Hexagonal Hydropolis

[Image: From Sietch Nevada by Matsys; renderings by Nenad Katic].

Andrew Kudless of Matsys recently proposed an extraordinary desert city of semi-subterranean terraces inspired by the novel Dune.

The images are fantastic, and the project description hooked me right away:

In Frank Herbert’s famous 1965 novel Dune, he describes a planet that has undergone nearly complete desertification. Dune has been called the “first planetary ecology novel” and forecasts a dystopian world without water. The few remaining inhabitants have secluded themselves from their harsh environment in what could be called subterranean oasises. Far from idyllic, these havens, known as sietch, are essentially underground water storage banks. Water is wealth in this alternate reality. It is preciously conserved, rationed with strict authority, and secretly hidden and protected.

The rest of the project combines an interest in drought hydropolitics in the U.S. southwest with the speculative architecture of “underground water banks.”

[Image: From Sietch Nevada by Matsys; renderings by Nenad Katic].

Continuing to quote at length:

Although this science fiction novel sounded alien in 1965, the concept of a water-poor world is quickly becoming a reality, especially in the American Southwest. Lured by cheap land and the promise of endless water via the powerful Colorado River, millions have made this area their home. However, the Colorado River has been desiccated by both heavy agricultural use and global warming to the point that it now ends in an intermittent trickle in Baja California. Towns that once relied on the river for water have increasingly begun to create underground water banks for use in emergency drought conditions. However, as droughts are becoming more frequent and severe, these water banks will become more than simply emergency precautions.

Accordingly, Kudless suggests that “waterbanking” will become “the fundamental factor in future urban infrastructure in the American Southwest.”

In this context, I would unhesitatingly recommend Marc Reisner’s classic book Cadillac Desert – the first hydrological page-turner I’ve ever read – as well as James Lawrence Powell’s recent Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West (which I reviewed for The Wilson Quarterly earlier this year). Those two books are ideal references for Matsys’s project, as they each supply countless examples of hubristic, quasi-imperial waterbanking projects – projects that might still be functioning today but that are doomed, the authors convincingly show, to eventual dehydration.

Powell, in particular, offers genuinely disturbing descriptions of the looming silt-deposits that have accumulated behind the dams of the American west, amongst often extraordinarily poetic overviews of these dams’ inevitable failure. “One day every trace of the dams and their reservoirs will be gone,” Powell writes, “a few exotic grains of concrete the only evidence of their one-time existence.”

[Image: Matsys’s Sietch Nevada as seen from above; renderings by Nenad Katic].

In any case, the proposal seen here is “an urban prototype,” we read, “that makes the storage, use, and collection of water essential to the form and performance of urban life.”

A network of storage canals is covered with undulating residential and commercial structures. These canals connect the city with vast aquifers deep underground and provide transportation as well as agricultural irrigation. The caverns brim with dense, urban life: an underground Venice. Cellular in form, these structures constitute a new neighborhood typology that mediates between the subterranean urban network and the surface level activities of water harvesting, energy generation, and urban agriculture and aquaculture. However, the Sietch is also a bunker-like fortress preparing for the inevitable wars over water in the region.

Check out the full project on Matsys’s own website – and, while you’re there, the entire project database is worth a spin.

(Spotted on Architecture MNP. And read Dune!)

The Great Man-Made River

Libya’s Great Man-Made River is “an enormous, long-term undertaking to supply the country’s needs by drawing water from aquifers beneath the Sahara and conveying it along a network of huge underground pipes.”

[Images: The concrete skeleton of Libya’s future river, the “8th wonder of the world,” being trucked into place; photographed by Jaap Berk].

Not only does Libya bear the distinction of holding the world record for hottest recorded temperature (136º F), but most of the country’s terrain is “agriculturally useless desert” that receives little or no rainfall. The Great Man-Made River may not even successfully irrigate Libya’s governmentally-specified agricultural zones, but due to the region’s complete “absence of permanent rivers or streams” – and because the country’s “approximately twenty perennial lakes are brackish or salty” – the River’s expected 50-100 year lifespan is at least a start.

Indeed, Libya’s “limited water is considered of sufficient importance to warrant the existence of the Secretariat of Dams and Water Resources, and damaging a source of water can be penalized by a heavy fine or imprisonment.” George Orwell would perhaps call this watercrime.

However, I have to say that the prospect of spelunking through the Great Man-Made River’s subterranean galleries in 125 years, once those tunnels have dried-up, makes the brain reel. Imagine Shelleys of the 22nd century wandering through those ruins, notebooks in hand, taking photographs, footsteps echoing rhythmically beneath the dunes as they walk for a thousand kilometers toward the sea…

Yet some are skeptical of the project’s real purpose. Precisely because the Great Man-Made River consists of “a stupendous network of underground tunnels and caverns built with the help of Western firms to run the length and width of the country,” some consultants and engineers “have revealed their suspicion that such facilities were not meant to move water, but rather to conceal the movement and location of military-related activities.” The fact that water is flowing through some of the pipes, in other words, is just an elaborate ruse…

In any case, the Great Man-Made River Authority – “entrusted with the implementation and operation of the world’s largest pre-stressed concrete pipe project” – is already seeing some results.

The network will criss-cross most of the country –

– and Phase III is under construction even as this post goes online.

Meanwhile, for more information on deep desert hydrology see UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme or even Wikipedia.

Of course, you could also turn to J.G. Ballard, whose twenty year-old novel The Day of Creation is: 1) not very good, and 2) about a man who is “seized by the vision of a third Nile whose warm tributaries covered the entire Sahara.” That river will thus “make the Sahara bloom.” The book was modestly reviewed by Samuel Delany, if you want to know more.

On the other hand, I would actually recommend Dune – assuming you like science fiction.

[Image: A new river is born, excavated from the surface of the desert: soon the pipes will be installed and the currents will start to flow…].