Summer Thesis Research & Experimentation : Buried Sites

Ant Farm, “Recycle Obsolete Missile Silos” (1971)

1.  Militant Infrastructures

At the time of the Cold War, military sites sprang up all over the US and Soviet-controlled countries, incorporating the technology of their constantly evolving weaponry. The bases were often located underground, forming labyrinths of chambers and tunnels in order to protect the weapons from direct nuclear attacks while also avoiding enemy detection. Many of the bases were decommissioned and abandoned  because of nuclear arms-reduction treaties or because their technology became obsolete.

The 1971 drawing (above) by radical architecture collective Ant Farm uses obsolete militant infrastructure as a site for adaptive reuse. The image evokes the not-yet obsolete anxieties that circulated around missiles, and a life adapted to the spaces of a militarized culture. The dystopian world for which we are found “living among technological ruins” is given a breath of new life by claiming radical possibilities for their occupation.

It is interesting to think that the same subterranean networks designed to hold enough nuclear weaponry to destroy us all were basically the ones used to potentially protect us from a nuclear attack. Below is an image of a former nuclear bunker in Washington State that was allegedly listed for sale on ebay. Its features include 57 acres of grounds, 16 underground buildings with three 160 foot tall missile silos, three four-story equipment buildings, and two control and power domes!

Luxury bomb shelter

Kansas missile silos turned condos

“Instead of simply setting up shop in the old living quarters provided for missile operators, Hall is building condos right up the missile shaft. Seven of the 14 underground floors will be condo space selling for $2 million a floor or $1 million a half floor. Three and a half units have been sold, two contracts are pending and only two more full units are available, Hall said.”

Oscar Newman dreamed up this wacky design for a nuke-proof second New York City, to be located in a hollowed-out space hundreds of feet below the existing city. Published in 1969, this highly impractical vision ironically called for nuclear weapons to be buried deep underground and detonated to create the space.

2. Subterranean Communities // Reading Response: The Mole People (Jennifer Toth)

The underground communities of New York City detailed in Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People and the documentary Dark Days, are an intriguing metaphor for spatial hierarchy of society. The abandoned underground subway tunnels are said to be inhabited by up to five thousand “spatial hackers” that have built makeshift homes, some as far as seven stories below the city! These underground dwellers coined “mole people” have formed small, ordered communities which inhabit the catacombs of abandoned subway tunnels and drain systems year-round. These communities are said to be well organized, creating their own socio-political hierarchy in the form of mayors, officials, runners, and outcasts, mostly in order to organize and orchestrate important community initiatives such as obtaining illegal electricity and tapping pipes to hook up to fresh water and sanitation systems. Some families have been living there so long that they have spawned children that have only seldom seen the light of day! While many of these people are forced into these conditions by poverty and addiction, many actually  claim to be happy in their subterranean environment, which provides them with a sense of community (and shelter) that the above ground world could not provide. This phenomenon is especially intriguing from a socio-political perspective, as it indicates that even in the most unusual of conditions human beings will organize themselves within a social hierarchy, and also create shantytown-like structures organized similarly to to the cities above them.

Lebbeus Woods, in his theoretical project Underground Berlin, presents a series of projects taking place under the city of a then-divided Berlin. In one of these speculative proposals called “Underground Berlin”, he describes a city made up not only of East and West Berlin, but also an Upper and Lower fragmentation of the metropolis. Underground Berlin, “is a city beneath a city. It is organized as a secret community of resistance to the occupying political powers above and follows existing U-Bahn subway lines.”  Here the underground is viewed as a utilitarian, utopian landscape that exists beneath a politically divided society above ground. The abandoned underground subway tunnels described above in The Mole People, can be seen as a real-life example of this proposal, a place that property rights cease to exist, and even police officers are afraid to venture.


2 thoughts on “Summer Thesis Research & Experimentation : Buried Sites

  1. Extremely interesting ideas of site. So, if we break this down into three ideas of possible thesis work: one type of site involves potential repurposing of underground military infrastructure; second involves an underground population (that’s trickier in ways explained in a bit) and three, the underground as a type of urban political condition. The military basis of the thesis site is interesting, but it may veer you into more examinations of militarization versus concepts on the underground. You might want to think about that; there are some dangers there. The Jennifer Toth book is interesting (read that a long time ago), but there are also dangers in taking spatial condition “x” and linking it to population “x”; but this book is fruitful in terms of having a very real sense of who and why people currently and literally inhabit the urban underground. The last seems the most potentially fruitful as it understands the underground as a type of latently political urban space potentially — a counterpoint to the urban space above. It has a good amount of conceptual structure while giving you a good bit of space to explore more ideas. Have you read ?? It’s a classic which will give you tons of ideas.

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