For his thesis project at the University of Toronto, Clint Langevin, in collaboration with Amy Norris, proposed “repurposing abandoned mines as renewable energy infrastructure in the U.S.”
The specific site for their project is the Tar Creek Lead and Zinc Mine in Picher, Oklahoma, which long-term BLDGBLOG readers might remember as the town at risk from cave-ins. As the Washington Post reported in 2007, “Trucks traveling along the highway are diverted around Picher for fear that the hollowed-out mines under the town would cause the streets to collapse under the weight of big rigs.” The unlucky town was then gutted by a tornado in 2008.
Langevin’s and Norris’s work highlights the area’s surreal, almost Cappadocian landscape: “Dozens of waste rock piles, some up to 13-storeys high,” they write, “and contaminated ground and surface water are the legacy of mining operations in the area, which produced a significant portion of the lead used in the World Wars.”
The architects specifically propose “a structure that raises the solar energy infrastructure off the ground [and] creates the opportunity to host other activities on the site, as well as to remediate the polluted ground and waterways. The concrete structure, pre-fabricated using waste rock material from the site, is assembled in a modular fashion from a kit of parts that accommodates a variety of programs.”
“Importantly,” the architects add, “the hollow structure also acts as a conduit to carry water, energy, waste—all the infrastructure for human habitation—to all inhabited areas of the site.”
The result is a three-tiered plan: the topmost layer is devoted to solar energy development and production: testing the latest solar technology and producing a surplus of energy for the site and its surroundings. This layer is also the starting point for water management on the site. Rainwater is collected as needed and transported through the structure to one of several treatment plants around the radial plan. The middle layer is the place of dwelling and exploration of the site. As the need for space grows, beams are added to create this inhabited layer: the beams act as a pedestrian and cycling circulation system, but also the infrastructure for dwelling and automated transit. Finally, the ground layer becomes a laboratory for bioremediation of the ground and water systems. Passive treatment of both the waste water from the site and of the acid mine drainage is coupled with a connected system of boardwalks to allow inhabitants and visitors to experience both the industrial inheritance of the site and the renewed hope for its future.
It’s a bit of a Swiss Army knife—in the sense that it tries to solve everything and have a solution for every possible challenge—with the effect that the architects seem to under-emphasize the titanic supergrid that clearly defines the overall proposal. It’s as if the proposal is so large—more landform building than architectural undertaking—that even the architects lose sight of it, focusing instead on individual systems in their description.
But inside this continuous and monumental space frame, whole communities could live—the “infrastructure for dwelling” and “pedestrian and cycling circulation system”—surrounded by a toxic geography for which the grid itself serves as both sublime filter and possible remedy.
The model for the project is pretty great, and I would love to see it in person: a cavernous grid envelopes the site’s artificial topography, wrapping tailings piles and hills of waste rock, whilst treading lightly on ground too thin to hold the weight of architecture.
You can see more—including aerial maps and structural details, such as the placement of solar panels—at Langevin’s and Norris’s site.