Burial Grounds

Blogger Andrew Ray of Some Landscapes recently re-read The Wind in the Willows to his son, stumbling on “an intriguing passage that I’d forgotten all about, concerning Badger’s large underground home.” It is a scene where “the idea of the city has been literally buried,” where, “civilisations decline but nature endures,” an underground world of ruined architecture and vaulted halls disguised as forests.

A Model Descent

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, was once “the largest, deepest and most productive gold mine in North America,” featuring nearly 370 miles’ worth of tunnels.

Although active mining operations ceased there more than a decade ago, the vast subterranean labyrinth not only remains intact, it has also found a second life as host for a number of underground physics experiments.

[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].

These include a lab known as the Sanford Underground Research Facility, as well as a related project, the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (or DUSEL).

Had DUSEL not recently run into some potentially fatal funding problems, it “would have been the deepest underground science facility in the world.” For now, it is on hold.

[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].

There is already much to read about the experiments going on there, but one of the key projects underway is a search for dark matter. As Popular Science explained back in 2010:

Now a team of physicists and former miners has converted Homestake’s shipping warehouse into a new surface-level laboratory at the Sanford Underground Laboratory. They’ve painted the walls and baseboards white and added yellow floor lines to steer visitors around giant nitrogen tanks, locker-size computers and plastic-shrouded machine parts. Soon they will gather many of these components into the lab’s clean room and combine them into LUX, the Large Underground Xenon dark-matter detector, which they will then lower halfway down the mine, where—if all goes well—it will eventually detect the presence of a few particles of dark matter, the as-yet-undetected invisible substance that may well be what holds the universe together.

Earlier this year, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I noticed some cool photos popping up from a Brooklyn-based firm called SITU Fabrication. The images showed what appeared to be a maze of strangely angled metal parts and wires, hanging from one another in space.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by SITU Fabrication].

One of them—seen above, and resembling some sort of exploded psychogeographic map of Dante’s Inferno—was simply captioned, “#CNC milled aluminum plates for model of underground tunnel network in #SouthDakota.”

Living within walking distance of the company’s DUMBO fabrication facility, I quickly got in touch and, a few days later, stopped by to learn more.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

SITU’s Wes Rozen met me for a tour of the workshop and a firsthand introduction to the Homestake project.

The firm, he explained, already widely known for its work on complex fabrication jobs for architects and artists alike, had recently been hired to produce a 3D model of the complete Homestake tunnel network, a model that would later be installed in a visitors’ center for the mine itself.

Visitors would thus encounter this microcosm of the old mine, in lieu of physically entering the deep tunnels beneath their feet.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Individual levels of the mine, Rozen pointed out, had been milled from aluminum sheets to a high degree of accuracy; even small side-bays and dead ends were included in the metalwork.

Negative space became positive, and the effect was like looking through lace.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Further, tiny 3D-printed parts—visible in some photographs, further below—had also been made to connect each level to the next, forming arabesques and curlicues that spiraled out and back again, representing truck ramps.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The whole thing was then suspended on wires, hanging like a chandelier from the underworld, to form a cloud or curtain of subtly reflective metal.

[Image: Assembly of the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

When I showed up that day, the pieces were still being assembled; small knots of orange ribbon and pieces of blue painter’s tape marked spots that required further polish or balancing, and metal clamps held many of the wires in place.

[Images: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Seen in person, the piece is astonishingly complex, as well as physically imposing—in photographs, unfortunately, this can be difficult to capture.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

However, the sheer density of the metalwork and the often impossibly minute differences from one level of the mine to the next—not to mention, at the other extreme, the sudden outward spikes of one-off, exploratory mine shafts, shooting away from the model like blades—can still be seen here, especially in photos supplied by SITU themselves.

[Image: Assembly of the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

A few of the photos look more like humans tinkering in the undercarriage of some insectile aluminum engine, a machine from a David Cronenberg movie.

[Image: Assembling the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Which seems fitting, I suppose, as the other appropriate analogy to make here would be to the metal skeleton of a previously unknown creature, pinned up and put together again by the staff of an unnatural history museum.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The model is now complete and no longer in Brooklyn: it is instead on display at the Homestake visitors’ center in South Dakota, where it greets the general public from its perch above a mirror. As above, so below.

[Images: The model seen in situ, by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Again, it’s funny how hard the piece can be to photograph in full, and how quick it is to blend into its background.

This is a shame, as the intricacies of the model are both stunning and worth one’s patient attention; perhaps it would be better served hanging against a solid white background, or even just more strategically lit.

[Image: The model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Or, as the case may be, perhaps it’s just worth going out of your way to see the model in person.

Indeed, following the milled aluminum of one level, then down the ramps to the next, heading further out along the honeycomb of secondary shafts and galleries, and down again to the next level, and so on, ad infinitum, was an awesome and semi-hypnotic way to engage with the piece when I was able to see it up close in SITU’s Brooklyn facility.

I imagine that seeing it in its complete state in South Dakota would be no less stimulating.

(Vaguely related: Mine Machine).

Then we descend

[Image: Descending into Mammoth Cave, from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

By way of JF Ptak Science Books, I found myself reading through an old book called Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams this weekend, a travelogue from 1876 exploring subterranean landscapes around the world, including what is now Mammoth Cave National Park.

“Then we descend,” Adams writes upon his arrival at the cave, “by a small pathway excavated among the rocks, until we discover, in the sides of the mountain, and at the bottom of a funnel-shaped cavity, overgrown with verdure, an opening so low and narrow that two people can with difficulty enter at once.”

Slipping through, they pass into “a labyrinth of caves” consisting of seemingly endless sloping rooms, shafts, and corridors.

As my own phrasing there indicates, these spaces are described by way of architectural analogy: as naves and vestibules, chambers and rotundas. In fact, their perceived architectural characteristics are highlighted even on the acoustic level. One cave, for example, is a place “where the voice resounds and, lingering, reverberates, like the strain of an organ through dim cathedral aisles.”

[Image: A room in Mammoth Cave known as “The Maelstrom,” from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

Continuing on their downward trek, Adams & Co. soon wander into “a chamber nearly 320 feet in circuit, whose roof rises like the stand of an immense nave. Its form, its grandeur, its magnitude (it could accommodate five thousand persons), and the strange architectural-like stalactites which embellish it, have procured it the name of the Gothic Church.”

Indeed, standing amidst this ersatz cathedral, and “thanks to the power of imagination, and the varying influence of the light, we here distinguish all the details of a medieval nave, pillars, and columns, and corbels and ogives.”

Among many things, what interests me here is how the interior of the earth is seen as if through the haze of a projection, with architectural forms emerging where, in fact, only inhuman geological processes at work—but also, in the opposite direction, the implied observation here that, in an age of masonry construction, architecture and geology were, in effect, natural cousins, lending themselves to mutual comparison far more easily than in today’s time of glass and steel construction.

[Image: A vast underground room filled with “a silent, terrible solitude,” from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

To put this another way, many streets in Manhattan are often quite appropriately described as “canyons,” not only due to their perceived depth—that is, given the towering buildings on either side, as if pedestrians merely wander at the bottom of artificial slot canyons—but also due to the geological materials those buildings were made from.

However, following widespread transformations in global building construction, our buildings today are now more likely to be reflective—even dangerously so—or partially transparent, whether this is due to the use of glass curtain walls or shadow-annihilating polished titanium, with the effect that our urban environment is no longer particularly well-served by geological analogy.

In any case, the book’s flirtation with an architectural vocabulary is gradually abandoned as Adams and his colleagues venture deeper into the planet. They eventually find themselves standing somewhat uncomfortably surrounded by a “phantasmagoria” of black gypsum walls, all “covered with sparkling crystallizations,” in a vast room whose belittling proportions inspire feelings not of grandeur and religiosity but a kind of exhausted desolation.

Here, Adams writes, “you think yourself on one of those dead and naked planets, where mineral nature reigns in the bosom of a silent, terrible solitude; on some earth never warmed by the sun, and which is animated by no kind of life.”

[Image: An unfortunately rather low-res image from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

The rest of the book—including the image seen immediately above this sentence—ventures elsewhere, into silver mines and glacial caves, even briefly passing by way of underground “artificial ice caves” for the premodern production and storage of ice.

I’m just a sucker for subterranea. Check it out if any of this sounds up your alley, and click through the archives of JF Ptak Science Books while you’re at it.

The Landscape Architecture of Crisis

[Image: An only conceptually related photo from a volcano in Java, taken by Reuben Wu].

The invisibility of underground fires makes them particularly surreal and difficult to imagine: flames with no real room to flicker, moving slowly forward through the planet, relentlessly burning their way ever deeper into the landscape from below.

Whether that fire was caused by the ignition of a coal seam—as in Centralia or, my favorite example, in Australia’s Burning Mountain—or because subterranean strata of human-generated trash have caught fire, these events make for an especially spectral presence in the landscape. They remain entirely out of view except for the haze of their atmospheric effects, as they fill the air above with toxic gases.

This already strange phenomenon is hitting a whole new level of apocalyptic artificiality in a landfill outside St. Louis, Missouri. There, an underground fire is at risk of igniting old nuclear waste from U.S. weapons programs.

As the AP reports, “Beneath the surface of a St. Louis-area landfill lurk two things that should never meet: a slow-burning fire and a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste, separated by no more than 1,200 feet.”

It’s worth pointing out that “the waste was illegally dumped in 1973 and includes material that dates back to the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb in the 1940s.” In many ways, then, this was an obvious problem just waiting to reassert itself.

An “emergency plan” has now kicked into gear to help fend off the potentially “catastrophic event” that would occur if these two things meet—the dormant deposit of nuclear waste and the respiring event of the underground fire.

In effect, this plan is a massive undertaking of design: it is landscape architecture as a tool against crisis.

New structures called “interceptor wells” are being constructed, for example, to maintain a kind of thermal quarantine line between the fire and the nuclear waste—however, the fire already appears to have circumvented these buffers, at least according to the AP. For example, some safety reports from the site have allegedly “found radiological contamination in trees outside the landfill’s perimeter,” implying that the nuclear waste has already, in at least some capacity, entered the biosphere, and “another showed evidence that the fire has moved past two rows of interceptor wells and closer to the nuclear waste.”

Yet another report ominously claims that the management company in charge of the landfill simply “does not have this site under control.”

This slow-burning apocalypse brings to mind our earlier look at writer Robert Macfarlane’s recent work on the vocabulary we use for certain landscapes, how words come and go over time and how spatial atmospheres can be verbally communicated.

Is there a proper landscape term for a subterranean catastrophe ready to burst through the surface of the world and forever change things for the worse in its immediate vicinity?

(Thanks to Ben Brockert and Kevin Iris for the tip!)

Subterranean Saxophony

[Image: Photo by Steve Stills, courtesy of the Guardian].

Over in London later today, the Guardian explains, composer Iain Chambers will premiere a new piece of music written for an unusual urban venue: “the caverns that contain the counterweights of [London’s Tower Bridge] when it’s raised.”

The space itself has “the acoustics of a small cathedral,” Sinclair told the newspaper, citing John Cage as an influence and urging readers “to listen to environmental sounds and treat them as music,” whether it’s the rumble of a bridge being raised or the sounds of boats on the river.

In fact, Chambers will be performing one of Cage’s pieces during the show tonight—but, alas, I suspect it is not this one:

It is rumored that the final, dying words of composer John Cage were: “Make sure they play my London piece… You have to hear my London piece…” He was referring, many now believe, to a piece written for the subterranean saxophony of London’s sewers.

Read much more at the Guardian—or, even better, stop by tonight for a live performance.

(Spotted via @nicolatwilley).

Abandoned Mines, Slow Printing, and the Living Metal Residue of a Post-Human World

“High in the Pyrenees Mountains,” we read, “deep in abandoned mines, scientists discovered peculiar black shells that seem to crop up of their own accord on metal surfaces.”

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Joan Santamaría, via Eos].

No, this is not a deleted scene from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; it’s from research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, recently reported by Eos.

It turns out that, under certain conditions, subterranean microbes can leave behind metallic deposits “as part of their natural metabolism.” Abandoned mines are apparently something of an ideal environment for this to occur within, resulting in “a rapid biomineralization process that sprouts iron-rich shells from the surface of steel structures.”

These then build up into reef-like deposits through a process analogous to 3D-printing: “Electron microscopy revealed small-scale, fiber-like crystals arranged into lines growing outward from the steel surface. The shells appear to be formed layer by layer, with crystal size and composition varying across layers.”

There are many, many interesting things to highlight here, which include but are not limited to:

Slow Printing

We could literalize the analogy used above by exploring how a controlled or guided version of this exact same process could be used as a new form of biological 3D-printing.

To put this another way, there is already a slow food movement—why not a slow printing one, as well?

Similar to the project John Becker and I explored a while back, using genetically-modified bees as living printheads, damp, metal-rich environments—microbial ovens, so to speak—could be constructed as facsimile mines inside of which particular strains of microbes and fungi would then be cultivated.

Geometric molds would be introduced as “seed-forms” to be depositionally copied by the microbes. Rather than creating the abstract, clamshell-like lumps seen in the below photograph, the microbes would be steered into particular shapes and patterns, resulting in discrete, recognizable objects.

Boom: a living 3D-printer, or a room of specially cultivated humidity and darkness out of which strange replicant tools and objects could be extracted every few years. At the very least, it would make a compelling art project—an object-reef sprouting with microbial facsimiles.

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Nieves López-Martínez, via Eos].

Dankness Instrumentalized

Historian David Gissen has written interestingly about the idea of “dankness” in architecture.

In an article for Domus back in 2010, Gissen explained that “dankness”—or “underground humidity,” in his words, a thick atmosphere of mold, rot, and stagnation usually found inside closed, subterranean spaces—was even once posited by architectural historian Marc-Antoine Laugier as a primal catalyst for first inspiring human beings to build cleaner, better ventilated structures—that is, architecture itself, in a kind of long-term retreat from the troglodyte lifestyle of settling in caves.

Dankness, to wildly over-simply this argument, so horrified our cave-dwelling ancestors that they invented what we now call architecture—and a long chain of hygienic improvements in managing the indoor atmospheric quality of these artificial environments eventually led us to modernism.

But dankness has its uses. “While modernists generally held dankness in suspect,” Gissen writes, “a few held a certain type of affection for this atmosphere, if only because it was an object of intense scrutiny. The earliest modernist rapprochements with dankness saw it as the cradle of a mythical atmosphere, an atmosphere that preceded modernity.” The “atmospheric depths of the cellar,” Gissen then suggests, might ironically be a sign of architectural developments yet to come:

Today, in the name of environmentalism, architects are digging into the earth in an effort to release its particular climatic qualities. Passive ventilation schemes often involve underground constructions such as “labyrinths” or “thermosiphons” that release the earth’s cool and wet air. The earth that architects reach into is one that has been so technified and rationalized, so measured and considered, that it barely contains mythical or uncanny aspects. However, this return to the earth’s substrate enables other possibilities.

In any case, I am not only quoting this essay because it is interesting and deserves wider discussion; I am also quoting all this in order to suggest that dankness could also be instrumentalized, or tapped as a kind of readymade industrial process, an already available microbial atmosphere wherein metal-depositing metabolic processes pulsing away in the dankest understructures of the world could be transformed into 3D-printing facilities.

The slow printheads for long-term object replication, mentioned above, would be fueled by and dependent upon Gissen’s spaces of subterranean humidity.

Heavy Metal Compost

If it is too difficult, too unrealistic, or simply too uselessly speculative to consider the possibility of 3D-printing with microbes, you could simply eliminate the notion that this is meant to produce recognizable object-forms, and use the same process instead as a new kind of compost heap.

Similar to throwing your old banana peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, and avocado skins into a backyard compost pile, you could throw metallic waste into a Gissen Hole™ and wait for genetically-modified microbes such as these to slowly but relentlessly break it all down, leaving behind weird, clamshell-like structures of purified metal in their wake.

Cropping teams would then climb down into this subterranean recycling center—or open an airlock and step inside some sort of controlled-atmosphere facility tucked away on the industrial outskirts of town—to harvest these easily commodified lumps of metal. It’d be like foraging for mushrooms or picking strawberries.

[Image: An “ancient coral reef,” illustrated by Heinrich Harder].

The Coming Super-Reef

Finally, this also seems to suggest at least one fate awaiting the world of human construction long after humans themselves have disappeared.

Basements in the ruined cores of today’s cities will bloom in the darkness with ever-expanding metallic reefs, as the steel frames of skyscrapers and the collapsed machinery of the modern world become source material—industrial soil—for future metal-eating microbes.

Quietly, endlessly, wonderfully, the planet-spanning dankness of unmaintained subterranean infrastructure—in the depths of Shanghai, London, New York, Moscow—humidly accumulates these strange metallic shells. Reefs larger than anything alive today form, crystallized from the remains of our cities.

A hundred million years go by, and our towers are reduced to bizarre agglomerations of metal—then another hundred million years and they’ve stopped growing, now hidden beneath hundreds of meters of soil or flooded by unpredictable shifts of sea level.

Clouds of super-fish unrecognizable to today’s science swim through the grotesque arches and coils of what used to be banks and highways, apartment blocks and automobiles, monstrous and oyster-like shells whose indirect human origins no future paleontologist could realistically deduce.

Abandoned Basements as Stormwater Basins

[Image: Rendering of a possible “BaseTern” landscape by students Brett Harris, Andrew D’Arcy, and Heidi Petersen, via Landscape Architecture Magazine].

Not all the news coming out of Milwaukee involves misguided highway megaprojects or tax-funded crony capitalism—though there is that.

For example, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker—confusing an earlier generation’s urban mistakes with how a city is meant to function—has been plowing billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer money into “freeway megaprojects” for which “the pricetag got so big that leaders from his own party rejected his plan as fiscally irresponsible, leaving the state budget in limbo,” Politico reports:

As the state has shifted resources into freeway megaprojects, 71 percent of [Wisconsin’s] roads are in mediocre or poor condition, according to federal data. Fourteen percent of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, which is actually better than the national average. Walker and his fellow Republicans have killed plans for light rail, commuter rail, high-speed rail, and dedicated bus lanes on major highways, so there is almost no public transportation connecting Milwaukee to its suburbs, intensifying divisions in one of the nation’s most racially, economically and politically segregated metropolitan areas. Yet Walker, who is running for president as a staunch fiscal conservative, has pushed a $250 million-per-mile plan to widen Interstate 94 between the Marquette and the Zoo despite fierce local opposition.

If that sounds both avoidable and unfortunate, consider the fact that “Walker also killed a ‘Complete Streets’ program that pushed road builders to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.”

[Images: (top) Milwaukee’s Marquette interchange, nearly the same size as the city it cuts through; (bottom) Milwaukee before the interchange. Images via Politico].

At the same time, Walker has also “championed a high-profile proposal to spend a quarter of a billion dollars of taxpayer money to help finance a new Milwaukee Bucks arena—all while pushing to slash roughly the same amount from state funding for higher education,” the International Business Times reports.

But, hey, why does Wisconsin need universities when everyone can just go to an NBA game? Not that benefitting the public is even Walker’s goal: “One of those who stands to benefit from the controversial initiative is a longtime Walker donor and Republican financier who has just been appointed by the governor to head his presidential fundraising operation.”

In any case, an interesting landscape test-project is currently underway in Milwaukee, called the “BaseTern” program.

As the city explains it, a “BaseTern” is “an underground stormwater management or rainwater harvesting structure created from the former basement of an abandoned home that has been slated for demolition.” Why is the city doing this?

By using abandoned basements, the City saves the cost of demolition on these structures (filing the basement and grading the surface) and on excavation for the new structure. In addition, BaseTerns provide significant stormwater storage capacity on a single site, the equivalent of up to 600 rain barrels.

The result, the city is keen to add, is “not an open pit. Rather a BaseTern is a covered structure, which is covered with topsoil and grass, and will appear the same as conventional vacant lot.”

In their July 2015 issue, Landscape Architecture Magazine explained that this is, in fact, “the world’s first such system.” Conceived—and actually trademarked—by a city official named Erick Shambarger, the idea was inspired by a GIS-fueled discovery that the worst flooding in the city always “occurred in neighborhoods with high rates of foreclosures. The city controls roughly 900 foreclosed properties, many of which it plans to demolish. Shambarger figured the city could preserve the basement structure and put it to use.”

[Images: Two BaseTern design diagrams, taken from Milwaukee’s “Vacant Basements for Stormwater Management Feasibility Study“].

While there is something metaphorically unsettling in the idea that parts of a blighted, financially underwater neighborhood might soon literally be underwater—transformed into a kind of urban sponge for the rest of Milwaukee—the notion that the city can discover in its own economic misfortune a possible new engineering approach for dealing with seasonal flooding and super-storms is an inspiring thing to see.

The BaseTern program also potentially suggests a stopgap measure for coastal cities set to face rising sea levels well within the lifetimes of the coming generation.

In the all but inevitable managed retreat from the coast that seems set to kick off both en masse and in earnest by midcentury—something that is already happening in New York City, post-Sandy—perhaps the subterranean ruins of old neighborhoods left behind can be temporarily repurposed as minor additions to a broader coastal program intent on reducing flooding for residents further inland.

Before, of course, those underground voids—former guest bedrooms, dens, man caves, she sheds, and basements—are inundated for good.

Read more about BaseTerns over at Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Subterranean Lightning Brigade

[Image: “Riggers install a lightning rod” atop the Empire State Building “in preparation for an investigation into lightning by scientists of the General Electric Company” (1947), via the Library of Congress].

This is hardly news, but I wanted to post about the use of artificial lightning as a navigational aid for subterranean military operations.

This was reported at the time as a project whose goal was “to let troops navigate about inside huge underground enemy tunnel complexes by measuring energy pulses given off by lightning bolts,” where those lightning bolts could potentially be generated on-demand by aboveground tactical strike teams.

Such a system would replace the use of GPS—whose signals cannot penetrate into deep subterranean spaces—and it would operate by way of sferics, or radio atmospheric signals generated by electrical activity in the sky.

The proposed underground navigational system—known as “Sferics-Based Underground Geolocation” or S-BUG—would be capable of picking up these signals even from “hundreds of miles away. Receiving signals from lighting strikes in multiple directions, along with minimal information from a surface base station also at a distance, could allow operators to accurately pinpoint their position.” They could thus maneuver underground, even in hundreds—thousands—of feet below the earth’s surface in enemy caves or bunkers.

Hundreds of miles is a very wide range, of course—but what if there is no natural lightning in the area?

Enter artificial military storm generators, or the charge of the lightning brigade.

Back in 2009, DARPA also put out of a request for proposals as part of something called Project Nimbus. NIMBUS is “a fundamental science program focused on obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the lightning process.” However, it included a specific interest in developing machines for “triggering lightning”:

Experimental Set-up for Triggering Lightning: Bidders should fully describe how they would attempt to trigger lightning and list all potential pieces of equipment necessary to trigger lightning, as well as the equipment necessary to measure and characterize the processes governing lightning initiation, propagation, and attachment.

While it’s easy enough to wax conspiratorial here about future lightning weapons or militarized storm cells—after all, DARPA themselves write that they want to understand “how [lightning] ties into the global charging circuit,” as if “the global charging circuit” is something that could be instrumentalized or controlled—I actually find it more interesting to speculate that generating lightning would be not for offensive purposes at all, but for guiding underground navigation.

[Image: Lightning storm over Boston; via Wikimedia/NOAA].

Something akin to a strobe light begins pulsing atop a small camp of unmarked military vehicles parked far outside a desert city known for its insurgent activities. These flashes gradual lengthen, both temporally and physically, lasting longer and stretching upward into the sky; the clouds above are beginning to thicken, grumbling with quiet rolls of thunder.

Then the lightning strikes begin—but they’re unlike any natural lightning you’ve ever seen. They’re more like pops of static electricity—a pulsing halo or toroidal crown of light centered on the caravan of trucks below—and they seem carefully timed.

To defensive spotters watching them through binoculars in the city, it’s obvious what this means: there must be a team of soldiers underground somewhere, using artificial sferics to navigate. They must be pushing forward relentlessly through the sewers and smuggling tunnels, crawling around the roots of buildings and maneuvering through the mazework of infrastructure that constitutes the city’s underside, locating themselves by way of these rhythmic flashes of false lightning.

Of course, this equipment would eventually be de-militarized and handed down to the civilian sector, in which case you can imagine four friends leaving REI on a Friday afternoon after work with an artificial lightning generator split between them; no larger than a camp stove, it would eventually be set up with their other weekend caving equipment, used to help navigate through deep, stream-slick caves an hour and a half outside town, beneath tall mountains where GPS can’t always be trusted.

Or, perhaps fifty years from now, salvage teams are sent deep into the flooded cities of the eastern seaboard to look for and retrieve valuable industrial equipment. They install an artificial lightning unit on the salt-bleached roof of a crumbling Brooklyn warehouse before heading off in a small armada of marsh boats, looking for entrances to old maintenance facilities whose basement storage rooms might have survived rapid sea-level rise.

Disappearing down into these lost rooms—like explorers of Egyptian tombs—they are guided by bolts of artificial lightning that spark upward above the ruins, reflected by tides.

[Image: Lightning via NOAA].

Or—why not?—perhaps we’ll send a DARPA-funded lightning unit to one of the moons of Jupiter and let it flash and strobe there for as long as it needs. Called Project Miller-Urey, its aim is to catalyze life from the prebiotic, primordial soup of chemistry swirling around there in the Cthulhoid shadow of eternal ice mountains.

Millions and millions of years hence, proto-intelligent lifeforms emerge, never once guessing that they are, in fact, indirect descendants of artificial lightning technology. Their spark is not divine but military, the electrical equipment that sparked their ancestral line long since fallen into oblivion.

In any case, keep your eyes—and cameras—posted for artificial lightning strikes coming to a future military theater near you…

Urban CAT Scan

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The London-based ScanLab Projects, featured here many times before, have completed a new commission, this time from the British Postal Museum & Archive, to document the so-called “Mail Rail,” a network of underground tunnels that opened back in 1927.

As Subterranea Britannica explains, the tunnels were initially conceived as a system of pneumatic package-delivery tubes, an “atmospheric railway,” as it was rather fantastically described at the time, “by which a stationary steam engine would drive a large fan which could suck air out of an air tight tube and draw the vehicle towards it or blow air to push them away.”

That “vehicle” would have been a semi-autonomous wheeled cart bearing parcels for residents of Greater London.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Alas, but unsurprisingly, this vision of an air-powered subterranean communication system for a vast metropolis of many millions of residents was replaced by a rail-based one, with narrow, packed-heavy cars running a system of tracks beneath the London streets.

Thus the Mail Rail system was born.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

While the story of the system itself is fascinating, it has also been told elsewhere.

The aforementioned Subterranea Britannica is a perfect place to start, but urban explorers have also gained entrance for narrative purposes of their own, including the long write-up over at Placehacking.

That link includes the incredible detail that, “on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.”

Surely, this should be the setting for a new novel: some huge and illegal party in an abandoned building at an otherwise undisclosed location in the city results in people breaking into or discovering an otherwise forgotten, literally underground network, alcohol-blurred photographs of which are later recognized as having unique urban importance.

Something is down there, the hungover viewers of these photographs quickly realize, something vague and hazily glimpsed in the unlit background of some selfies snapped at a rave.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

This would all be part of the general mysticism of infrastructure that I hinted at in an earlier post, the idea that the peripheral networks through which the city actually functions lie in wait, secretly connecting things from below or wrapping, Ouroborus-like, around us on the edges of things.

These systems are the Matrix, we might say in modern mythological terms, or the room where Zeus moves statues of us all around on chessboards: an invisible realm of tacit control and influence that we’ve come to know unimaginatively as nothing but infrastructure. But infrastructure is now the backstage pass, the esoteric world behind the curtain.

In any case, with this handful of party pictures in hand, a group of London explorers tried to infiltrate the system.

After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found… We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months.

It took some time—but, eventually, it worked.

They found the tunnels.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The complete write-up over at Placehacking is worth the read for the rest of that particular story.

But ScanLab now enter the frame as documentarians of a different sort, with a laser-assisted glimpse of this underground space down to millimetric details.

Their 3D point clouds afford a whole new form of representation, a kind of volumetric photography that cuts through streets and walls to reveal the full spatial nature of the places on display.

The incredible teaser video, pieced together from 223 different laser scanning sessions, reveals this with dramatic effect, featuring a virtual camera that smoothly passes beneath the street like a swimmer through the waves of the ocean.



As the British Postal Museum & Archive explains, the goal of getting ScanLab Projects down into their tunnels was “to form a digital model from which any number of future interactive, visual, animated and immersive experiences can be created.”

In other words, it was a museological project: the digital preservation of an urban underworld that few people—Placehacking‘s write-up aside—have actually seen.

For example, the Museum writes, the resulting laser-generated 3D point clouds might “enable a full 3D walkthrough of hidden parts of the network or an app that enables layers to be peeled away to see the original industrial detail beneath.”

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Unpeeling the urban onion has never been so gorgeous as we leap through walls, peer upward through semi-transparent streets, and see signs hanging in mid-air from both sides simultaneously.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Tunnels become weird ropey knots like smoke rings looped beneath the city as the facades of houses take on the appearance of old ghosts, remnants of another era gazing down at the flickering of other dimensions previously lost in the darkness below.

(Thanks again to the British Postal Museum & Archive for permission to post the images).

It Came From Below

Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath Los Angeles, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Welcome to urban life atop a still-active oil field.

This post was originally published on The Daily Beast.

Sliding around beneath the surface of Los Angeles is something dark, primordial, and without clear form. It seeps up into the city from below through even the smallest cracks and drains. Infernal, it can cause fires and explosions; toxic, it can debilitate, poison, and kill.

Near downtown Los Angeles, at 14th Place and Hill Street, a small extraction firm called the St. James Oil Corporation runs an active oil well. In 2006, the firm presided over a routine steam-injection procedure known as “well stimulation.” The purpose was simple: a careful and sustained application of steam would heat up, liquefy, and thus make available for easier harvesting some of the thick petroleum deposits, or heavy oil, beneath the neighborhood.

But things didn’t quite go as planned. As explained by the Center for Land Use Interpretation—a local non-profit group dedicated to documenting and analyzing land usage throughout the United States—“the subterranean pressure forced oily ooze and smells out of the ground,” causing a nauseating “goo” to bubble over “into storm drains, streets, and basements” as far as two blocks away.

The sudden appearance of this black tide beneath the neighborhood even destabilized the nearby road surface, leading to its emergency closure, and 130 people had to be evacuated. It took weeks to pump these toxic petroleum byproducts out of the basements and to resurface the street; the firm itself was later sued by the city.

While this was an industrial accident, hydrocarbons are, in fact, almost constantly breaking through the surface of Los Angeles, both in liquid and gaseous form. These are commonly known as seeps, and the most famous example is also an international tourist attraction: the La Brea Tar Pits, with its family-friendly museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

The “tar” here is actually liquid asphalt or pitch, and it is one of many reasons why humans settled the region in the first place. Useful both for waterproofing and for its flammability, this sticky substance has been exploited by humans in the region for literally thousands of years—and it has also given L.A. some of its most impressive paleontological finds.

[Image: Tar pushes up through cracks in the sidewalk on Wilshire Boulevard, near the La Brea Tar Pits; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In other words, precisely because they are so dangerous, the tar pits are a veritable archive of extinct species; these include mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, and dire wolves, examples of which have been found fatally mired in the black mess seeping up from the deep. Groups of these now long-dead creatures once wandered across an otherworldly landscape of earthquakes and extinct volcanoes, an active terrain pockmarked with eerie bubbling cauldrons of flammable liquid asphalt.

What’s so interesting about contemporary life in Southern California is that this surreal, prehistoric landscape never really went anywhere: it’s simply been relegated to the background, invisibly buried beneath strip malls, car dealerships, and sushi restaurants. Every natural tar seep and artificial oil well here can be seen as an encounter with this older, stranger world trying to break back through into our present experience.

What humans choose to do with this primordial stuff leaking through the cracks can often be almost comical. Architect Ben Loescher, who has given tours of the region’s oil infrastructure for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, points out that many buildings near Lafayette Park must contend with a constant upwelling of asphalt. He sent me a photograph showing a line of orange utility buckets arranged as an ingenious but absurd stopgap measure against the endless and unstoppable goo.

[Image: A makeshift system for capturing the near-constant tar and liquid asphalt leaking up from below a building near Lafayette Park; photo by Ben Loescher].

Nearby, Loescher added, parking lots are a great place to see the onslaught. Many are constantly but slowly flooding with tar and asphalt, to the point that one lot—run by a karaoke club—is struck so badly that the tar is actually visible on Google Maps. “That parking lot is riddled with seeps, as well. When it gets hot, the parking lot sort of re-asphalts itself,” Loescher explains, “and they have to put down tarps on top of it so the cars don’t get stuck.” A much larger gravel lot across the street also exhibits multiple sites of seepage, as if pixelating from below with black matter.

Loescher emphasized that these sites are by no means limited to the La Brea Tar Pits. They can be found throughout the Los Angeles basin, beneath sidewalks, yard, parking lots, and even in people’s basements. To exaggerate for dramatic effect, it’s as if the premise of The Blob was at least partially inspired by a true story—one that has been taking place for hundreds of thousands of years throughout Southern California, and that involves, instead of a visitor from space, something ancient and pre-human forcing its way up from below.

[Image: Liquid asphalt leaking upward into the parking lot of a Los Angeles karaoke club; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In a short book called Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles, writer William L. Fox explores the remnant gas leaks and oil seeps of the city. At times, it reads as if he is describing the backdrop of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Such is the strange and permanent apocalypse of 21st-century L.A.

Fox writes, for example, that “a methane vent opened up in the middle of Fairfax Street” back in 1985, and that it “burned uncontrollably for days before it could be put out.” At night, it was a world lit by flames. Astonishingly, he adds, in 1962 “a Hawthorne woman had a fire under her house—a house with no basement. She located the source of the problem when she went outside and touched a match to a crack in the sidewalk: A flame ran down to it.”

This city where sidewalks burn and sewers fill with oily ooze is a city built here almost specifically for that very reason; Los Angeles, in many ways, is a settlement founded on petroleum byproducts, and the oil industry for which the city was once known never actually left. It just got better at hiding itself.

It is already well known that there are oilrigs disguised in plain sight all over the city. The odd-looking tower behind Beverly Hills High School, for example, is actually a camouflaged oilrig; an active oil field runs beneath the classrooms and athletic fields. Even stranger, the enormous synagogue at Pico and Doheny is not a synagogue at all, but a movable drilling tower designed to look like a house of worship, as if bizarre ceremonies for conjuring a literal black mass out of the bowels of the Earth take place here, hidden from view. If you zoom in on Google Maps, you can just make out the jumbles of industrial machinery tucked away inside.

However, amidst all of this still-functional oil infrastructure, there are ruins: abandoned wells, capped drill sites, and derelict pumping stations that have effectively been erased from public awareness. These, too, play a role in the city’s subterranean fires and its poisonous breakouts of black ooze.

As Fox explains in Making Time, a labyrinth of aging pipelines and forgotten wells crisscrosses the city. He explains that the Salt Lake Oil Field—which underlies the La Brea Tar Pits, sprawls below an outdoor shopping center known as The Grove, and continues deep into the surrounding neighborhoods—once contained as many as 1,500 operative oil wells. However, most of these “have long since been abandoned and are virtually invisible,” he writes, and, alarmingly, “roughly 300 are unaccounted for.”

These “unaccounted for” oil wells are out of sight and out of mind—but it should not be assumed that they are safely or permanently capped. Indeed, the Salt Lake Oil Field actually “appears to be repressurizing with oil and water,” like an underground blister come back to life, Fox writes. This only raises the stakes of “a hazard already complicated by the lack of knowledge about the exact location of all the wells on the property.” Only 10 years ago, for example, “an orphaned well in Huntington Beach blew out in a gusher forty feet high, spraying oil and methane over one-half square mile, a hazardous-waste problem that will become more common.”

[Image: The Baldwin Hills old field; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Due to its centrality, the Salt Lake field plays an outsized role in terms of strange petroleum events in the city. The Salt Lake was behind the multiday methane fire in the middle of Fairfax Avenue, for example, and behind arguably the most well known and certainly most destructive reminder of the city’s subterranean presence.

In 1989, in a busy strip mall at Fairfax and 3rd Street, a Ross Dress for Less began to fill with methane gas leaking up from a large pocket connected to the oil field below. Somehow, it had broken through the natural clay boundary that should have held it in place, and the methane thus easily seeped up into the storage rooms, closets, and retail galleries of the discount clothing giant.

Before long, the methane ignited and the entire store blew up.

[Image: Screen grab from YouTube].

This was by no means an insubstantial explosion—you should watch the aftermath on YouTube—as the entire façade of the building was blown to pieces, the roof collapsed, and dozens of people were disfigured by the detonation.

The resulting fires burned for hours. Small fires roared out of nearby sewer grates, and red and orange flames flickered out of even the tiniest cracks in the sidewalk, like some weird vision of Hell burning through the discount blouses and cheap drywall of this obliterated shopping center.

[Image: Flames burn through cracks in the sidewalk; screen grab from YouTube].

While reporting the tragedy, a local newscaster worryingly informed his viewers that it was simply “too early to tell where or when [the methane] might surface again”—in other words, that there could very well be further explosions. This paranoia—that there is something down there, some inhuman Leviathan stirring beneath the city, and that no one really knows when and where it will strike next—continues to this day.

Even at the time of the explosion, the possibility that city workers might inadvertently drill into a methane pocket beneath the neighborhood became one of the chief reasons for blocking the construction of a new subway line in the area. This same fear has recently resurfaced as the number one excuse for blocking a proposed subway through Beverly Hills.

Back in 2012, local parents released a video urging the city to stop the expansion of subterranean public transit through their neighborhood, concerned that it would cause Beverly Hills High School to explode. (The fact that stopping the subway would also keep certain economic undesirables out of their streets and shopping districts was just a fringe benefit.)

In any case, the narrative resonance of all this is impossible to deny. Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath the city, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Taken out of context, this could be the plot of a new horror film—but it’s just urban life atop a still-active oil field.

As Matthew Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, explained it to me, the city “is really just a giant scab of petroleum-fueled activities,” an impermanently sealed cap atop this buried monstrosity.

It is worth considering, then, next time you step over a patch of tar on the sidewalk, that the black gloom still bubbling up into people’s yards and basements, still re-asphalting empty gravel parking lots, is actually an encounter with something undeniably old and elementally powerful.

In this sense, Los Angeles is more than just a city; it is a kind of interface between a petrochemical lifestyle of cars and freeways and the dark force that literally fuels it, a subterranean presence that predates us all by millions of years and that continues to wander freely beneath L.A.’s tangled streets and buildings.

(Note: This piece was originally published on The Daily Beast. I have also written about the La Brea Tar Pits and William L. Fox’s book in Landscape Futures. Opening image: a close-up of Hell, from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

A Cenotaph for Tailings

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

Here’s another project from the RIBA President’s Medals, this one by Alexis Quinteros Salazar, a student at the University of Chile in Santiago.

Called “Mining Cenotaph,” it imagines an “occupation” of the tailings piles that have become a toxic urban landmark and a spatial reminder of the region’s economic exploitation.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

A museum would be carved into the tailings; in Salazar’s words, this would be a “building that captures the history and symbolism behind mining, enhancing and revitalizing a memory that is currently disaggregated and ignored and has a very high touristic potential.”

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

In an architectural context such as this, the use of the word “cenotaph” is a pretty clear reference to Étienne-Louis Boullée’s classic speculative project, the “Cenotaph for Newton.” Over multiple generations, that has become something of a prime mover in the history of experimental architectural design.

Punctured walls and ceilings bring light into the interior—

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

—while the roof is a recreational space for visitors.

Of course, there are a lot of unanswered questions here—including the control of aerosol pollution from the tailings pile itself and that pile’s own long-term structural stability—but the poetic gesture of a public museum grafted into a pile of waste material is worth commending.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

The detail I might like this most is where the structure becomes a kind of inversion of Boullée’s dome, which was pierced to make its huge interior space appear illuminated from above by constellations. Here, instead, it is the perforations in the the rooftop that would glow upward from below, as if in resonance with the night skies high above.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

Salazar’s project brings to mind a few other proposals seen here over the years, including the extraordinary “Memorial to a Buried Village” by Bo Li and Ge Men, as well as Brandon Mosley’s “Mine Plug” (which actually took its name retroactively from that BLDGBLOG post).

Click through to see slightly larger versions of the images over at the RIBA President’s Medals website.

[Image: From “Mining Cenotaph” by Alexis Quinteros Salazar; courtesy of the RIBA President’s Medals].

Finally, don’t miss the Brooklyn food co-op posted earlier, also a recent President’s Medal featured project.