The Post-terranean Mega Subtropolis – Final Thesis Review 2013


My project is based on the idea that the current amount of built territory, being preserved is growing exponentially; In the past, only ancient monuments received legal protection to be considered historic; today buildings that are 30 years old are regularly listed as such. About 12 percent of the built environment now falls under various regimes of natural and cultural preservation. This has left the future of many major cities frozen in context.

In cities with a particularly high preservationist ethos, such as San Francisco, we can imagine that 100 years from now this condition has increased exponentially.


Preservation here has rendered the city as we know it in an embalmed state , where new developments in the upward and outward direction have been significantly restricted. Facing a population increase of more than 3 billion people, we find ourselves in an interesting dichotomy where on one side progress asks for modernization and on the other side we freeze context.


Finding themselves in a stalemate between the city’s rich historical fabric and its future growth and progress, a series of guidelines were implemented that would allow for both to coexist. The plan was to create a subterranean twin city: one that would enable a multiplication of the ground to occur in densely populated areas, creating a new frontier for real estate growth and inhabitance, invisible to the city’s skyline.


The presence of an existing underground subway system would act as the project’s infrastructural spine connecting the City’s densest housing district with its congested commercial downtown district.


Grid+ Obstacles

Between the existing transit network below and layers of the city’s existing infrastructure above, space is divided into parcels using a grid system, for which units are able to be eaten up in three dimensions.


These parcels are significantly smaller units than the typical plot size, which could enable  a new types of vertical aggregations of space to occur.


The newly available land has led to a new type of real estate speculation: led by the large development conglomerates and cost of underground construction became heavily subsidized by the City.


Subterranean space as we know it has unfolded in a fairly benign manner: buildings were seen as a series of grafted limbs to an infrastructural sub-surface level, which holds networks of subway tunnels, sewers, pipes, and wires. In theory, this binary separation of infrastructure from inhabitable space would allow the surface would be liberated for parks, housing, schools, and other less utilitarian functions.


The same concept is pushed even further, as the capitalist sprawl of office parks, retail outlets, and seedy motels  that can be dominant in our cities would now able to exist under ground. So in  a city obsessed with holding on to the the remnants of its past,  this system would allow capitalism to continue in this way – and this has materialized to an extent in dense parts of Asia for example.


It became clear that there were two distinct opportunities for potential territories for expansion and growth under ground.

1. This use of space under existing infrastructure: streets and sidewalks

And 2. The inversion of existing building sites where possible


A proposal for which sites could utilized in the project were outlined, and these would allow for access into the lower city through a series of surgically removed parts of the urban fabric: buildings considered seismically unsafe (multistory buildings built before certain structural codes changed), and current abandoned buildings or sites.


Zoning would begin to happen in section, as the existing way of arranging the city through a horizontal plane became all but obsolete. Because of their orientation to natural light, these inverse courtyards would house the large residential Sections, but would also become access portals into the lower city below. They would also potentially become foundations for building skyward.


These courtyards act as a way finding device for navigation both above and below, and have become a new building typology.


They would allow for vertical connections through pedestrian and vehicle lifts into the lower levels and also for light and air to reach these lower depths. The city was arranged based on the natural need for sunlight and ventilation rather than traditional more arbitrary ways of urban planning. Voids---animation

Over time, these voids begin to agglomerate, manipulating the existing surface of the city to create a new urban landscape. Subtraction here is seen as a type of harvest, becoming a de-densification of the surface city but also a positive tool of space making under ground.


Alternative ways of accessing the lower levels would be from traditional subway-style entrances and potentially from inside existing buildings whose facades have been preserved.


Access becomes particularly important to the underground city, as it provides not only circulation and way finding, but also relief in terms of open space, light and air.


Legal factors such as mineral rights (which are similar to air rights, where the ground below existing structures would technically be the property of that particular party) would indicate the that space under existing streets to be property of the City itself. The act of excavation, or tunneling beneath these public zones, would allow for a network of connective subterranean galleries to be housed under the existing city streets. With an infrastructural and parcel division system in place – private program  can agglomerate adjacent to these spaces as they would above ground.


These galleries would connect the city to the existing subway network, and would eventually be lined with the enormous complex of administrative offices, hotels, and endless rows of shops. As a street is, by nature, these cavernous public spaces are seen as less of a designed space, but more like a lack of built space, delegated by zoning regulations as a public amenity. Because of the enormous volume of these galleries, they act as an artificial environment – a complete takeover of the built environment.


New programmatic and spatial freedoms are able to  exist the further you descend from the surface level, as the physical obstacles from city infrastructure becomes less of an challenge – open terrain presents itself over time. In these completely subterranean spaces, spatial relationships can occur vertically, in this case resulting in a series of stacked neighborhoods or compartments of program.


In summary, with the combination of preservation regulations that have restricted the city’s growth in the face of a rising population and the presence of an existing subterranean infrastructural system (the subway), the underground becomes a place of programmatic, economic, and spatial freedom, becoming a place where architecture (and capitalism) is all encompassing. The surface city becomes a historic and environmental counterpoint to this technological underworld below: a place of nostalgia, history, and of nature and escape. It becomes liberated by the introduction of the underground as a frontier for urban growth.

Midreview – Presentation


“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore” – Mark Twain

Faced with a population increase of more than 5 billion people, efficiency has been forced upon the City. This change had materialized in the formation of a subterranean metropolis : a semiautonomous network of communities, districts, and transportation nodes that have formed underground.

Here, subtraction has led to a new type of real estate speculation beneath the Old City’s streets, where the ground has become an artificial datum point: a thickened territory that blurs the boundaries between above/below, interior/exterior, and public/private urban space.

Growth Diagram

So we can imagine that as territories become more and more limited, that a new type of real  estate speculation could emerge under ground. This can be seen as a form of urban mining: one where large corporate conglomerates compete to excavate large quantities of space, which are then sold to individuals for economic profits. Eventually the city was  forced to implement alternative ways of regulating these emerging growth patterns– and rules were set regarding subterranean expansion.

13.01.29_subtraction diagramSeen as an instigative action to initiate the growth process, the underground is initially accessed by a series of surface “injection points”. This is done through surgical removal of specific parts of existing urban fabric: buildings considered seismically unsafe (multistory buildings built before the structural code changed in 1973) and also current abandoned buildings or sites.

13.02.01_mapThese sites overlaid with historic preservation zones and population density to create this figure ground to show places where you can and cannot build. This method could indicate zones where large amounts of subterranean growth could occur. This project deals with the areas of

1. Chinatown: the city’s densest residential district,

2. Downtown: city’s commercial district (current)

3. the booming tech industry of SOMA

It should be noted that these are areas along the central subway line, currently being constructed 120 feet under ground.
Subtracted sites

Where a large amount of these void sites are present, the existing city fabric is completely transformed, a new urban landscape is created: one that blurs the threshold between above and below ground level. Underground zones would be able to house program that would necessitate a greater amount of surface porousness to let in natural light and ventilation.


Grid Obstacles_gridBetween these  injection points, space is divided into parcels using a three dimensional grid system, and are then able to be acquired. These parcels are significantly smaller units than the typical plot size, which could enable  a greater variety of vertical forms to occur.

Grid Obstacles_5AM FAKObstacles to avoid would be existing building foundations and legal obstacles such as mineral rights (below surface structures that are technically off limits, but these are able to be bought and sold). Also, It should be noted that bedrock lies approximately 120’ deep, and is significantly more expensive to excavate than soil above it . This potentially creates an interesting polarization between value of the surface level and value at the deeper parts of the ground (bedrock), where these spaces could be the more expensive places to build with the underground becoming this new middle ground between the two.

UndergroundSpace can then be subdivided, using a clustering system where three tiers would be connected by a circulatory vehicle path. This allows the galleries to be at a three or four story volume, creating micro-environments (almost like vertical blocks, or neighborhoods) and allowing for efficient circulatory paths, as well as efficient use of artificial lighting within these subterranean spaces.

Atrium_flatThese subdivisions connect to primary circulation veins which provide vertical and horizontal circulation infrastructure for both cars and people. This is seen as less of a designed space, but more of a lack of built space. A negative volume delegated by zoning regulations, in which the grid becomes solidified.

These spaces are a hybrid infrastructure and public space, accessed from street level and  branching out to create a network between surface connection points, enabling a doubling or tripling of the street to occur in densely populated areas, effectively creating a thickened territory primarily underneath the existing infrastructure (streets, sidewalks). Programs here would generally be a multiplication of existing zoning conditions – in this case of downtown, its a place for commerce

To conclude, the project aims to not only challenge the norms of traditional urban planning and growth methodologies, but (going forward) to further explore new possibilities in terms of form, construction, and ways of urban organization that advances in subterranean building technologies are able to provide in the two other programmatic areas of the project : including housing and industry, and how these zones connect.


Charrette Competition Board – Week 2 of Thesis Studio

13.02.01_Competition Final BoardCompetition Image

Final Thesis Image – 1/2 Way Point


Volatile Ground – Subterranean SF

The volatility of the ground in San Francisco also provides an opportunity for inventive tactics for intervention within the existing urban fabric. Statistics that show that in the next 30 years there is a 2-1 chance of a major quake destroying much of the city (as in 1906). The city’s poor infrastructure and the presence of what im calling “volatile structures”   multistory buildings built before the structural code changed in 1973 – 65,000 people live/work in these structures.

“According to a recent study, a major earthquake could shut down all or parts of the present system for up to two years. It’s hard to imagine that after an earthquake we will have any major systems left”

The map shows the overlap between these sites and current abandoned buildings, a series of which could then be used as “injection points” (negative volumes in the earth) into the subterranean city through subtraction and demolition of the urban fabric between these  injection points, new structures are able to calcify and grow.

In a sense, the earth pulls these volumes into its core, demolishing them in order to create a new city beneath its surface. Through destruction, we are able to create. This could be seen as an anti density tactic for the surface level as well as a method of entry into the underground that would  act as a tactic to a create stronger narrative between the surface and the subterranean proposal.

In addition, new building and construction methods,  would surely be required to implement these ideas at an urban scale. Existing typologies such as the subway entrance could be transformed from dark infrastructural portals to functional monuments into the new subterranean city.

Strict historic preservation regulations adds another layer to the difficulty to accommodating growth in a city already holding the highest housing prices in the nation. Almost the entire downtown region, for example, has been deemed a historic conservation district, an inconvenient location that has most likely stunted the vertical growth of the city so far.  How can we liberate ourselves from the historic and environmental regulations of the city while also relieving pressures of future urban density?

Predictions state that the city, bounded by water on three sides, will reach 969,000 people by 2035 — a nearly 20 percent jump above today’s 815,400[1]. The challenge of accommodating this rising population is intensified by a strong preservationist ethos that has resulted in an implementation of stringent building regulations that effectively prohibits the upward growth and necessitate creative new methods of expansion. These images show a depiction of a future downtown San Francisco, a place of many historically significant buildings (such as the Transamerica Pyramid), that will receive the majority of population growth. Introduction of the subterranean city here creates a series of urban archipelagos.

Precedent Research & Mash-up Illustration (First Iteration)

AB Walker – 1909 Life Magazine Cartoon

The above image is a 1909 Life Magazine cartoon by A.B. Walker, showing a skyscraper re-conceptualized as a series of conventional houses stacked on an open skyscraper frame. Its caption reads, “‘Buy a cozy cottage in our steel constructed choice lots, less than a mile above Broadway.  Only ten minutes by elevator.  All the comforts of the country with none of its disadvantages.’ – Celestial Real Estate Company

The cartoon was discovered by Rem Koolhaas and discussed in his book, Delerious New York,  writing ”a theorem that describes the ideal performance of the skyscraper: a slender steel structure supports 84 horizontal planes, all the size of the original plot.  Each of these artificial levels is treated as a virgin site, as if the others did not exist, to establish a strictly private realm around a single country house and its attendant facilities, stable, servants’ cottages, etc.  Villas on the 84 platforms display a range of social aspiration from the rustic to the palatial; emphatic permutations of their architectural styles, variations in gardens, gazebos and so on, create at each elevator stop a different lifestyle and thus an implied ideology, all supported with complete neutrality by the rack.”

“The ‘life’ inside the building is correspondingly fractured: on level 82 a donkey shrinks back from the void, on 81 a cosmopolitan couple hails an airplane.  Incidents on the floors are so brutally disjointed that they cannot conceivably be part of the same scenario.  The disconnectedness of the aerial plots seemingly contradicts the fact that, together, they add up to a single building.  The diagram strongly suggests even that the structure is a whole exactly to the extent that the individuality of the platforms is preserved and exploited, that its success should be measured by the degree to which the structure frames their coexistence without interfering with their destinies.  The building becomes a stack of individual privacies.”

I decided to further my thesis research by thinking about the ground as an inhabitable framework, with the ground being a similar spatial “frontier” to the sky. While space in the case of the skyscraper is divided using a framework, the ground is divided into plots of inhabitable space using the method of subtraction. As one would divide a horizontal urban space into two dimensional grids, the underground plots are three dimensional and confined on all sides.

The sterile and organized grid is seen from a real estate developer’s perspective, maximizing space in order to maximize profit. I then deformed (or designed) this organizational system, looking at the planned system of space from an architectural perspective. The diagram can also show the difference in a “top down” methodology of urban planning versus an emergent or “ground up” version. If space is pixelated and sold, how would this system organize itself over time. Here, the framework is set into place as a static condition. Variables (the inhabitants of this new urban underground) are then able to organize themselves organically.

As in A.B. Walker cartoon, life within the framework is fractured and vibrant with activity of all kinds. Below I speculate upon who the inhabitants of this new urban underground would be if let “loose” upon a framework organized system. Would capitalism take over to create a corporate wild west within the ground? Dystopian in theory,  the colorful ads act as a visual contradiction in this fictional view of the underground.

Ideogram 9/11/12

Initial Proposal – Thesis Presentation 9/4/12

Summer Thesis Research & Experimentation : Government Conspiracies, Robots, Outer Space…Surface??

I recently posted on craigslist an inquiry regarding my topic of research, trying to reach out to anyone who may have whereabouts of interesting subterranean spaces in the SF area but also to anyone who had stories, conspiracies, or history regarding the topic.  Architect as investigative journalist, if you will. I had a hunch that I might get something out of it, whether that be an adventure, general knowledge, or a good story. I actually ended up getting mostly sane responses: people telling me about the Seattle Underground, Hunt Midwest (a subterranean 7 mile corporate development in Kansas City), and urban explorers who claim that “there are  buildings in the downtown area where the basements are actually the holds of ships that were abandoned during the Gold Rush, as the crews deserted to look for riches”. All these things are interesting enough, but one that was particularly interesting was from a guy named Aaron. He writes,

How do we know you’re not a goverment stooge?
You are ofcource fully aware that the Goverment is trying to map and shutdown every possible  cave or refuge that people may seek durning an emergency.
Its for quite obvious reasons.The cabel that is running the goverment want the casualities as high as possible.Their goal ofcouce being a 90% reduction of population on the planet.
If you don’t know about what i”m refering to ,you should write back ,but if you don’t write I understand..your just a stooge doing his job and I have nothing you want.

Of course, being the open-minded person I am, and after assuring the man that I am not a stooge (at least not one related to the federal government) I responded, and got the following email back:

At least 13 very powerful underground explosions rocked the United States Midwest in 2011. They registered as small shallow earthquakes with the USGS. Many of the underground high explosive detonations registered as 2.6 magnitude earthquakes. The U.S. military is said to be sealing off the tunnels so that the Globalists and the U.S. ghost government (Federal Reserve Bankers, FEMA, DHS, CIA) can’t run and hide

A government made map of every underground cavern or subterranean space in the US! Whether you believe this kind of stuff or not (I personally do not),  it got me thinking about my project, and in particular reminded me of something real I stumbled across involving”Counter Tunnel Robotics”, a program being implemented by the US Air Force that aims to “develop an unmanned system with the capability to access, traverse, navigate, map, survey, and disrupt operations in rough subterranean environments.” The program focuses on research and development of a fully autonomous system of robots that would be able to traverse subterranean networks and collect accurate data where people are unable to physically travel. Maybe Aaron was not as far off as I thought in regards to those government mappings…

“The [Counter Tunnel Robotics] system is an innovative all-terrain mobility platform capable of accessing tunnel systems through a small (8 inch) borehole and traversing adverse tunnel terrain including vertical obstacles up to 2ft in height and chasms up to 2ft in length. The system’s function is to provide a platform capable of carrying a small sensor package while navigating and overcoming terrain obstacles inside the tunnel. Counter tunnel technologies are needed to support intelligence gathering and safety of troops and personnel in unmapped and unknown tunnel environments. The system is the initial step in achieving a fully autonomous counter tunnel system.”

It was especially surprising that this program is being implemented by the Air Force of all things, seeing that this technology is just as akin to be used in underground lairs in Afghanistan or the surface of the moon/Mars, or in my case, to see and understand the subsurface of the city. Looking deeper we can find a section of the Air Force website that describes “Surveillance and Reconnaissance” as a part of their scope of research,  described as the “systematic observation of air, space, surface, or subsurface areas, places, persons, or things, by visual, aural, electronic, photographic, or other means. Surveillance is a continuing process, not oriented to a specific target, while reconnaissance looks for specific information and generally has a time constraint.”

The fact that the Air Force is involved in a technology that can be used interchangeably in the ground or in outer space (as well as in the sky) is extremely interesting, as this implies that they actually view the ground and the sky as the same thing, the ground being a thicker version of the sky.  The ground and sky are seen abstractly as spatial entities, navigable by available technology past “terrain obstacles” the same way a plane would navigate through turbulence or a bat would use sound radar to navigate through darkness. The inside of the earth is therefore seen as theoretically identical to the atmosphere: it is an undifferentiated space/surface that can be traversed in all directions by the appropriate machinery. What we consciously are able to experience (the surface of the earth) is our perception of reality that to us exists, the rest lies in the realm of the uncharted spatial subconscious of the subsurface (or underground), or the supersurface (the sky, outer space).

In her book Notes On the Underground, Rosalind Williams expands on the concept of the underground from the earth to the sky. She compares environmental consciousness with subterranean consciousness, pointing out that in actuality the real surface of the planet is the upper edge of the atmosphere. What we experience is everything below the frigid and uninhabitable realm of outer space, and so in a sense we have always lived below the surface of the planet, in a closed, finite environment. While we once looked at the city as the image of our disassociation from traditional nature, we now see the urban underground (real or fictional) as a model of an artificial environment from which nature has been effectively banished.

“Today, not the city but the spaceship has become the standard image of the megatechnic ideal of complete detachment from the organic habitat. This newer image, however, denies the claustrophobic realities of human life on earth. Although the spacecraft itself may model an all-encompassing technological environment, its mission – hurtling through endless space, going boldly where no one has gone before- suggests the vision of an endless frontier where new varieties of nature wait to be discovered….because of the indeterminacy of the interstellar void, space travel lacks the verticality that gives the underworld its unique power in the human imagination”

More to come as I will further expand on the Williams later in the week…