlin. There—as we explored here on BLDGBLOG back in 2013—Woods posited a fictional network of government seismic labs secretly operating beneath the surface of Berlin, called the Underground Research Station.

[Image: From Underground Berlin by Lebbeus Woods].

Inside the Station, Woods’s unmade film would have shown, “many scientists and technicians are working on a project for the government to analyze and harness the tremendous, limitless geological forces active in the earth… a world of seismic wind and electromagnetic flux.” Their eventual goal is to achieve “a mastery”—that is, to weaponize—the “primordial earth forces” they actively study.

In his book OneFiveFour, Woods pushes these ideas further, describing a city so defined by the seismic energy destabilizing the ground beneath it that almost every building and surface has been covered in “oscilloscopes, refractors, seismometers, interferometers, and other, as yet unknown instruments, measuring light, movement, force, change.”

The entire city has become a seismic instrument where “tools for extending perceptivity to all scales of nature are built spontaneously, playfully, experimentally, continuously modified in home laboratories, in laboratories that are homes… Indeed, each object—chair, table, cloth, examining apparatus, structure—is an instrument; each material thing connects the inhabitants with events in the world around him and within himself.”

In a video posted on Stuff, the ground rhythmically ripples and pops from below, as if a living creature has stirred beneath the cracked foundations of this empty neighborhood, “primordial earth forces” intent on resisting the architecture so flimsily built upon their shoulders.

(Thanks to mike.m.d. for the heads up!)

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