Caves of New York

[Image: "Caves for New York" (1942) by Hugh Ferriss].

After writing the previous post—about Hong Kong's impending infrastructural self-burial in the form of artificial caves beneath the island city—I remembered an image by Hugh Ferriss, preeminent architectural illustrator of the early 20th century, exploring huge air-raid shelters for New York City carved out of the rock cliffs of New Jersey.

"These shelters were to be 30 meters high and 60 meters wide and cut into the cliffs of the Hudson Palisades along the New Jersey side, and were to house planes, factories and hundreds of thousands of people," Jean-Louis Cohen recounts in the recent book Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War.

[Image: The New Jersey Palisades, via Wikipedia].

While this, of course, never happened, it's a heady thing to contemplate: an alternative New York City burrowed deep into the geologic mass of New Jersey, a delirium of excavation heading west, away from these islands at risk from wartime annihilation, in a volumetric Manhattanization of empty bedrock.

Burying Bits of the City: Hong Kong Underground

Several months ago we looked at a network of artificial caves being built beneath Singapore that will, upon completion, extend the city's energy infrastructure under the Pacific seabed; and, back in 2010, we took a very brief look at huge excavations underneath Chicago, courtesy of a feature article in Tunnel Business Magazine.

Now, according to the South China Morning Post, civil engineers in Hong Kong are exploring the possibility of developing large-scale underground spaces—artificial caves—for incorporation into the city's existing infrastructure. In the full text of the article, available online courtesy of Karst Worlds, we read that the Hong Kong government "is moving towards burying bits of the city—the unsightly ones—in underground caverns, freeing up more land for housing and economic development."

[Image: From the Enhanced Use of Underground Space in Hong Kong].

This is part of a larger undertaking called the Enhanced Use of Underground Space in Hong Kong initiative, a study, backed by Arup, that "would give the government a basis for policy guidelines to encourage cavern developments for both public and private sectors." Private-sector caverns beneath the city!

[Image: From the Enhanced Use of Underground Space in Hong Kong; view bigger].

Specifically, city engineers "will begin by identifying suitable rock caverns to house 400 government facilities that can be relocated, notably the not-in-my-backyard utilities disliked by nearby residents." These include "sewage treatment plants, fuel storage depots, refuse transfer stations and columbariums." The University of Hong Kong, for instance, recently "hid a saltwater reservoir in an artificial cavern next to its Centenary Campus, in a project that cost HK$500 million"; these are referred to as "water caverns."

Inspired by the fact that "caverns have been used as wine cellars, data centres and car parks in Finland and other countries," Hong Kong's Secretary of Development, Carrie Lam, has "called Hong Kong’s rock formations a 'unique geological asset' and urged the city to take caverns into consideration."

[Image: From the Guide to Cavern Engineering].

The awesome scale of some of the proposed excavations can be seen in this animation, where, at roughly the one-minute mark, we dive underground and begin to fly through linked 3D models of future freshwater reservoirs. A related PDF outlines a new landscape category—the Strategic Cavern Area—wherein "a strategic area is defined as being greater than 20 hectares in area and having the ability to accommodate multiple cavern sites." (The idea that your neighborhood might be declared a Strategic Cavern Area, and thus cleared of its building stock, brings to mind a student project featured on BLDGBLOG last month, the "Lower East Side Quarry" by Rebecca Fode).

[Images: From the Guide to Cavern Engineering].

Sadly, we missed an opportunity to participate in a Hong Kong-based cave-design contest—its deadline was September 2011—called the "Rock Caverns—Unlimited Creativity" competition: "Competition entrants are required, with their unlimited creativity, to propose ideas related to the potential usage of underground space in Hong Kong." A detailed design guide, called the Geoguide or Guide to Cavern Engineering, was published, and it remains available in full online.

This booklet is nothing less than a builder's guide to artificial caves. As Chapter 4 helpfully explains, for instance, "In common with other complex constructions, the design of a large underground space is an iterative process where a series of factors influence the final result," with prospective cave-designers required to use "numerous iterative loops" to create "a cost-effective cavern installation." The rest of that chapter goes on to explore cavern cross-sections, layout, shape, rock bolts and pattern bolting, and even intra-cave pillars, all of which should find their way into an architecture school design studio somewhere soon.

[Image: From the Guide to Cavern Engineering].

In any case, while I feel compelled to point out the obvious—that a high-tech labyrinth of artificial caves dug beneath the rocky hills of an over-urbanized tropical archipelago is an incredible setting for future films, novels, and computer games—I should also mention, more prosaically, that Hong Kong's impending subterranean expansion will doubtless offer many lessons relevant to cities elsewhere, as public-private underground partnerships increase in both number and frequency, with space-starved global mega-cities turning to partial self-burial as a volumetric infrastructural solution to the lack of available surface area.

Room and Billboard

[Image: The Billboard House by Apostrophy].

A project featured on designboom a few weeks ago explored the architectural possibilities of billboards: the Billboard House by Apostrophy is a "residential prototype that combines the concept of outdoor media with housing." As such, it recalls earlier projects, such as Single Hauz, squeezing domestic space into an unlikely structural situation.

[Image: The Billboard House by Apostrophy].

Apostrophy's house was installed and debuted at a fair in Bangkok, serving as a demonstration project, or proof of concept; it is transportable by truck, so, in theory, it can move between urban sites, being reattached to different masts in whole other neighborhoods and cities, while one of its facades remains operational as a revenue-generator for residents, displaying ads or other media content (it could also be a kind of live-in outdoor cinema for traffic jams).

[Images: The Billboard House by Apostrophy].

In any case, here are some shots of the interior, which features your standard modern amenities, including things like hydroponic gardens, a partially outdoor dining room, and space for storing bikes.

[Images: The Billboard House by Apostrophy].

More images and diagrams can be seen over at designboom.


I'm increasingly interested in the rise of remotely controlled, semi-autonomous and/or fully autonomous camera systems as the future of landscape photography—using drones, for example, as a technical and aesthetic solution to various problems of landscape representation. So I was immediately intrigued by the BeetleCam project—an "armored robot," in the words of New Scientist, designed by London-based photographer Will Burrard-Lucas—if only because of the weird comedy of watching lions, in the video embedded above, aggressively interact with a wheeled device they don't otherwise understand.

But photographers sending machines into (or above) previously inaccessible spaces and scenarios will only become more common, whether it's into the center of "a pride of feasting lions," as Burrard-Lucas has done, into a leaking nuclear power plant, or, for that matter, down into the tiniest pipes and wires of a building, in a kind of architectural angioplasty, as worm-like endoscopic camera-drones learn to crawl and squirm inside the city, documenting places humans might not ever have been.

Demolition Composites

[Image: Composite photograph by Andrew Evans].

Andrew Evans, previously featured on BLDGBLOG way back in 2007, recently got in touch with some composite photographs taken of demolition sites in Philadelphia.

If you look closely through the layers, you can see remnant images of wrecked interiors.

[Image: Composite photograph by Andrew Evans].

And, on the edge of the city, ruined buildings stand like ghosts guarding an urban perimeter that keeps expanding, the city always flinging more pieces of itself further into what used to be woods and streams in a spectral ballet of cranes and skyhooks.

[Images: Composite photographs by Andrew Evans].

So we could roam the streets and suburbs holding cameras, like architectural PKE meters, tracking the profiles of erased buildings, earlier roads, forgotten districts, even entire islands entombed beneath airports, scanning sites for lost towers and halls that once stood there, twisted interiors still hovering somewhere in memory and broken rebar.

See a few more demolition composites over at Andrew's Flickr page.

Off to India

[Image: The Chand Baori stepwell, courtesy of Wikipedia].

Just a quick note that I will be in India without a computer for the next two and a half weeks, visiting stepwells, cave temples, the 18th century astronomical garden of Jantar Mantar, hill forts (including Mehrangarh), the Water Palace (or Jal Mahal) in Jaipur, and more, and I will thus be offline until late March. Unfortunately, this also means that I will be unable to moderate new comments or reply to emails; please be patient, though, and I will get to all that when I return. Meanwhile, feel free to visit the BLDGBLOG archives, through the extensive list of previous posts in the lefthand column. I'll be back...

Star Wheel Horizon

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

After posting a project by Jimenez Lai back in January, Lebbeus Woods got in touch with an earlier project of his own, called Horizon Houses (2000).

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

In his own words, the Horizon Houses are "are spatial structures that turn, or are turned, either continuously (the Wheel House) or from/to fixed positions (the Star and Block Houses).
They are structures experimenting with our perception of spatial transformations, accomplished without any material changes to the structures themselves. In these projects, my concern was the question of space. The engineering questions of how to turn the houses could be answered by conventional mechanical means—cranes and the like—but these seem clumsy and inelegant. The mechanical solution may lie in the idea of self-propelling structures, using hydraulics. But of more immediate concern: how would the changing spaces impact the ways we might inhabit them?
These self-transforming, perpetually off-kilter structures would, in a sense, contain their future horizon lines within them, as they rotate through various, competing orientations, both always and never completely grounded.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

Each house in the series thus simultaneously explores the visual nature—and spatial effect—of the horizon line and the vertical force of gravity that makes that horizon possible.

As Woods phrases it, "Gravity is constantly at work on the materials of architecture, trying to pull them to the earth’s center of gravity. An important consequence is that this action establishes the horizon." However, he adds, "in the absence of gravity there is no horizon, for example, for astronauts in space. It is from this understanding that Ernst Mach developed his theory of inertia frames, which influenced Albert Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity"—but, that, Woods says, "is another story."

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Star House, seen immediately above and below, was what brought Woods to comment on the earlier post about Jimenez Lai; but the other "ensemble variations," as Woods describe them, while departing formally from the initial comparison with Lai's own project, deserve equal attention here.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The circular form of the Wheel House, for instance, literalizes the stationary-but-mobile aspect of the project.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

It also compels the house always to be on the verge of moving again, unlike the jagged, semi-mountainous points of the Block and Star Houses.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Block Houses appear to be in a state of barely stabilized wreckage following an otherwise unmentioned seismic event—which is fitting, as the rest of Woods's descriptive text (available on his website) offers seismicity as a key force and generative parameter for the project. If the earth itself moves, what sort of architecture might embrace and even thrive on that motion, rather than—unsuccessfully—attempt to resist a loss of foundation?

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

To say that these buildings thus exist in a state of ongoing catastrophe would be to fixate on and over-emphasize their instability, whereas it would be more productive to recognize that each house rides out a subtle and unique negotiation of the planet—where "the planet" is treated less as a physical fact and more as a gravitational reference point, an abstract frame of influence within which certain architectural forms can take shape.

In other words, the urges and pulls of gravity might nudge each house this way and that—it might even pull them over into a radically new orientation—but the architecture remains both optically sensible against its new horizon line and, more importantly, inhabitable.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

Taken together, this family of forms could thus roll, wander, and collapse indefinitely through the gravitational fields that command them.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

For a bit more text related to the project, see Woods's own website.

Discipline & Punish: Papillon (1973)

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists—co-sponsored by BLDGBLOG, Filmmaker Magazine, and Studio-X NYC—continued recently with Papillon (1973), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Papillon remains one of my favorite films, since first seeing it as a teenager (though I will come back to that at the end); however, as usual for this series, I will try to limit myself to the spatial and/or architectural themes of at play in the movie.

In a nutshell, Papillon tells the story of Papillon (played by Steve McQueen), imprisoned in the overseas penal colony of Caribbean French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. Papillon alleges that he is and always has been innocent of his charge (killing a pimp in France); nonetheless, France "has disposed of you," we hear in booming tones from a man with a walrus mustache in the film's opening scene. "The nation has disposed of you altogether."

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Papillon and his fellow prisoners are thus relegated to lives of hard labor, to brutal regimes of solitary confinement, and, in the end, either to forced colonization of French Guiana or to a final stretch of unsupervised years of imprisonment on a craggy island surrounded by sheer cliff walls, the prisoners sent there deemed too broken in body, spirit, and will to pose a risk of escape or violence.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Along the way, the carceral gymnastics of the early modern state command the mens' activities. They arrive at the island on a trans-Atlantic steamer ship, kitted out inside with barred cells and prisoners' hammocks, its dormitory lined with steam pipes that can be turned on at will to punish the men inside. They are introduced to the guillotine, that disciplinary apparatus of last order of the French state. "Make the best of what we offer you," an anonymous supervisor says, after the guillotine's blade has crashed down through a thick stalk of vegetation, demonstrating its raw power, "and you will suffer less than you deserve."

While on the transport ship, Papillon meets Louis Dega, who has been sent to Guiana for selling counterfeit national defense bonds. "I have no intention of even attempting to escape," Dega says. "Ever." He is slightly smiling when he says this, bemusing Papillon, who soon becomes Dega's paid protection (and long-term friend) in the camps.

However, learning of that friendship, a prison warden whose family lost their fortune in counterfeit defense bounds, sends Papillon and Dega off together to clear swamps with nothing but ropes and their bare hands.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Their various chores soon include the extraordinary scene of prisoners sent out into the jungle to capture exotic butterflies—an activity that is at least doubly ironic. Not only are captives being asked, in turn, to capture rare species (including one prisoner, Papillon, whose very name comes from the butterfly tattooed on his chest), but, in an awesome detail, we learn that these particular butterflies are valuable precisely because the pigment in their wings is used for inking U.S. currency.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

That it is Dega who tells us this—the counterfeiter supreme—lends the whole sequence an incredible, if macabre, poetry. But there is also something striking in this revelation of the commodity chain, suggesting that U.S. currency contains the remains of exotic butterflies hunted in the jungle by French prisoners. All objects—even objects that stand for other objects—come from somewhere, including state currency literally printed with the bodies of captives, both human and animal.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

But, after this point, the real imprisonments—and, of course, the escapes—begin.

Papillon attacks a guard to protect Dega from a routine beating, only to be forced to flee into the jungle—diving into the swamp and swimming off into the roots of mangroves—when he realizes that he'll be shot on sight for his violation (in fact, he dodges bullets as he leaps into the murky waters).

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Except, of course, he doesn't make it; he is turned in by local manhunters (former prisoners turned professional trackers of escapees); and he is introduced to the cell in which a great deal of the film then takes place.

A brief note on the architecture of incarceration in Papillon. The cells have bars instead of roofs, allowing them to be watched from above by roving guards. However, this also means that the cell can be "screened"—that is, its only source of light can be blocked for six months at a time, something that soon happens to Papillon (who is reduced to eating roaches and centipedes in the darkness). The prisoners receive their rations through a small hole near the floor, which pops open everyday at the sound of a whistle (there is no speaking allowed in the facility, helpfully painted with the word SILENCE in black letters on the outside walls). And the prisoners must lean forward and stick their heads through holes in the cell door for things like hair cuts and lice treatments—but also for occasional interrogations by the warden and his guards.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

While locked up in darkness, Papillon has a dream in which he confronts a makeshift judge and jury on the beach somewhere back in France. For whatever reason, I have always loved this scene. "You know the charge," a faceless judge shouts at Papillon. "Yours is the most terrible crime a human being can commit. I accuse you of a wasted life... The penalty is death." Horrified by the accuracy of the charge, Papillon wanders back the way he came, muttering, "Guilty... Guilty... Guilty..."

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

In any case, it wouldn't be Breaking Out and Breaking In if we didn't soon see some escapes.

Papillon, Dega, and another prisoner called Maturette make a break for it one night over the camp wall. To make an extremely long story short, they must sail to freedom by way of a leper colony and increasingly rough seas; but, arriving safely in Honduras, they're forced to split up. Papillon runs into the rain forest with a local prisoner they happen to bump into on the beach, and the two of them are then hunted through the jungle by Afro-Caribbean trackers hired by the state. Many more events transpire—booby traps, cliff jumps, pearl-fishing tribesmen—before Papillon makes his way to a convent in a local town center, seeking refuge and forgiveness. However, the church being, in effect, a wing of the state, mistaking ideological correctness for Christian morality, the nuns turn him in. I mention this also to indicate how, in the film, the state works: it relies upon—indeed, it cannot function without—local yet unofficial representatives, people it can hire (trackers) or who it can trust to volunteer (nuns) in the name of state continuity. In other words, the state puts out a call when a gap or blind spot arises, knowing there will always be someone who answers it.

So Papillon is sent back to solitary confinement.

I'll just make two final points, while admitting that I've hardly grazed the surface of the film.

1) Papillon's final escape comes from Devil's Island, the aforementioned island of sheer cliffs where even guards are seen as unnecessary, the prisoners physically and mentally exhausted and thus believed to be incapable of investing in the effort of escape. But Papillon one day notices something in the waters of the bay below, a rhythm in the waves that allows for anything thrown into the water to avoid being crushed on the rocks and, instead, be dragged out to sea.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

He first experiments with some coconuts—and then, lashing together a makeshift raft, he throws himself into the seventh wave and makes his way to final freedom.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

2) The movie closes with one of the most dramatically powerful end title sequences I've ever seen. To a haunting soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, we're shown shot after shot of the actual penal colony in French Guiana, left abandoned and rotting in the jungle.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

In a sense, these end titles anticipate—and, in many ways, put to shame—much of what we now see today under the guise of "ruin porn," or photographs of decaying architectural structures.

Regardless of the accuracy of the film's many dramatic enhancements, the ruined buildings of Papillon have the benefit of context: when the film cuts to the roofless cells and overgrown courtyards of this horrible and violent place of exile, the futility of the entire escapade—the tragedy of anyone caught up in the empty colonial machine—becomes both obvious and crushing. It's as if no one ever escaped from anything, because there was nothing there in the first place; we're just left with empty and impotent buildings, dissolved in shafts of light.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

By way of a very brief personal anecdote, when I first saw Papillon as a teenager, and the movie came to an end, I realized, stunned, that I had actually seen the ending before.

Back when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, Papillon must have been on cable television, scheduled on more than one day for the same early morning time slot, coming to an end just as I got up and prepared to walk to school. There were thus a few days when I turned on the TV only to catch, without knowing what it was and at almost exactly the same moment each time, the film's final voice-over narrative and these otherworldly shots of a dead prison in the rain forest, like some upstart challenger to Angkor Wat.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Ten years later, watching the film all the way through for the first time, I suddenly realized what it was I'd been daydreaming about in elementary school: the end titles of Papillon.

(Breaking Out and Breaking In will continue in two weeks' time with the films of Breaking In, and, after I get back from a short trip, I will also continue to post about the Breaking Out series, which continues tonight with Rupert Wyatt's The Escapist. Full schedule available here).