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.

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