Sunday, September 6, 2009

Nights with Berliner Unterwelten

One of the most memorable evenings in my life was spent in the refurbished bunker space of Berliner Unterwelten's headquarters at the Gesundbrunnen subway station. Since it's inception in 1997, the organization has done a tremendous amount of work including: documentation of underground historical structures, conversion of war time bunkers into museum and association headquarter space and guided tours, which have proved very popular. As a "Society for exploration and documentation of subterranean architecture" they are a model organization- definitely for groups dedicated to researching underground space in their city, as well as for a preservation societies. They've honed in on a very specific niche that also does tremendous justice to the extensive underground architecture of Berlin. The organization is prolific in publication and prodigious in activity.

While living in Berlin, attending their meetings was an absolute highlight of my week. To be in a room, for regular meetings, filled with people as passionate about the underground as I was, albeit in different ways, was a great thing.

It's difficult, and not very fun, to imagine being crammed with scores of other people in the bunker space that Berliner Unterwelten's tour guides take you through. The guide will paint a portrait of what this bunker space was like during wartime- a visual that needs to be heard as indeed, that is what the buildings stand as a testament to.

But on a celebratory New Years eve, with candlelit dark spaces , wine, charming music and good company, the atmosphere was just right. In fact, I wasn't terribly keen on leaving. I have clearer appreciation for the bunkers-converted -to-home (or underground "mansion") movement partly due to this time spent at Berliner Unterwelten's headquarters. It's very pleasant, if you're the type who likes this space, and you're there out of your own will and interest.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fantastical Underworld

Fantasy and science fiction films are fertile breeding grounds for the imaginings of how the 'Underworld' appears and how humans make use of the underground in, typically, near and distant futures.

My jaw dropped several times in seeing Pan's Labyrinth for the first time. Not only is the film absolutely gorgeous and disturbing at once, it is compellingly dense with mythological allusions. Some of Ofelia's (the main character) key moments- both harrowing and exhilirating, occur in the underworld. Her first challenge of finding a key occurs in the earthy root system of a tree. Her second challenge brings her to the banquet which she must not touch (and possibly before one of the creepiest creatures ever depicted on film). Like Persephone, who having been taken into the realm of Hades, was permitted to leave under the condition that she ate nothing while down there, Ofelia is under similar instructions. Both fail, Persephone with the fated pomegranate seeds and Ofelia with the allure (and consumption) of the grapes. Yet Ofelia's fate is not quite sealed yet and her escape is necessary to bring her full circle to the space of her true belonging.

In the end though, Ofelia's efforts, and apparent rebellion, result in a tragic and quick departure from Earth, as she knew it. They also culminate in her arrival home. She is reunited with those who she descended from and the depiction of this underworld "kingdom" is truly breathtaking.

I for one would like to request a Part II. Ofelia's Beautiful Dark Kingdom.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Network

The Setting: A northern Italian town. The Season: Deep Fall. The Reason: Finally (perhaps) meeting a community of like minded folks.

On first impression, the place emanates a grimness, easily attributed to overcast skies and wet, gray Autumn weather. The city also emanates a sort of leanness and sophistication. Nearly everyone seems to be brunette, half of them donning 'architect's glasses.'

But this is not a vacation and I'm not here to log my experience as a tourist. Regrettably, and ironically, the few pictures I am able to capture of the city in my free hours are taken with the wrong light exposure. My photo documentation of these couple of days, to a region hitherto unknown to me, is limited to a few murky shots which seem to exaggerate the a pervasive gray spirit.

But I am thrilled to be here. For the first time ever, I will be surrounded by individuals who have devoted some level of energy to research on issues relevant to 'subsurface space.'

Turin, Italy.

ACUUS's (Associated Research Centers for the Urban Underground Space) 2002 International Conference entitled 'Urban Underground Space: a Resource for Cities.'

A few months earlier, after plucking myself out of the maze of intriguing, yet controversial, mounds of information one can find when searching for information on 'the underground,' I stumbled upon the website for ACUUS. It wasn't so much of a stumble as I was decisively bent on finding some network of individuals out there who were doing real work in the here and now and who might also have some cues to historical precedents for this type of work.

And here it was. Here one was. An official organization united in a mission to further understand and promote development of subsurface space.

The conference, like all their others, was a complete nexus point for ideas and projects spanning, it seemed, every conceivable aspect integral to underground developments. The list of papers to be presented at the conference was staggering in range. Information systems, tunnel construction, architectural renderings, living spaces, ancient spaces, pedestrian spaces, lighting technology, workers safety...the list goes on. All discussion anchored in the common theme of subsurface space. Representatives from Italy, Russia, China, France, Canada, Japan and more.

I had been too timid to submit a paper to present, but I was not timid about pronouncing my reason for being there. I wanted atmosphere. I wanted to see the faces behind all these names of people doing valid and necessary research in the field. And certainly, I wanted to find out, through casual conversation, if I was alone in my thoughts on what was possible in this subsurface sphere.

The conference was, as to be expected, formal but not stodgy. What I hadn't been prepared for was being in a setting largely dominated by older male engineers. In such a setting, your discipline is sometimes your calling card, your focus of research poised to direct conversation further or bring it to a grinding halt. My background, for many of these folks, was a fuzzy “soft science” field; my ideas theoretical, offering no hard facts; my angle “psychological” and certainly a bit left field.

I quickly learned that part of my point of being there was to listen. I was a beginning graduate student, not a professional. I was by far one of the youngest on the scene and my entree into this whole theme had really been by way of speculation and eagerness to uncover architectural renderings from the past that validated that large scale underground models were not confined to science fiction but were real entities. The few architects on the scene were the closest kin I had to speak freely about my ideas and they in turn had fruitful tips and guidance, as well as interesting projects of their own.

The network was there. And vigorous at that. This was perhaps the first, and most important, thing I needed to know.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Nook: Waiting for the End of the World, by Richard Ross

Images of beautifully designed earth sheltered homes as well as rather stunning fully underground architecture are not difficult to find. The photos in Waiting for the End of the World are the subject of a decidedly different bent. They draw quick attention to the near apocalyptic tone and genuine concerns about a nuclear winter which trigger a good deal of discussion on (and construction of) underground shelters.
Images by Richard Ross from Waiting for the End of the World

Published in 2004, the book is mainly a visual spread of photographer Richard Ross's documentation of shelters worldwide. Atmospheres of grim abandonment alternate with thoughtfully lit, inhabited spaces that look- well downright cozy. Ross's photos offer an intriguing spectrum of shelters and their varying uses (or non-uses) today.

Among the features are gorgeous, epic hallways of the Moscow subway system, whose stations doubled as shelters in WW II; a sterile, well maintained and very presentable Swiss shelter, open for the tourist experience; tunnels of Beijing's Underground that alternate, intriguingly, from barren and unoccupied to ornate and inhabited.

Also in the spectrum of shelters spread across the planet are a wildly colorful St. Petersburg nightclub, an Israeli tunnel complex that has served as shelter for both Muslims and Christians and a well maintained, spacious community shelter complex for a group of residents in Montana.

They're all here. They're all underground. And they all feature varying levels of human occupancy, from nil to highly trafficked.

The array and style of fall out shelters portrayed is staggering. The uniformity of subject as shelter makes for a fascinating visual study of the different uses and levels of preservation of these spaces worldwide. Even the person wholly disinterested in the very idea of bomb shelters will look twice and those already drawn to the idea may very well glean some design tips.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Polar Cities Concept Catalyst

Thank you Danny Bloom for the references to Habitat: The Underground.

Northward ho blog reference

Rantrave reference

And I must confess, reading about Dan Bloom's "Polar City" concept and seeing Deng Cheng-hong's illustrations, was the catalyst for my joining the blogosphere. View "The Virtual James E. Lovelock Museum of Climate Retreat Living Pod Images" here.

I honestly felt a resurgence of hope in reading about an installation for human living that also involves a strong underground component, projected to be built in an amazing polar site on Earth- Longyearbyen.

Not specifically hope that it would be built- though yes, I do want to see it happen. But more, an excitement that the dialogue persists and ideas for underground architecture manifest in interesting ways. This is important for the present as well as future generations. In the future there will be individuals looking back to the early 21st century to see what kind of interesting concepts we have offered for human living and perhaps even survival. This is also one of many situations where looking to the past is extremely relevant as well. We are not the first to have ideas for underground or unusual living modules (or cities). And there will be more.

The possibility of underground architecture and space evolving requires the contribution of a wide range of folks- architects, engineers, "futurists", environmental psychologists, planners, designers. They're all part of the pie. A vigorous and constructive dialogue amongst these professions, and more, is paramount.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Subterranean Psychology

“Many of the problems associated with living in subterranean habitats are not technological ones, but rather are related to the degree of social acceptance of the concept and to the individual’s perception of the space.”

-Golany, 1996

(Image from Geo-Space Urban Design, Gideon S. Golany & Toshijo Ojima)

Psychological and physiological issues are not uncommonly cited as one of the “problems” associated with human use of underground space. It is indisputable that technological factors are paramount in the creation of subterranean habitats. As indisputable is the reality that public perception of human's limited role in relation to underground space will persist in the idea of such developments being seen as 'futurist' and visionary or impossible.

Perhaps alongside funding, it is general conceptions of underground space, and notions of where humans are “supposed” to live, that prove to be one of the most constraining factors for acceptance of subterranean models. Fortunately, it seems there is substantial niche interest in subterranean buildings and related projects that would demand a high rate of human occupancy. Marketing these ideas to the masses has never really been a goal anyway.

Moving beyond the psychology of public opinion, however, is the much more relevant range of issues relating to the psychology of actually inhabiting underground space.

Just over 3 decades ago, in 1977, Birger Jansson et al report in Planning of Subsurface Use (Swedish Council for Building Research):

“…there has hardly been any research carried out directly aimed at plotting the implications for human beings of spending time and working underground….

it can be stated that the physiological effect on the human organism of time spent underground has been investigated to a very incomplete extent.”

Such statements can be found mirrored in numerous books and papers devoted to planning and design for the underground since this publication in the seventies.

Research has been conducted in specific niches concerning issues of safety as well as the various physiological and psychological responses of humans working in windowless and/or underground sites. Yet a greater understanding of different human responses to frequent occupation of a subterranean space is still lacking.

What are these range of effects so key to understanding the capacities of humans in their time spent in underground space?

To name a few, claustrophobia, light sensitivity, general fatigue, eye fatigue, disturbance of circadian rhythms, insomnia, headaches. These are just some of the potential ailments and stressors.

Experimental habitation projects for humans in largely underground facilities would offer not only new models of living (and perhaps survival) but also a critical move forward in understanding the rhythm, psyche and physical response of humans in this space. This could serve to further enrich the marriage of underground design concepts with understanding of human psychology, and sometimes complex response, in subterranean space.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who wants to talk about the dark?

What makes you tick? Really truly turns your mind on?

Many of the speculations, perspectives and projects devoted to the relationship of humans and underground space provide the electricity that powers one of the brightest light bulbs of my mind. I don't currently work in any industry that deals with the underground, so I suppose you can say this is a passion, a hobby of thought.

There will be many more entries and they will address real earthly like concerns and constructions. But for now, it's about why I am taking the time to write this. And why and who you the readers are. Perhaps my particular bent on the issue will help you determine whether you continue to follow these entries. Perhaps not. In any case, I am well aware that my perspective usually draws only a specific minority.

Underground homes. Its not something for the masses. Correct.

Most people do not want to live, work or spend any more time than absolutely necessary (for whatever weird reason) underground. Correct.

If you agree with any of these statements, congratulations. You are probably right.

And you probably will not find anything of interest in the following entries, except ideas to protest and balk at as unrealistic.

I address all of this in the beginning of this blog because at some point in my life I had to determine where my energies lay. And I concluded it was not in debating with the naysayers who believe that underground space is an abomination and no human belongs there except maybe to take a subway ride.

There are ample souls who are compelled enough by this idea that part of their life's work is researching, preserving, designing or refurbishing underground spaces for human occupancy. At some point, it became clear to me that there was enough activity out there to prove that I was not alone and there was much work to be done.

In rough statistics, for every ten people I meet, there were nine who thought the very notion of “underground space” for humans was appalling and weird, and one who said “Sign me up.”

The latter did not have acute allergies to sun or society. But something about a well designed, human manufactured, windowless space, appealed to them. If I was crazy, so were they, and that was ok.

But in reality, it's not so crazy. In my defensive days I deplored of people who balked at the very concept of humans using underground space to think of the various windowless spaces that they willingly inhabited , even if for a brief period of time. Cinemas. Museums. Libraries. Transportation networks.

Still, perhaps, that is not enough.

So, if you do not believe in the Underground, have no sense that it plays a critical role in humans real and mythological founding of space, we are still on the surface and there's the door.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Myth in the beginning

"They choose the path where no-one goes."

No Quarter, Led Zeppelin

Pinpointing why and when my interest in this theme was born brings me back to one of my earliest loves. Mythology. In my early teens I developed a rather poetic fixation with the mythological character Hades. I hunted through texts for some description of his underworld lair, determined to find descriptions that matched my imaginings. It was the realm of the dead but also the home of a major deity from a fantastical world. Surely there were massive grottoes and underground lakes with water glistening a surreal light. Massive stone thrones for the deity and his consort and of course, natural jewels in the rough abounding everywhere. Thousands of candles lighting the passages and a design scheme that was part Clan-of-the-Cave-Bear and part Underground Deluxe.

I have not yet found the mythological text to match my mind's creation, but depictions in film and other sources have satisfied me well enough. Embarking on a definitive study of the depiction of the underworld in all world mythologies I have not done. Such a study would no doubt bring added glee and relief . I cannot be the only one with such dreams.

The first clear memory, that is connected to an actual space, is of navigating an underground shopping arcade with my family in Hong Kong. I had marveled on the dense urbanity of this place since we arrived and on this hot summer day, the cool retreat of well ordered passages simply made sense. But this was just the surface.....

Fast forward to about a decade later. I'm sitting before my computer. The shopping arcade in Hong Kong is nowhere on my mind. Nor is Hades (at least not on the forefront). I am about to begin a casual digging about online for information on 'the underground.' Serious research would come later. This is, after all, my preparatory step for the production of an academic text. But to begin with, I wanted to simply have fun seeing what was 'out there.'

I was readily and willingly lost for a brief period of time in the abundance of rather bizarre information relating to Underground Space. The Hollow Earth theory, numerous conspiracies about military bases, tunnel networks. The inevitable connections made, in modern and ancient day, about ET's and their operations down under. Numerous threads and publications relating to occult-like or doomsday activity in connection with the underground were too numerous to pore through. As well as distracting.

I had to reel back after a while and remember my objective and buckle down. What I was looking for was evidence and research relating to concrete and real developments in the underground by the hand of humans. Actual buildings. Actual findings. Actual space.

Looking back its no surprise I stumbled on this track to begin with. Besides having been, at the time, not very skilled in precise keyword searches that would allow immediately findings of the type I was looking for (which were soon to come), the reality is that Science Fiction and Fantasy realms are rife with depictions of underground space. The catalogue of underground space created by humans is vast and intriguing, as much so as what the mind of humans perceives our relation to this space to be.