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…
The notion of “architectural fiction” is fascinating when thinking about theories pertaining to the underground. We often see the subterranean world used by writers of literature as a symbolic sites for hidden and uncontrollable psychic forces, those of which are less real locations than narrative symbols. Underground sites are typically deployed by storytellers less for their spatial or atmospheric qualities but for their interpretive flexibility. Architectural fiction similarly inhibits an intentional withdrawal from reality, opposed by the usual architectural approach of representing architecture as reality. A literary approach has the effect of shielding the idea from the effects of standard architectural criticism by putting the work into a fictional, unfamiliar territory, and allowing the focus to be on the idea rather than the entity. In other words, the project becomes a medium to frame a larger, more fruitful discussion.
Recovering Berlin – Protocol Architecture
In an approach they call “document based architecture”, Protocol has fabricated an entirely fictional world—one in which top secret underground research labs, militarized bacteria, artificial earthquakes, are all found conspiring beneath the streets of Berlin, Baghdad, and Istanbul. The group of architecture students based out of Columbia GSAAP, is pitched as a team that “investigates potentials for future design through the creation and analysis of hyper-fictional documents.” The result is something that may be more in line with a movie script or contemporary science fiction novel than a traditional architectural project, and questions “the role that fact and evidence plays in how we perceive our own history and our place as designers within it.”
The Rühmann Notebook
The project begins with the narrative of Berliner Martina Rühmann, who has “documented her observations of a linear pathway across former East Berlin. The path connected the Berlin Wall in the north to the wall in the south, cutting across the site of the former Palace of the Republic”, using an intricate series of maps, coordinates, and photos. This research, titled “The Rühmann Notebook” (above), led her to discover a subterranean network of “small but prominent science research centers” beneath the surface of the city.
We learn that these underground labs were created with an intent to “earthquake proof” the city of Berlin, using a series of underground injections of “a bacteria with adhesive qualities (Bacillus Pasteurii)… to stabilize ground in earthquake-prone cities,” and Shewanella, “a bacteria capable of naturally producing electrically conductive nano-tube filaments, now able to produce nano-electric devices”. The whole scheme reminds me of one of my favorite science fiction books by Haruki Murakami, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for which most of the plot surrounds an eccentric professor’s laboratory hidden in a subterranean network under a high-security office building in Tokyo. The proposed bacterial injections not only have interesting biological implications but architectural ones, if they were technically accurate, of course. What if we were able to harness this technology to create artificial caverns within the earth?
The Nesin Maps
The Nesin Maps are detailed examinations of these underground “concealed buildings”, and their locations in the city. The maps also show the known injection points of adhesive bacteria, which seemingly form a geometric pattern when mapped. The maps themselves are beautiful in and of themselves, although I am curious as to how they were created.
“Living underground, or in the ground, has the advantage of ubiquitous communication. The earth is fully conductive where earth metals have encouraged Shewanella bacteria to release electric filaments, thus creating uninterrupted communication paths. Guided by cognitive and physiological inputs that align with their quorum sensing, microbial processors and receptors expand the concentration of electrons in the soil. Spaces in the ground expand on their own, but once people decide to inhabit them, they must build architectural prosthetics. Floors, windows, doors, elevators and tunnels must all be constructed in order to make the spaces accessible.”
Aside from the intricate (and at times ridiculous) story behind it, the architectural implications of the bacteria research for use in man-made subterranean shelters is something to think about. Another related project related to this topic by Magnus Larsson where he proposes to harden and inhabit the sands of the Sahara Desert…http://bldgblog.bldgspot.com/2009/04/sandstone.html
While Recovering Berlin does have its faults in truly concluding something architecturally exciting for the immense build-up of data it holds, it is still a fascinating project in terms of imagination and research. The traditional architectural realm of representation here is considered equally as truthful or fictitious as the words in a book. Revisiting Bernard Tschumi’s Spaces and Events, he states that, “if writers could manipulate the structure of stories in the same way as they twist vocabulary and grammar, couldn’t architects do the same, organizing the program in a similarly objective, detached, or imaginative way?” Architecture and fiction therefore can be seen as an dual entity, consisting of the intent, represented through drawings, words, and concepts, and the other as the reality, represented through the physical building and it’s actual use. To Tschumi, this “disjunction between the expected form and expected use” implies that all architecture begins with some form of fiction, that they are intrinsically interrelated. With the underground holding such a rich history of storytelling, it provides an interesting psychological counterpoint to the surface for which we live. Is the narrative behind architecture more important than the architecture itself?
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!
“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.
The subterranean environment is often perceived as a site of unforeseen threat, secrecy, and risk. The vision of a solid ground beneath our feet is mundane and predictable, it is the thought of an inter-tangled network of cavernous tubes, abandoned subway tunnels, graves, and infrastructural cavities that fills us with ambivalence and fear. Science fiction has portrayed the underground as an alternate world that hides subterranean monsters but also riches (Murikami’s Hardboiled Wonderland, Journey to the Centre of the Earth). The underground can also be seen as a metaphor for a level of society that is literally living beneath us, one among the vermin and feces we hide beneath our streets. Just as the penthouses atop a skyscraper represents wealth and status, the homeless living seven stories below the New York subway represents poverty at an almost subhuman level.
In a way, the buildings of cities such as New York and London can be perceived as a series of grafted limbs, hooked up and connected to a utilitarian series of infrastructural pipes, tunnels, and transportation networks, most of which is unmapped and unexplored but sometimes inhabited by people on the fringe of society. The tunnels underneath Chinatown in San Francisco are rumored to currently hold a variety of illegal underground activity (in both the physical and figurative sense), from gambling police officers to the illegal smuggling of people and goods. Underground circulation tunnels between Mexico and the U.S. allow for illegal aliens and drugs to pass political boundaries. The underground has the power to inspire a terrestrial paranoia, as if the ground were to open up it could potentially reveal a world for which we have no maps or societal values. The cover of ground allows a subculture to flourish, one which allows hijackers to live beyond the realm of the political state. My proposed thesis would examine the notion of spatial “hackers” or outlaws, who physically take over subterranean space in order to conquer or isolate themselves from mainstream political nation-states, as well as the perceived tensions and fears associated with these networks.
This blog will serve as a platform for my research and experimentation during the upcoming year of thesis research as a masters of architecture student at California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Enjoy!