Robot City

South Korea plans to build a whole city from scratch dedicated to the robotics industry.

SciFi.com reports that the appropriately named Robot Land will "have all sorts of facilities for the research, development, and production of robots, as well as things like exhibition halls and even a stadium for robot-on-robot competitions. The $530 million project should get underway sometime in 2009."

Korea.net adds that the city's industrial output will have an "emphasis on so-called service robots that can clean homes and provide entertainment."

Now we just have to wait till the city secedes from South Korea; it then achieves a kind of limited national sovereignty; it seats a robot-ambassador at the UN; its Artificially Intelligent offspring form a Parliament, or a Ministry of War; they manufacture cannons and other violent forms of propulsive enginery, filling the sky with drones; and then human history becomes interesting again.

We'll read future Machine-Iliads, magnetically engraved on self-aware harddrives as the robots roll toward war with Beijing...

Drains of Canada: An Interview with Michael Cook

[Image: The Toronto Power Company Tailrace at Niagara; this and all other photos in this post by Michael Cook].

Michael Cook is a writer, photographer, and urban explorer based in Toronto, where he also runs a website called Vanishing Point.
Despite its subject matter, however, Vanishing Point is more than just another website about urban exploration. Cook's accounts of his journeys into the subterranean civic infrastructure of Canada and northern New York State – and into those regions' warehouses, factories, and crumbling hospitals – often include plans, elevations, and the odd historical photograph showing the sites under construction.
For instance, his fascinating, inside-out look at the Ontario Generating Station comes with far more than just cool pictures of an abandoned hydroelectric complex behind the water at Niagara Falls, and the detailed narratives he's produced about the drains of Hamilton and Toronto are well worth reading in full.
As the present interview makes clear, Cook's interests extend beyond the field of urban exploration to include the ecological consequences of city drainage systems, the literal nature of public space, and the implications of industrial decay for future archaeology – among many other things we barely had time to discuss.
Or, perhaps more accurately phrased, Cook shows that urban exploration has always been about more than just taking pictures of monumentally abstract architectural spaces embedded somewhere in the darkness.

[Image: The Memorial Park Storage Chambers in Toronto's Belt Line Drain; this is architecture as dreamed of by Adolf Loos: shaved of all ornament, exquisitely smooth, functional – while architecture schools were busy teaching Mies van der Rohe, civil engineers were perfecting the Modern movement beneath their feet].

As he writes on Vanishing Point:
    The built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality, with borderlands cutting across its heart and reaching into its sky. We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive, each pregnant with riches and wonders and time.

    This is a website about exploring some of those spaces, about immersing oneself in stormwater sewers and utility tunnels and abandoned industry, about tapping into the worlds that are embedded in our urban environment yet are decidedly removed from the collective experience of civilized life. This is a website about spaces that exist at the boundaries of modern control, as concessions to the landscape, as the debris left by economic transition, as evidence of the transient nature of our place upon this earth.
In the following conversation with BLDGBLOG, Cook discusses how and where these drains are found; what they sound like; the injuries and infections associated with such explorations; myths of secret systems in other cities; and even a few brief tips for getting inside these hyper-functionalist examples of urban infrastructure. We talk about ecology, hydrology, and industrial archaeology; and we come back more than once to the actual architecture of these spaces.

[Image: "Stairs" by Michael Cook, from the Westview Greenbelt Drain].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: Is there any place in particular that you’re exploring right now?

Michael Cook: I am trying to piece together entrance to a drain here in Toronto. It’s part of a larger system. As part of their efforts to improve Toronto’s water quality on the lake front, the city built this big storage tunnel called the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel. It intercepts and stores overflow from a number of combined sewers, as well as from several storm sewers along the western lake front. I guess this was finished in 2001, but they had various technical issues, with the mechanics of it, so it was only operational this past summer.

But there are three storm sewers, I guess, that are part of this system. One of them is on my site already – Pilgrimage – and then there’s a second one that’s large and possibly worth getting into. It’s just not something I’ve investigated thoroughly, so... I’ll probably go down and look for that.

[Images: (top) "Transition to CMP," from Toronto's Old Ironsides drain; (middle) "Junction with small sidepipe (falling in on the right)" inside Toronto's Graphic Equalizer drain; (bottom) "Backwards junction" in Toronto's Sisters of Mercy drain].

BLDGBLOG: How do you know that the system fits together – that all these storm sewers actually connect up with one another? Are there maps?

Michael Cook: In this case, I have an outfall list that was prepared in the late 80s for portions of Toronto – so I know, from this list, what the size of this storm sewer was at its outfall, before it was intercepted by the new system.

There was also a fair bit of media coverage when the system was being built, because it was a huge expenditure on the part of the city. So we know which combined sewers are part of the system, and I do know where a particular storm sewer is when they intersect – I just don’t necessarily know which residential streets it runs under.

Basically, I have a starting point – and the way I’m going to do this is just go down there on foot and walk around the various residential streets, starting at the lake and moving north. I’ll see if I can find any viable manhole entrances – which involves being by the side of the road or in the sidewalk, where it will be possible to enter and exit safely.

[Image: "Emerging in Wilson Heights," out of Toronto's Depths of Salvation drain].

BLDGBLOG: What do you actually bring with you? Do you have some kind of underground exploration kit? Full of Band-Aids and Advil?

Michael Cook: I have a pair of boots or waders, depending on the circumstances. I’ll also bring one or more headlamps, and a spotlamp, and various other lighting gear – plus a camera and a tripod. That basically sums it up.

I also have a manhole key – that’s basically just a loop of aircraft cable tied onto a bolt at one end and run through a piece of aluminum pipe that serves as a crude handle. Most of the manhole lids around here have between two and twenty square holes in them about an inch wide, and they’re reasonably light. Assuming the lid hasn’t been welded or bolted into the collar of the manhole, it’s relatively quick and painless to use this tool to pull the lid out. It’s only useful for light-weight lids, though. In Montreal, for instance, most of the covers are awkward, heavy affairs that sometimes need two people, each with their own crowbar, to dislodge safely. Real utilities workers use pickaxes – but those aren’t so easily carried in the pocket of a backpack.

[Image: The outfall of Toronto's Old Ironsides drain].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever run into other people down there?

Michael Cook: That’s never happened to me, actually. It’s just not that popular a pursuit, outside of certain hotspots.

People can accept going into an abandoned building: you might run into someone you don’t want to run into there, or you might find that part of the building’s unstable – but it’s still just a building.

Even people I know who self-identify as urban explorers aren’t at all that interested in undergrounding – especially not in storm drains. A lot of them just don’t see the actual interest. It’s not a detail-rich environment. You can walk six kilometers underground through nearly featureless pipe – and there’s not something to see and photograph every five feet.

[Image: An "A-shaped conduit" in Toronto's Belt Line Drain].

BLDGBLOG: Yet a lot – possibly most – of these drains are already named. Who names them, and how do the names get passed around and agreed on by everyone else?

Michael Cook: With people who drain, one of the first things you pick up is a respect for existing names – and the first person to explore a drain has naming rights over it. People generally respect that. Sometimes we’ll make exceptions – I know I’ve made exceptions a few times – but, ultimately, we depend on other people respecting our names.

It’s at once a completely pointless exercise; but, at the same time, it’s fairly meaningful in terms of having a way of discussing this with other people.

So that’s how it comes up. You then use that name, both offline and online. In Australia, they have a kind of master location list, that they keep within Cave Clan, but here we don’t have that level of organization, or that size of a community. It’s just a matter of publishing stuff on our websites.

That said, sometimes we’ll adopt the official name. This usually happens when we’ve been using that name for awhile before we find a way to actually get inside the system, and this usually comes about with something really big or historically significant. We’ll never rename the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, for instance, though we call it the “Webster,” colloquially. When I find a way into Toronto’s storied Garrison Creek Sewer, the buried remains of our fabled “lost” creek, it won’t be the subject of renaming either. Those are the exceptions though; most of the time naming is one of the things we do to capture and communicate something of the magic of wading for three hours through a watery, feature-poor concrete tunnel underground.

[Image: (top) "Outfall structure in the West Don Valley," part of Toronto's Depths of Salvation drain; (bottom) The outfall of Toronto's Graphic Equalizer drain].

BLDGBLOG: A lot of these places look like surreal, concrete versions of all the streams and rivers that used to flow through the city. The drains are like a manmade replacement, or prosthetic landscape, that's been installed inside the old one. Does the relationship between these tunnels and the natural waterways that they've replaced interest you at all?

Michael Cook: Oh, definitely – ever since I got into this through exploring creeks.

At their root, most drains are just an abstract version of the watershed that existed before the city. It’s sort of this alternate dimension that you pass into, when you step from the aboveground creek, through the inlet, into the drain – especially once you walk out of the reach of daylight.

Even sanitary sewers often follow the paths of existing or former watersheds, because the grade of the land is already ideal for water flow – fast enough, but not so fast that it erodes the pipe prematurely – and because the floodplains are often unsuitable for other uses.

[Image: "Outfall in winter" at Toronto's Gargantua drain].

BLDGBLOG: How does that affect your attitude toward this, though? Do you find yourself wishing that all these drains could be dismantled, letting the natural landscape return – or, because these sites are so interesting to explore, do you actually wish that there were more of them?

Michael Cook: It’s an awful toll that we’ve taken on the landscape – I’m not one to celebrate all this concrete. If it were conceivable to set it all right, I’d be the first one in line to support that. And the marginal progress being made in terms of environmental engineering – building storm water management alternatives to burial and to large, expensive pipes – is a great step forward; unfortunately, its success so far has been limited.

Ultimately, you just can’t change the fact that we’ve urbanized, and we continue to do so. That comes with a cost that can be managed – but it can’t be eliminated completely.

[Image: Looking out of a spillway at the Ontario Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: So do you actually have an environmental goal with these photographs? Your explorations are really a form of environmental advocacy?

Michael Cook: Well, I want to find something that goes a bit further than just presenting these photos for their aesthetic value – but, at the same time, turning this into some sort of environmental advocacy platform doesn’t really come to mind, either.

I’m very interested in urban ecology and in the environmental politics that take place in the city – and I’ve done some academic work in that regard – but I’m not really prepared to distill the photography and these adventures into an activist exercise.

[Image: The "spectacular, formerly natural waterfall that the [Chedoke Falls Drain] now feeds," in Hamilton, Ontario].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you’ve ever been injured, or even gotten sick, down there. All that old, stagnant air – and the dust, and the germs – can’t be very good for you!

Michael Cook: I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten sick from it. Sometimes, the day after, you can feel almost hung-over – but I don’t know what that is. It could be dust, or it could be from the amount of moisture you breathe in. But it passes. It may even be an allergy I have.

I haven’t really done any exploration of sanitary sewers – that would be a different story. In Minneapolis/St. Paul they actually have a name for the sickness they sometimes come down with after a particularly intense sewer exploration: Rinker’s Revenge. It’s named after the engineer who designed the systems there. And a colleague caught a bout of giardia recently, which he believes he acquired exploring a section of combined sewer in Montreal.

So, obviously, there are disease risks in doing this, though they’re not as extensive as one might want to imagine.

The only serious situation I’ve ever been in, with a high potential for injury – and I was pretty lucky – was while exploring in Niagara. The surge spillways for the Ontario Generating Station used to carry overflow water from the surge tanks, and those were fed by the intake pipes. So the water would overflow from the intake pipes into the surge tanks, and then drain out through these helical spillways that spiral downwards to the bottom of the gorge. They then outfall in front of the plant into the river.

So we made an attempt to ascend both of these spillways, and we were successful in the first one; but the second one, we found, was more difficult toward the latter stages of the climb. We had to turn back just before reaching the surge tanks. On the way back down I lost my footing – I lost all grip on the surface, it was so steep and so slippery, and it was covered in very fine grit – and I ended up sliding all the way down to the bottom, nearly 200 vertical feet. And I was going at a very high speed by the time I reached the bottom.

I was very lucky to come away from that with just a few friction burns and a sprained thumb.

[Images: A "short drop" in Toronto's beautifully torqued and ovoid Viceroy Drain].

BLDGBLOG: As far as the actual tunnels go, how connected is all this stuff? Is it like a big, underground labyrinth sometimes – or just a bunch of little tunnels that look connected only because of the way that they’ve been photographed?

Michael Cook: Well, most of the drainage systems I’ve been in are pretty linear. You have a main trunk conduit, and then sometimes you’ll get significant side pipes that are worth exploring. But as far as actual maze-quality features go, it’s pretty rare to find systems like that – at least in Ontario and most places in Canada. It requires a very specific geography and a sort of time line of development for the drains.

You might end up with a lot of side overflows and other things, which makes the system more complicated, if the drain has several different places where it overflows into a surface body of water – or if there’s a structure that allows one pipe to flow into another at excess capacity. That sort of thing allows for more complicated systems – but most of the time it doesn’t happen.

You can still spend hours in some of these drains, though, because of how long they are. And sometimes that makes for a fairly uninteresting experience: drains can be pretty featureless for most of their length.

[Images: Four glimpses of the vaulted topologies installed inside the Earth at Niagara's William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace].

BLDGBLOG: Are the drains up there mostly poured concrete, or are they made of brick?

Michael Cook: We have recently opened up our first significant brick sewer in Toronto – The Skin of a Lion – which is built from yellow brick and would probably date to around the turn of the last century. So there are a few locations where you can find brick, but most are concrete.

[Images: (top) Leaving the William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace, Niagara Falls; (bottom) Tailrace outlet, William B. Rankine Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: Does that affect what the drains sound like, as far as echoes and reverb go? What sort of noises do you hear?

Michael Cook: I’d say that every drain is acoustically unique. Each has its own resonance points – and even different sections of the drain will resonate differently, based on where the next curve is, or the next room. It all shifts. I often explore that aspect a bit – probably to the annoyance of some of my colleagues. I’ll make noises, or hum. Even sing.

As far as environmental noises, the biggest thing is that, if there’s a rail line nearby, or a public transit line, you often get that noise coming back through the drain to wherever you are. It’s very frightening when you first hear it, till you figure out what it is – this rushing noise. It’s not a wall of water. [laughs]

But the most common recurring noise is the sound of cars driving over manhole covers – which gives you an idea of which covers you don’t want to exit through. It also helps you keep track of the distance, and where you are – that sort of thing.

[Image: "Transitions" inside the Duncan's Got Wood sewer, Toronto].

BLDGBLOG: What kind of legal issues are involved here – like trespassing, or even loitering? Do you have to go out at 2am, dressed like an official city worker, or wear a hood or anything like that?

Michael Cook: For draining, the legal issues are pretty grey. After all, you’re on public property the entire time – so the risk of a serious trespassing fine is a lot lower. There’s no private security company looking out for you, and there’s no private property owner who’s going to be irate if you’re found inside his building. It’s a municipal waterway – it just happens to run underground. A lot of times the outfalls aren’t even posted with notices telling you to stay out.

Now, some people have been given fines for trespassing – for having been inside drains in Ontario – but these have been for pretty minor sums of money. It’s not something that I’ve ever had a problem with – and definitely not something that requires me to go in the middle of the night.

The only thing that really dictates what time you can go is traffic conditions. If you have to use a street-side manhole, you generally don’t want to be doing that doing the day.

[Image: "Deep inside the century-old wheelpit that is the beginning of the Rankine Generating Station Tailrace" (view bigger)].

BLDGBLOG: Within Toronto itself, are you still finding new drains, or is the city pretty much exhausted by now?

Michael Cook: We are still finding new tunnels beneath Toronto, and we’re on the trail of others that we know about but just haven’t discovered access to yet. There are also still a few underground gems in Hamilton that haven’t been seen by anyone except municipal workers and a handful of journalists. These days though, Montreal and Vancouver are emerging hotbeds for new sewer and drainage finds in Canada, thanks to explorers in those cities.

When Siologen came over here he found a whole bunch of new drain systems in Toronto – systems nobody else knew about. He had the time and the inclination to go and scout out a whole lot of stuff that I’d never gotten around to doing.

BLDGBLOG: How’d he do that?

Michael Cook: Basically by riding all the buses. That, and looking at a lot of little creek systems, and searching around for manholes – all of that.

But there are people who happen to read in the paper about some new tunnel project, or whatever, and so they pass that on to people who do this sort of thing. Outside of that, I don’t really know what to say. I guess some people have even found stuff after it’s been featured in skateboarding magazines.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Michael Cook: Some of the largest pipe in the world is used as spillways for hydroelectric projects – big dams and that sort of thing – and usually the first people who find out about this stuff are skateboarders. Usually they try to keep the locations pretty quiet – just as we do. But I’m sure that, at least once or twice, some tunnel explorer has found out about a system through the skateboarding community.

[Image: Ottawa's Governor General's Drain].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if there’s some huge, mythic system out there that you’ve heard about but haven’t visited yet, or even just an urban legend about some tunnels that may not actually be real – secret government bunkers in London, for instance.

Michael Cook: I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

You know, these legends are really... there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.

[Image: "Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace"].

BLDGBLOG: Is there some system – a real system – that you’re really dying to explore?

Michael Cook: If I had unlimited funds, I’d really like to make a trip to South America and see some of the underground workings beneath Rio and São Paulo and Montevideo; and I want to go to Africa for a lot reasons but, obviously, it would also be really neat to see what’s built under some of the larger cities in Africa. It’s a place of real cleavages between modern development and the complete impossibility of expanding that development to the entire population. So great sums of money have been wasted on huge highway projects and huge downtown core projects that were completely unnecessary for anything other than creating the semblance of a modern city – but, undoubtedly, there’s subterranean infrastructure connected to all of it.

BLDGBLOG: As well as abandoned pieces of infrastructure just sitting up there on the surface – unused highway overpasses and derelict stadiums and things like that.

Michael Cook: Definitely. And huge mine workings, as well, in certain parts of Africa, that have been shut down.

[Image: Inside a distributor tunnel at the Ontario Generating Station drain; meanwhile, I can't help but imagine what it'd be like if architects began building hotel lobbies like this: you check into your boutique hotel in London – and nearly pass out in awe...].

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, urban exploration seems to be getting a lot of media attention these days – this interview included. How do you feel when you see articles in The New York Times about people exploring tunnels and drains?

Michael Cook: The problem I have with general interest reporting is that it almost invariably becomes, you know: look at this, isn’t this weird. Because that’s the easiest way of presenting what we do. It’s not about anything else – it’s entertainment.

So I’ve never really been interested in taking part in articles like that. They happen all the time in various places around the continent. Somewhere, there’s always a reporter who needs to file a story this week, or this month, and so they find an urban exploration site on the internet and they think, hey, that’s a great thing to write about, and then I can fill my quota. It’s not even that what they’re going to write is false or misleading, but it ultimately presents an incomplete and slightly cheapening image of what we do – and, in the end, it doesn’t really accomplish that much.

I think what I’m getting at is that the format of the newspaper article or the television news feature ultimately waters all this down and forces it into a specific block – that, while true of a certain segment of urban exploration, isn’t really representative of the whole. It has the effect of pigeon-holing the whole endeavor in a way.

[Images: Disused hydroelectric machinery: top/bottom].

BLDGBLOG: That implies that there’s a way of looking at all this that you think needs more exposure. What parts of urban exploration should the media actually be covering?

Michael Cook: I think, even among explorers, that we don’t pay enough attention to process. I think every piece of infrastructure – every building – is on a trajectory, and you’re experiencing it at just one moment in its very extended life.

We see things, but we don’t often ask how they came about or where they’re going to go from here – whether there will be structural deterioration, or if living things will colonize the structure. We tend to ignore these things, or to see them in temporal isolation. We also don’t give enough time or consideration to how this infrastructure fits into the broader urban fabric, within the history of a city, and where that city’s going, and whose lives have been affected by it and whatever may happen to it in the future. I think these are all stories that really need to start being told.

Which is something I’m starting on. It’s just not something that necessarily comes naturally. It requires a lot of work, and a lot of thought while you’re on-site – which maybe you’re not really inclined to do, because you’re too busy paying attention to the immediate, sublime nature of the experience.

But the basic linear photo gallery really bores me at this point – especially when you’re seeing basically the same photos, just taken inside different buildings. It has no real, lasting value. A lot of people have fallen into that trap, and a lot of people defend that – saying that they’re making art or whatever, or that it’s just for their own personal interest.

BLDGBLOG: So it’s a matter of paying attention both to the site’s history and to how your own documentation of that site will someday be used as history.

Michael Cook: If you decide to take a purely historical approach to it, though, I think the real question is: are these photos of asylum hallways and drainage tunnels ultimately going to be useful to anyone else at some point in the future? And the answer is probably not. Probably we’re photographing the wrong things for that.

Some architect or materials historian is going to be cursing us for photographing some things and not others, or for not taking a close-up of something – or for not writing down any supplementary information at all to help them identify this stuff.

So that historical angle, to justify some of the stuff we’re doing, falls down on further analysis.

[Image: Abandoned cash registers].

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: What’s that?

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: Yeah, basically. It’s like we’re just digging things up and not paying attention to where they were placed, or what they were next to, or who might have put it there.

Ultimately, we need some sort of framework, and to put more effort into additional information beside just taking a photo. That doesn’t necessarily mean publishing all that information so that everyone can see it – but just telling stories in other ways, and creating narratives about the places and the things that we’re seeing.

Otherwise, these are just postcard shots. We’re taking postcard shots of the sublime.

[Image: Inside The Skin of a Lion, Toronto].

• • •

While we were editing the transcript for publication, Michael wrote:
    I got into the storm sewer I mentioned [at the beginning of the interview], shortly after talking to you. It’s now on the site as Sisters of Mercy. Similar to Pilgrimage, it ends in a siphon, rather than a traversable passage into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, which I'm still working on finding. We've started exploring combined sewers as well here – so that opens up some other options.
    In the end, the access I found was directly above where the siphon begins, quite close to the lake.
So the explorations continue.
With a big thanks to Michael Cook for having this conversation – and for maintaining such a great website.

[Image: The "Three Musketeers" standing inside Toronto's Westview Greenbelt Drain; Michael Cook is the one on the right; one of the other two is Siologen].

For a few more images, meanwhile, feel free to check out the Flickr set for this interview (although all of those images can be found at Vanishing Point – in particular, stop by the Daily Underground).

(More underground worlds and urban exploration on BLDGBLOG: Urban Knot Theory, London Topological, Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city, Beneath the Neon, Valvescape, Subterranean bunker-cities, and Tunnels, mines, and the "upwardly migrating void").

Single Hauz

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

Like an inhabitable billboard, the Single Hauz – by Poland's front architects – proposes cantilevering domestic living space from a central mast. The house can then be installed above a variety of ground conditions, from the middle of a meadow to an urban core.
Personally... I'd put it in a lake.

[Images: The Single Hauz by front architects].

The cool thing is that I've actually spent the last 11 months of my life staring up at some of the Herculean billboard structures out here in Los Angeles; they tower over intersections on streets from Venice to Sepulveda and often seem as large as houses.
But how much weight could a billboard carry?

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

Could you build a house up there?
Could you use the mast-and-cantilever model for other types of architectural structures, whether those are single-family houses – whole cul-de-sacs lined with modernist billboard homes! – or even restaurants and public libraries?
The Single Hauz shows how beautiful the effect could be.

[Image: The Single Hauz by front architects].

For more projects by front architects, check out their website (though I couldn't find any information in English).

(With huge thanks to a commenter named munditia, who first pointed out this project to me).

Hello. Welcome to my squash cave.

The urban surface of London is no longer interesting enough for the ultra-rich; they're thus building downward.
As the Times reported this past weeked:
    A Roman bath, a cinema for two dozen friends, even a subterranean tennis court – the super-rich are transforming their London homes, even if it means digging dozens of feet undergound.
The article goes on to describe how many of London's most financially advantaged residents, including oil tycoons and Indian steel magnates, have been "seeking permission to excavate under the garden... making space for a three-storey garage with car stacker, a swimming pool, a gym and a private home cinema." There are even "walk-in showers with waterproof television screens and glass walls that turn opaque with the press of a button, and cost £1,000 per square metre."
It's the urge toward subterranean architectural eccentricity – and it's transforming the very Earth beneath London.

[Images: London houses and their subterranean extensions; all photos via the Times].

For instance, we learn that "billionaire Russian oligarchs, private-equity traders and hedge-fund managers are engaged in a multimillion-pound game of one-upmanship as they vie with each other to dig ever bigger, wider and deeper extensions."
Indeed, "London’s super-rich are digging down and building outwards and upwards – and making use of the latest, priciest technology to do it."
Digging also helps them to avoid strict conservation laws, as the houses they've been extending into the Earth are usually listed structures: "Most houses now have more space below ground than above it, due to stringent planning regulations."
There are even "high-end builders," for whom business is booming, "who frequently dig down as far as 50ft to create new floors, basements and swimming pools, while the original house is propped up on giant steel pillars."
There's also quite a market for "adjustable-height swimming pool[s]" built far underground:
    At the flick of a button – because everything is remote-controlled – the bottom can be raised or lowered by a giant hydraulic jack, forming a deep swimming pool for the heavyweight millionaire or a toddler-friendly paddling pool for his offspring.
Which is nothing:
    One home in north London even has a bespoke chute covered in a special slippery paint, which enables the owner, who loves swimming first thing in the morning, but hates the fuss of dressing, to step out of bed and slide straight into the water a couple of storeys below.
Meanwhile, "a secretive hedge-fund tycoon" recently submitted a 168-page planning application within which he's requesting permission to build "a 16ft-deep swimming pool with high board" – among many other things – which, of course, will be underground.
"The super-rich are no longer demanding just luxury goods," we read; "they’re demanding a luxury lifestyle experience."
So while bored twentysomethings read Le Corbusier over and over again in roundtable discussions led by professors who would rather be elsewhere, the underworld of London is calling...
Read more at the Times.

(Thanks, Nicky! Earlier on BLDGBLOG: London Topological and Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city).

Lake/House

[Image: A scene from a film called "Crush Collision" by artist Chris Larson. Thanks to Bill Lindeke for pointing out the project to me in relation to the previous post].

Find a lake, float out to the center, build a house

[Image: Fishermen on Lake Tanganyika, via Wikipedia].

"The matted growths of aquatic plants fringing its shores are cut off in sections, and towed to the centre of the lake. Logs, brushwood, and earth are laid on the floating platform, until it acquires a consistency capable of supporting a native hut and a plot of bananas and other fruit trees, with a small flock of goats and poultry. The island is anchored by a stake driven into the bed of the lake; and if the fishing become scarce, or should other occasion occur for shifting his domicile, the proprietor simply draws the peg, and shifts his floating little mansion, farm, and stock, whither he chooses."

—John Geddie, The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Record of Modern Discovery (Edinburgh, 1883), as quoted by Giles Foden in Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika

(Thanks, Valerie!)

Post-residential Venice

While packing up the apartment for our move to San Francisco, I keep coming across articles I've clipped from newspapers and magazines, even whole chapters of books, that I obviously once meant to write about for BLDGBLOG...

[Image: J.M.W. Turner, The Dogana and Madonna della Salute, Venice, 1843; for more, see Tate Britain].

One such article, published nearly a year ago today, proclaims that Venice, Italy, may soon become "a tourist ghost town."
    Venice is on course to become a city virtually without residents within the next 30 years, turning it into a sort of Disneyland – teeming with holidaymakers but devoid of inhabitants... The city may then become a museum, to which, as La Repubblica remarked, it would be "normal to charge entry".
Other cities for whom this fate could be very, very interesting, if culturally ill-advised? Detroit and the New York borough of Manhattan.
In any case, as the BBC describes this phenomenon:
    At night Venice sometimes resembles an empty museum, a ghost town.
    After [11pm], when the day trippers have all left and the restaurants and bars are closed, the waterways and calles – narrow streets that intersect the islands upon which Venice is built – are almost deserted.
    Tomorrow another 60,000 people will arrive – and depart.
This vision – of Venice, populated only by the odd night security guard and a few absent-minded curators – surely sets up a far more interesting future storyline than Night in the Museum ever hoped to be.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Venice Resonator).

Conspiracies of Demolition

In what seems like a deliberate attempt at conspiratorial double-entendre, the New York Times reports this morning that an "Obscure Company Is Behind 9/11 Demolition Work."

[Image: The South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11; photographer unknown].

This obscure company, we read, is the John Galt Corporation, and they were "hired last year for the dangerous and complex job of demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, where two firefighters died last Saturday."
Wait a minute – what was all that about "9/11 Demolition Work"? Isn't there an implication in that phrase that 9/11 was –
Well, no.
130 Liberty Street, you see, was heavily damaged by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11; it's being dismantled because of this.
That apparently makes it "9/11 Demolition Work" – besides, the cryptic headline sells more papers.

[Image: An aerial view of Ground Zero, taken on September 23, 2001, by NOAA's Cessna Citation Jet. Via Wikipedia].

What's interesting, nonetheless, is that the John Galt Corporation "has apparently never done any work like [this]," the New York Times reports.
"Indeed, Galt does not seem to have done much of anything since it was incorporated in 1983."
    Public and private records give no indication of how many employees it has, what its volume of business is or who its clients are. There are almost no accounts of any projects it has undertaken on any scale, apart from 130 Liberty Street. Court records are largely silent. Some leading construction executives in the city say they have never even heard of it.
The CIA masquerading as a demolition services firm in New York City!
Well, the article doesn't say that – but it does parse through some of the complicated financial superstructures within which the John Galt Corporation operates (including distant ties to the Gambino crime family).
The John Galt Corporation is thus a kind of administrative straw man, a legal way "to insulate the assets of a parent company from the enormous potential liabilities of demolition work."
Indeed, demolition is a legally complex undertaking; one need only read the last few chapters of Jeff Byles's Rubble to understand the subtle vicissitudes of the growing industry.
In any case, the Times article goes on to say that New York state and its corporate partners experienced a lot of "difficulty" in "attracting any contractors interested in, or capable of, performing the novel and high-profile job" of demolishing 130 Liberty Street.
    It is not hard to understand why most contractors – particularly during a building boom, when they can pick and choose work – would balk at doing a job involving hazardous materials under microscopic regulatory scrutiny for a governmental client whipsawed by demands that demolition go faster (so that ground zero redevelopment could proceed) and slower (to ensure that contaminants were not released into the neighborhood).
But I want to go back to the original motivation for this post: the world of legally shady demolition firms operating in the maze of high-rises and vacant lots, warehouses and Jersey docklands, of New York City. After all, there are so many potential novel plots in this set-up, I can hardly believe it.
There's the Nicolas Cage/National Treasure 3 version: the John Galt Corporation is actually a front for some rogue group of foreign archaeologists – because there is something inside the building... and they need to recover it.
There's the Loose Change version: 130 Liberty Street contains far too much chemical evidence that thermite really was used on 9/11 – and so the John Galt Corporation was brought in by Langley to clean up the job...
There's the Ghostbusters/Grant Morrison version: the building is not a building at all... it is a valve, built directly above the Pillar of Manhattan, and it is only there as a way to vent subterranean steam. The John Galt Corporation is really a team of Columbia-trained paranormal investigators...
Anyway, obscure NYC demolition firms seem like a remarkably underused resource for contemporary novels and films; in fact, it'll be interesting to see if demolition firms, post-9/11, take on a kind of conspiratorial aura, with unclear connections to investors in suburban DC... somehow showing up before major terrorists attack... starring Denzel Washington...
Read more about John Galt at The New York Times.

(Interesting note: John Galt is the name of a character in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged).

The Fold

[Image: An example of origami tesselation, turning surface to structure, called "Count?" by Christine Edison – whose other work is simply unbelievable: check out "Triad back backlit," for instance, or this set of her "favorite tesselations." While you're there, don't miss "New Years Eve Tess" or "Blue Snowflake Tess." Christine also has a blog where you can click around on other spectacular examples of folds and pleats to your heart's content. Spotted via Eric Gjerde, who recently published a short booklet explaining how you, too, can produce similar foldings of local paper-space... Architects would do well to study origami's spatial densification].

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Paper Topographies: 1, with some stunning work by Eric Gjerde himself).

Airborne Geology

One of several interesting things I've found in Alan Weisman's new book The World Without Us is his rhetorical approach to the industrial burning of fossil fuel.

He refers to burning oil and coal as a way of "tapping the Carboniferous Formation and spewing it up into the sky" – that is, it's "carbon we have mined from the Earth and loaded into the air."
Or: geology gone airborne.

[Image: A glimpse of the Carboniferous Formation, or coal awaiting its own secular ascension; via].

Because of this unintentionally aero-geological project, Weisman writes, "[a]mong the human-crafted artifacts that will last the longest after we're gone is our redesigned atmosphere." After all, that atmosphere now has a very large chunk of the Earth's surface floating around inside it, storing sunlight and heat.

[Image: Coal – before being "loaded into the air" through burning].

The word Carboniferous, meanwhile, refers to huge, continent-spanning deposits of coal that first began forming roughly 300 million years ago, in the appropriately named Carboniferous Period. Coal is formed from the compression, burial, and slow cooking of biological matter: old tropical forests and other organisms thus transform into an energy-intense geological formation.
In addition to the burning of oil – itself an ancient, carbon-based biological deposit – it is the combustion of all this coal that has fueled our ongoing industrial revolution.
In the process, Weisman implies, humans have achieved something extraordinary: the installation of a geological formation in the sky.

Looked at this way, it should come as no surprise that the Earth's climate is now changing.
Its air is full of geology.

(Also in reference to The World Without Us – a very uneven but still fascinating book – see BLDGBLOG's earlier post about the accidental discovery of underground cities in Cappadocia).

Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city

My friend Robert and I finished reading Alan Weisman's The World Without Us almost simultaneously – and we both noted one specific passage.
Before we get to that, however, the premise of Weisman's book – though it does, more often than not, drift away from this otherwise fascinating central narrative – is: what would happen to the Earth if humans disappeared overnight? What would humans leave behind – and how long would those remnants last?
These questions lead Weisman at one point to discuss the underground cities of Cappadocia, Turkey, which, he says, will outlast nearly everything else humans have constructed here on Earth.

[Images: Derinkuyu, the great underground city of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Manhattan will be gone, Los Angeles gone, Cape Canaveral flooded and covered with seaweed, London dissolving into post-Britannic muck, the Great Wall of China merely an undetectable line of minerals blowing across an abandoned landscape – but there, beneath the porous surface of Turkey, carved directly into tuff, there will still be underground cities.

[Images: Derinkuyu, the great underground city of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Of course, I'm not entirely convinced by Weisman's argument here – not that I have expertise in the field – but Turkey is a very seismically active country, for instance, and... it just doesn't seem likely that these cities will be the last human traces to remain. But that's something for another conversation.
In any case, Weisman writes:
    No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath Cappadocia. Eight have been discovered, and many smaller villages, but there are doubtless more. The biggest, Derinkuyu, wasn't discovered until 1965, when a resident cleaning the back wall of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he'd never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people – and much remains to be excavated. One tunnel, wide enough for three people walking abreast, connects to another underground town six miles away. Other passages suggest that at one time all of Cappadocia, above and below the ground, was linked by a hidden network. Many still use the tunnels of this ancient subway as cellar storerooms.
I was excited to learn, meanwhile, that another – quite possibly larger – underground Cappadocian city, called Gaziemir, was only opened to tourists this summer (someone send me, please!), having been discovered in January 2007 (a discovery which doesn't seem to have made the news outside Turkey).
So the next time the ground you're walking on sounds hollow – perhaps it is... Whole new cities beneath our feet!
I was also excited to read, meanwhile, that these subsurface urban structures are acoustically sophisticated. In other words, Weisman writes, using "vertical communication shafts, it was possible to speak to another person on any level" down below. It's a kind of geological party line, or terrestrial resonating gourd.
There were even ancient microbreweries down there, "equipped with tuff fermentation vats and basalt grinding wheels."

[Images: Derinkuyu and a view of Cappadocia; images culled from a Google Images search and from Wikipedia].

Meanwhile, Robert, my co-reader of Weisman's book, pointed out that the discovery of Derinkuyu, by a man who simply "broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he'd never seen, which led to still another, and another," is surely the ultimate undiscovered room fantasy – and I have to agree.
However, it also reminded me of a scene from Foucault's Pendulum – which is overwhelmingly my favorite novel (something I say with somewhat embarrassed hesitation because no one I have ever recommended it to – literally no one – not a single person! – has enjoyed, or even finished reading, it) – where we read about a French town called Provins.
In the novel, a deluded ex-colonel from the Italian military explains to two academic publishers that "something" has been in Provins "since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels – real catacombs – extends beneath the hill."
The man continues:
    Some tunnels lead from building to building. You can enter a granary or a warehouse and come out in a church. Some tunnels are constructed with columns and vaulted ceilings. Even today, every house in the upper city still has a cellar with ogival vaults – there must be more than a hundred of them. And every cellar has an entrance to a tunnel.
The editors to whom this story has been told call the colonel out on this, pressing for more details, looking for evidence of what he claims. But the colonel parries – and then forges on. After all, he's an ex-Fascist.
He'll say what he likes.
As the colonel goes on, his story gets stranger: in 1894, he says, two Chevaliers went to visit an old granary in Provins, where they asked to be taken down into the tunnels.
    Accompanied by the caretaker, they went down into one of the subterranean rooms, on the second level belowground. When the caretaker, trying to show that there were other levels even farther down, stamped on the earth, they heard echoes and reverberations. [The Chevaliers] promptly fetched lanterns and ropes and went into the unknown tunnels like boys down a mine, pulling themselves forward on their elbows, crawling through mysterious passages. [They soon] came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered [one of the Chevaliers] into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high. The others then followed him down.
So a few quick points:
1) Today's city planners need to read more things like this! How exciting would it be if you could visit your grandparents in some small town somewhere, only to find that a door in the basement, which you thought led to a closet... actually opens up onto an underground Home Depot? Or a chapel. Or their neighbor's house.
2) Do humans no longer build interesting subterranean structures like this – with the exception of militaries, where, to paraphrase Jonathan Glancey, we still see the architectural imagination at full flight – and I'm referring here to things like Yucca Mountain, something that would surely be too ambitious for almost any architectural design studio today – because they lack the imagination, or because of insurance liability? Is it possible that architectural critics today are lambasting the wrong people? It's not that Daniel Libeskind or Peter Eisenman or Frank Gehry are boring, it's simply that they've been hemmed in by unimaginative insurance regulations... Is insurance to blame for the state of contemporary architecture?
And if you called up State Farm to insure an underground city... what would happen?
Or if you tried to get UPS to deliver a package there?

[Image: A map, altered by BLDGBLOG, of an underground Cappadocian metropolis].

In any case, underground cities are far too broad and popular an idea to cover in one post – there's even a Stephen King story about a maze of tunnels discovered beneath some kind of garment factory in Maine, where cleaners find a new, monstrous species of rat – and I've written about these subterranean worlds before. For instance, in Tokyo Secret City and in London Topological.
While I'm on the subject, then, London seems actually to be constructed more on re-buttressed volumes of air than it is on solid ground.
As Anthony Clayton writes in his Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London:
    The heart of modern London contains a vast clandestine underworld of tunnels, telephone exchanges, nuclear bunkers and control centres... [s]ome of which are well documented, but the existence of others can be surmised only from careful scrutiny of government reports and accounts and occassional accidental disclosures reported in the news media.
Meanwhile, I can't stop thinking about the fact that some of the underground cities in Cappadocia have not been fully explored. I also can't help but wonder if more than two thousand years' worth of earthquakes might not have collapsed some passages, or even shifted whole subcity systems, so that they are no longer accessible – and, thus, no longer known.
Could some building engineer one day shovel through the Earth's surface and find a brand new underground city – or might not some archaeologist, scanning the hills with ground-penetrating radar, stumble upon an anomalous void, linked to other voids, and the voids lead to more voids, and he's discovered yet another long-lost city?
It's also worth pointing out, quickly, that there is a Jean Reno film, called Empire of the Wolves, that is at least partially set inside a subsurface Cappadocian complex. What's interesting about this otherwise uninteresting film is that it uses the carved heads and statuary of Cappadocia not at all unlike the way Alfred Hitchcock used Mount Rushmore in his film North by Northwest: the final action scenes of both films take place literally on the face of the Earth.
In any case, I should be returning to the topic of underground cities quite soon.

Books cited:
• Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
• Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
• Anthony Clayton, Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London

(With huge thanks to Robert Krulwich for kicking off this post!)