The Sky Roads of Kauttua

AbrahamBosse[Image: A 17th-century engraving by Abraham Bosse, scanned from the excellent Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge by Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Louise Pelletier].

Thanks to airborne ice crystals reflecting street lights into the sky—an effect known as light pillars—the small Finnish village of Kauttua was greeted with an astral image of itself, as seen in a photo that made the rounds earlier this week. The town’s night-lit streets and buildings became uncanny constellations: the village as self-reflecting planetarium.

“How is that possible?” asks a helpful blog post by Fiona MacDonald. “When the temperature gets close to freezing,” she writes, “flat, hexagonal ice crystals can form in the air—not just up high, but also close to the ground. When this happens, these crystals essentially form a collective, giant mirror that can reflect a light source—such as a streetlight—back to the ground.” They are like ladders of light, or perhaps optical arrow chains, pulling images of our world up to space.

While the effect is already amazing, it’s worth noting that Kauttua is also the site of an ongoing search for an Iron Age village buried beneath the existing streets and property lines.

“The oldest archive source, a cadastral map from the year 1696, presents a homestead of 10 houses by the bridge leading across Eurajoki River,” we read over at Day of Archaeology. “A later cadastral map from 1790 presents large holdings of one farm at the same site and around it.” Today, however, there is little more than one surviving building, “an area of black soil” next to it, and “two light lines, presumably the earlier roads,” revealed in aerial photographs taken in 2008.

While there is obviously no connection between a lost Iron Age village and the ghostly street map that appeared in the sky over Kauttua last week, there is nonetheless something quite striking about the idea of a small village in the far north poised between two versions of itself: an underground web of old buildings and streets, now turned to black soil beneath the wheat fields, and this perfect, far more ethereal version, hovering there in a crystallography of light.

It’s almost as if a strange and other-worldly calendar exists, where, every summer, the town turns downward, scraping through soil and rock to uncover what it used to be, and then, each winter, it turns its eyes to the skies to see an inverted cartography, like some municipal zodiac, of its thriving streets.

(Thanks to Finnish novelist Hannu Rajaniemi, who first pointed this out to me on Twitter. “In Finland,” he wrote, “we make city maps in the sky out of light and snow crystals.”)

City of Buried Machines

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

A story of buried digging machines made something of an unexpected splash over at New Statesman this week, quickly becoming their weekend’s most-read article.

It turns out that all those elaborate basements and artificial show caves built for Londons’ nouveau riche have led to an interesting spatial dilemma: contractors are unable to retrieve the excavation equipment they used to produce all those huge underground extensions in the first place, and they have thus developed a technique for simply abandoning their machines underground and burying them in place.

London is thus becoming a machine cemetery, with upwards of £5 million worth of excavators now lying in state beneath the houses of the 1%. Like tools invented by M.C. Escher, these sacrificial JCBs have excavated the very holes they are then ritually entombed within, turning the city into a Celtic barrow for an age of heroic machinery.

What will future archaeologists make of these interred devices, densely packed in earth and left behind in unmarked graves?

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

As we explored here on BLDGBLOG six years ago, deep below the mansions and row houses of the city’s wealthiest residents, colossal cave adventures are taking shape: massive swimming pools, TV rooms, personal gymnasia, full-scale cinemas, and whole subterranean flats are being constructed in order to side-step strict historic preservation laws on the earth’s surface.

Pioneered by firms such as the appropriately named London Basement, these massively expanded homes now feature “playrooms and cinemas, bowling alleys and spas, wine cellars and gun rooms—and even a two-storey climbing wall,” the Guardian reported in 2012. “It is leading to a kind of iceberg architecture, a humble mansion on the surface just the visible peak of a gargantuan underworld, with subterranean possibilities only limited by the client’s imagination.”

As the architect of one such mega-basement explained, “We analyzed the planning laws and realized that they cover everything about the surface of the ground, but nothing beneath it. There was nothing whatsoever that could stop us from drilling all the way down to the south pole.”

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

Those grand old piles you see lining the streets of Belgravia thus might hide vertically sprawling domestic labyrinths and basement mazes down in the soil and clay beneath their ever-growing foundations, as home ownership fractally expands downward into the planet by way of waterproof geotextiles and carefully buttressed retaining walls.

However, these vast catacombs are by no means uncontroversial and might yet see their era come to an end due to local frustration with the disruption caused by construction crews and because of ever-growing municipal fees and penalties.

Until then, though, this abyssal impulse is surely approaching the inevitable point where we will see a private home legally redefined as a mine, a site of excavation closer in spirit to the extraction industry than private housing.

(Thanks to Martin John Callanan, Peter Flint, Paul Black, and Nicola Twilley! Meanwhile, if you like this, you might also like Subterranean Machine Resurrections)

London Laocoön

[Image: Machines slide beneath the streets, via Crossrail].

The Crossrail tunnels in London—for now, Europe’s largest construction project, scheduled to finish in 2018—continue to take shape, created in a “tunneling marathon under the streets of London” that aims to add 26 new miles of underground track for commuter rail traffic.

It’s London as Laocoön, wrapped in tunnel-boring machines, mechanical snakes that coil through their own hollow nests beneath the city.

[Image: Looking down through shafts into the subcity, via Crossrail].

What interested me the most in all this, however, was simply that fact that the first tunneling machine put to work in this round of excavation is called Phyllis—

[Image: Phyllis, via Crossrail].

—named after Phyllis Pearsall, widely (but incorrectly?) mythologized as the founder of the legendary A-Z book of London street maps.

There’s something very Psychogeography Lite™ in this, weaving your city together from below with a giant machine-needle named after the woman who (supposedly) first walked the streets of the capital, assembling her book of maps, as if the only logical direction to go, once you’ve mapped the surface of your city, is down, passing through those surfaces to explore larger and darker volumes of urban space.

Buy an Underground Kingdom

[Image: The Mole Man’s house in Hackney, via Wikipedia].

As most anyone who’s seen me give a talk over the past few years will know, I have a tendency to over-enthuse about the DIY subterranean excavations of William Lyttle, aka the Mole Man of Hackney.

Lyttle—who once quipped that “tunneling is something that should be talked about without panicking”—became internationally known for the expansive network of tunnels he dug under his East London house. The tunnels eventually became so numerous that the sidewalk in front of his house collapsed, neighbors began to joke that Lyttle might soon “come tunnelling up through the kitchen floor,” and, as a surveyor ominously relayed to an English court, “there is movement in the ground.”

From the Guardian, originally reported back in 2006:

No one knows how far the the network of burrows underneath 75-year-old William Lyttle’s house stretch. But according to the council, which used ultrasound scanners to ascertain the extent of the problem, almost half a century of nibbling dirt with a shovel and homemade pulley has hollowed out a web of tunnels and caverns, some 8m (26ft) deep, spreading up to 20m in every direction from his house.

What did he store down there? After Lyttle was forced from the house for safety reasons, inspectors discovered “skiploads of junk including the wrecks of four Renault 4 cars, a boat, scrap metal, old baths, fridges and dozens of TV sets stashed in the tunnels.”

But now the late Mole Man’s home is for sale.

[Image: An earlier Mole Man: Tunnel-Digging as a Hobby].

Alas, “most of the tunnels have been filled in” with concrete, and the house itself is all but certain to be torn down by its future owner, but I like to think that maybe, just maybe, some strange museum of subterranea could open up there, in some parallel world, complete with guided tours of the excavations below and how-to evening classes exploring the future of amateur home excavation. Curatorial residencies are offered every summer, and underground tent cities pop-up beneath the surface of the capital city, lit by candles or klieg lights, spreading out a bit more each season.

Briefly, I’m reminded of a scene from Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, in which a character named Emilio Grifalconi discovers “the remains of a table” that he hopes to salvage for use in his own home. “Its oval top, wonderfully inlaid with mother-of-pearl, was exceptionally well preserved,” Perec explains, “but its base, a massive, spindle-shaped column of grained wood, turned out to be completely worm-eaten. The worms had done their work in covert, subterranean fashion, creating innumerable ducts and microscopic channels now filled with pulverized wood. No sign of this insidious labor showed on the surface.”

Grifalconi soon realizes that “the only way of preserving the original base—hollowed out as it was, it could no longer suport the weight of the top—was to reinforce it from within; so once he had completely emptied the canals of the their wood dust by suction, he set about injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber. The operation was successful; but it quickly became apparent that, even thus strengthened, the base was too weak”—and the table would thus have to be discarded.

At which point, Grifalconi has an idea: he begins “dissolving what was left of the original wood” in the table’s base in order to “disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obsinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.”

Somewhere beneath a new building in East London, then, some handful of years from now, the Mole Man’s “fabulous arborescence” will still be down there, a vast and twisting concrete object preserved in all its tentacular sprawl, like some unacknowledged tribute to Rachel Whiteread: a buried and elephantine sculpture that shows up on radar scans of the neighborhood, recording for all posterity “the endless progressions” of Lyttle’s eccentric and mysterious life.

(Via @SubBrit. Earlier adventures in real estate on BLDGBLOG: Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church,).