Schrödinger’s Speleology, or the Stalking of “Entranceless Caves”


[Image: A cave entrance in France, via Wikipedia].

I recently finished reading Last Words by Michael Koryta, a detective novel largely centered on an unmapped fictional cave system in southern Indiana, part of the great karst belt near the border with Kentucky.

One interesting thing about the novel is that this cave, known in the book as “Trapdoor,” operates on many different narrative levels. Most obviously, of course, there’s the unreliable memory of a major character suspected—yet never officially accused—of committing a murder there, where the darkness of Trapdoor’s linked subterranean spaces becomes a kind of mental model for his own inability to recall what really happened, when a woman was (apparently) murdered in the cave’s depths.

There is also a subplot, though, revealed quite late in the book, in which disguised real estate deals and obscure land trust deeds have been premised on the subterranean potential of this land snaking along the region’s old creeks and rivers, transactions inked with the belief that Trapdoor’s passages might continue beneath distant parcels; in this way, the cave comes to represent the conspiratorial intentions of people otherwise unwilling to state their true goals.

Finding the true outer limits of the cave—that is, finding the land parcels that the cave secretly connects from below—becomes coextensive with discovering the truth about what occurred underground there so many years earlier.


[Image: Cave in Venezuela, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

It was these latter parts of the novel—including a handful of plot points I won’t get into—that reminded me of notes I’d taken from a book called the Encyclopedia of Caves several years ago. That book includes a short entry written by Nevin W. Davis, called “Entranceless Caves, Discovery of.”

As Davis describes them, “entranceless caves” are like speleological versions of Schrödinger’s cat: they exist, but they have not been verified. They are real—but perhaps not. They are both in the ground and nowhere.

At times, Davis’s text is almost like a koan: “Suppose the cave is totally unknown and has no entrance,” he writes. What exactly is such a thing, and how can we account for its presence (or absence) in the landscape? After all, these are caves that have not been—and perhaps cannot ever be—located.

He goes on to describe mathematical models used to generate a probability of subterranean connection: the calculated likelihood that physically inaccessible voids might exist beneath the surface of things, linking one part of the world to another.


[Image: Cave in Mexico, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

“Another consideration in searching for caves,” Davis continues, “is entrance lifetime. Caves are long-term features under the landscape with lifetimes measured in millions of years, whereas entrances to them are fleeting features with lifetimes measured in millennia.”

Cave entrances come and go, in other words, while the caves they once led to remain. They can be covered over, woven shut by tree roots, erased.

As Davis describes it, “leaves and twigs will soon cover and block small vertical entrances. Pits less than a meter in diameter”—tiny holes that can nonetheless lead to huge systems, such as the real-life Mammoth Cave or the fictional Trapdoor—“can be totally blocked in one season. Leaves blocking a small entrance are soon followed by roots and more leaves and it is not long before all traces of an entrance are gone.”

This leads to an activity he calls “stalking the elusive entranceless cave”—which, for what it’s worth, seems like a perfect metaphor for part of Koryta’s novel, in which the book’s amnesia-stricken potential murderer undergoes hypnosis. His memory is a cave with no entrance.


[Image: Cave in Venezuela, photographed by Vittorio Crobu, courtesy European Space Agency].

In any case, there can also be “false positives,” Davis warns. These would be caves that appear to have been detected but that are not, in fact, real. A “stalker” of previously unknown caves might find herself misled by patches of melted snow, for example, or by other signs that wrongly give the impression of warm air rising from empty passages below.

“The best condition to search for snow melt,” Davis suggests, instead, “is with a new snowfall in midwinter with an overcast sky, since sunlight can also give false positives by shining through snow cover onto rocks and melting the snow. This is a tried-and-true method that has led to countless new caves.” It’s cave-discovery weather.

In essence, this is a process of reading the landscape: interpreting its surface features in order to gain knowledge of these other, deeper dimensions.


[Image: An artificially enlarged entrance to Carlsbad Caverns; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The next entry in the Encyclopedia is also worth reading; it is simply called “Entrances,” by William B. White. “Some caves,” White writes, continuing the strangely existential thread of Davis’s work, “may have no entrances at all.”

White adds a new category here, what he calls the “concealed entrance.”

At least from an architectural point of view, what’s interesting is that this allows White and other speleologists to challenge the idea of there being a clean dividing line between inside and outside, between a cave and the Earth’s surface.

Instead, he suggests, a cave’s entrance should actually be thought of as a transition: the “cave entrance zone,” White writes, “is, in effect, a continuous sequence of microclimates,” one that eventually leads to a point at which there is no direct access to sunlight or to rainfall.

It is only at that point that you are truly “inside” the Earth. You have transitioned to the great interior.


[Image: Photographer unknown; image via Discovery Communications].

Briefly, White also points out that cave entrances are not only unstable in the temporal sense—as Davis mentioned, cave entrances can completely disappear over time.

However, they are also unstable spatially: that is, they can physically migrate through the landscape over thousands, or even tens, of years.

Due to continual rockfall, for example, a cave entrance “not only migrates deeper into the hill but also migrates upward as rocks break away,” Davis writes. This can potentially push a cave entrance dozens and dozens of feet from its original location, while the cave itself remains stationary. Imagine a mouth migrating across your body while your stomach stands still.

Of course, this also means that an entrance to a given cave system can abruptly migrate onto someone else’s property, or that it can even pop open, suddenly and dramatically changing the value of a particular piece of land.

The next thing you know, following an unusually intense summer rainstorm, you own the entrance to a cave.

[Image: A salt cave in Israel; image via Wikipedia].

Which brings us back to Michael Koryta’s novel. There, an unexpected opening into the unstable depths of Indiana’s fictional Trapdoor complex changes the lives of many characters not just for the worse, but for the tragic.

The cave, as Koryta depicts it, is a relentless and unsympathetic thing, a space always shifting, growing organically but not alive, invisible yet ubiquitous, moving beneath the surface of the landscape, connecting parcels of land, as well as the lives—and deaths—of the characters who thought they were just idly passing time above.

(Vaguely related: Life on the Subsurface: An Interview with Penelope Boston).

Subterranean Singapore

oil
[Image: A “Cavern Breathing Unit” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

Here is another project from my reviews the other week at the Bartlett School of Architecture; this one is called Subterranean Singapore, and it is by Finbarr Fallon, produced for Unit 24, which is taught by Penelope Haralambidou, Simon Kennedy, and Michael Tite.


[Image: “Concept Breathing Towers” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

Subterranean Singapore is presented as a speculative look at massive underground residential development in the city-state of Singapore over the next few decades.


[Images: Glimpses of a “high grade recreational space within an inflatable cave unit,” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The city has run out of room to expand into the sea, and is thus forced to look downward, into the depths of the continental shelf, excavating beneath the surface of the city and heading partially out below the seabed.


[Image: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

As Fallon describes it, the project explores “the city-state of Singapore’s subterranean ambitions to suggest an imagined masterplan and spatial typology for deep-level underground living. While it may seem utopian to imagine that extensive deep living will become viable, the pressures of chronic land scarcity in Singapore may necessitate this outcome.”


[Image: The “Subterranean Development Institute: Designing Your Underground Future,” from Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The construction process is kicked off with great imperial fanfare, involving a parade of excavation machines and robot carving arms marching their way forward through clouds of confetti. There is even a celebratory pamphlet.


[Images: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The idea is not entirely science fiction, of course: Singapore is already excavating huge oil-storage facilities underground, and nearby Hong Kong is actively experimenting with the design and implementation of entire underground infrastructural zones.


[Images: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

For Fallon, however, such a proposal cannot be divorced from the question of who will be able to afford these spaces of underground luxury—complete with fish ponds, spas, and the soothing presence of exotic mechanical animals meant to bring an ironic touch of the natural world to those below.


[Image: A light-well looking down at Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

Let alone, of course, the question of human labor. Who, after all, will physically construct these things? Whose backs will be broken?


[Image: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

The accompanying film—in fact, the film is the core of the proposal—suggests that not everyone is pleased to see this triumphant underground utopia take root beneath Singapore, and hacker-saboteurs appear to take things into their own hands.

While the plot itself is not unusually complex, many of the images successfully wed the cinematic and the architectural, and were worth posting here.


[Images: From Subterranean Singapore by Finbarr Fallon, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 24].

With any luck, I’ll post a few more student projects here in the days to come; for now, don’t miss Matthew Turner’s project for a “New London Law Court.”

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.

Sea Caverns of Singapore

[Image: Singapore expands beneath the Pacific Ocean; via the BBC].

Singapore has embarked upon the excavation of an underground oil reserve, expanding the city’s industrial port beneath the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It is “no ordinary construction site,” the BBC tells us, but an elaborate project of engineering and infrastructure currently underway “several hundred feet underground, below the seabed in Singapore.”

There, workers are “laboring around the clock to carve out an enormous network of caverns that will eventually store vast amounts of oil.”

[Images: Singapore expands beneath the Pacific Ocean; via the BBC].

More specifically, “Five oil storage caverns are being dug out under the seabed of Banyan Basin, off Jurong island, a series of mostly-reclaimed islands that house most of Singapore’s petrochemical industry.”

Artificial caverns built offshore from manmade islands?

The terrestrial mechanics of Singapore’s existence are increasingly interesting, if ecologically problematic. As Pruned‘s recent look at the city’s sand-importation economy shows, the island-nation exists through a near-ceaseless act of geological accumulation, piecing itself together and expanding from the inside out using deposits of earth taken from neighboring countries.

Singapore, Pruned writes, “has been reclaiming land from the sea since the mid-1960s, expanding its total land area by nearly 25% as a result. And it’s still growing. With no hinterlands to supply it with natural resources, however, it has to import sand, the primary landfill material. But exactly where, the Singaporean government does not disclose. Its supply lines are not public information.”

Earlier this year, we looked at the idea of forensic geology, whereby even a single piece of sand can be tracked back to its terrestrial origins. As that link explains, the source of electronics-grade silicon is often deliberately occluded from public documents, treated as an industrial trade secret. Here, though, it is not microchips but internationally recognized political territory that is being mined, traded, and assembled—a black economy without audit or receipts.

Singapore’s off-the-books experiment in sovereign expansion—not through military conquest but through intelligent geotextiles, Herculean dredging projects, and, of course, new undersea caverns—is perhaps a kind of limit-case in how nation-states not only utilize natural resources but literally build themselves from the ground up (and down) as political acts of landscape architecture.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Artificial Caverns Expanding Beneath Chicago).