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.”

The Soft Spot

geoborder[Image: Close-up of the 2010 State Geologic Map of California].

An interesting story published last month in the L.A. Times explored the so-called “sweet spot” for digging tunnels along the California/Mexico border.

“Go too far west,” reporter Jason Song explained, “and the ground will be sandy and potentially soggy from the water of the Pacific Ocean. That could lead to flooding, which wouldn’t be good for the drug business. Too far east and you’ll hit a dead end of hard mountain rock.”

However, Song continues, “in a strip of land that runs between roughly the Tijuana airport and the Otay Mesa neighborhood in San Diego, there’s a sweet spot of sandstone and volcanic ash that isn’t as damp as the oceanic earth and not as unyielding as stone.”

More accurately speaking, then, it is less a sweet spot than it is a soft one, a location of potential porosity where two nations await subterranean connection. It is all a question of geology, in other words—or the drug tunnel as landscape design operation.

border[Image: Nogales/Nogales, via Google Maps].

With the very obvious caveat that this next article is set along the Arizona/Mexico border, and not in the San Diego neighborhood of Otay Mesa, it is nonetheless worth drawing attention back to an interesting article by Adam Higginbotham, written in 2012 for Bloomberg, called “The Narco Tunnels of Nogales.”

There, Higginbotham describes a world of abandoned hotel rooms in Mexico linked, by tunnel, to parking spots in the United States; of streets subsiding into otherwise unknown narco-excavations running beneath; and of an entire apartment building on the U.S. side of the border whose strategic value is only revealed later once drug tunnels begin to converge in the ground beneath it.

Here, too, though, Higginbotham also refers to “a peculiar alignment of geography and geology,” noting that the ground conditions themselves are particularly amenable to the production of cross-border subterranea.

However, the article also suggests that “the shared infrastructure of a city”—that is, Nogales, Arizona, and its international counterpart, Nogales, Mexico—already, in a sense, implies this sort of otherwise illicit connectivity. It is literally built into the fabric of each metropolis:

When the monsoons begin each summer, the rain that falls on Mexico is funneled downhill, gathering speed and force as it reaches the U.S. In the 1930s, in an attempt to control the torrent of water, U.S. engineers converted the natural arroyos in Nogales into a pair of culverts that now lie beneath two of the city’s main downtown streets, Morley Avenue and Grand Avenue. Beginning in Mexico, and running beneath the border before emerging a mile into the U.S., the huge tunnels—large enough to drive a car through—created an underground link between the two cities, and access to a network of subterranean passages beneath both that has never been fully mapped.

This rhizomatic tangle of pipes, tubes, and tunnels—only some of which are official parts of the region’s hydrological infrastructure—results in surreal events of opportunistic spelunking whereby “kids would materialize suddenly from the drainage grates,” or “you would see a sewer plate come up in the middle of the street, and five people would come up and run.”

Briefly, I’m reminded of a great anecdote from Jon Calame’s and Esther Charlesworth’s book Divided Cities, where the split metropolis of Nicosia, Cyprus, is revealed to be connected from below, served by a shared sewage plant “where all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated.” The authors interview the a local waste manager, who jokes that “the city is divided above ground but unified below.”

In any case, the full article is worth a read, but a tactical geological map revealing sites of likely future tunneling would be a genuinely fascinating artifact to see. I have to assume that ICE or Homeland Securitylet alone the cartels—already have such a thing.

(L.A. Times article originally spotted via Nate Berg).

The Voids Beneath

sinkhole[Image: Drone footage of a Cornwall garden sinkhole, via the BBC].

One of the peculiar pleasures of reading Subterranea, a magazine published by Subterranea Britannica, is catching up on British sinkhole news.

In more or less every issue, there will be tales of such things as “a mysterious collapse in a garden behind a 19th-century house,” that turns out to be a shaft leading down into a forgotten sand mine, or of “abandoned chalk mine sites” heavily eroding in winter rain storms, “resulting in roof-falls.”

“As most chalk mines are at relatively shallow depth,” Subterranea reports, “these roof-falls migrate upwards to break [the] surface as ‘crown holes’ or craters, which in the said winter [of 2013/2014] have been appearing in lawns and driveways, and even under houses, newly built in chalk districts.”

The earth deceptively hollow, the landscape around you actually a ceiling for spaces beneath.

Worryingly, many of these mines and underground quarries are difficult, if not impossible, to locate, as insufficient regulation combined with shabby documentation practices mean that there could be abandoned underground workings you might never be aware of hiding beneath your own property—until next winter’s rains kick in, that is, or the next, when you can look forward to staring out at the grass and shrubbery, with growing angst, waiting for sinkholes to appear. Rain becomes a kind of cave-finding technology.

Even in the heart of London, the underworld beckons. Last Spring, Subterranea reminds us, “a woman and her shopping trolley rather suddenly disappeared into a four metres deep hole in North End Road, Fulham.” The culprit? It “appears to have been a disused under-street coal cellar.”

Perhaps the most incredible recent example, however, comes from the town of Scorrier, in Cornwall.

shaft[Image: Photo courtesy The Sun].

There, a “deep mine shaft has appeared” beneath the patio of a house in the process of being prepped for sale. “The shaft drops approximately 300 feet deep to water but could be four or five times deeper [!] below that,” Subterranea reports. It “is a remnant of Cornwall’s tin mining industry in the 18th century.”

It is a straight vertical shaft, more like a rectangular well, yawning open behind the house.

And there are many more of these mines and quarries, still waiting to be discovered: “As mines closed,” we read, “many [mining companies] put very large blocks of timber, often old railway sleepers, across shafts and backfilled them, thinking this would be safe. Gradually all evidence of the engine houses and covered shafts disappeared from view and memory and in the past builders assumed there was nothing there. Had they consulted old maps they would have known about the shaft. The timbers rotted over the years and collapses like this often happen after long periods of rain, which they have had in this area.”

There’s something both uncanny and compelling about the idea that, with seasons of increased rainfall due to climate change, the nation’s mining industry might stage an unsettling reappearance, bursting open in subterranean splendor to swallow the surface world whole.

Think of it as an industrial-historical variation on the El Niño rains in Los Angeles—where huge storms were suspected of “unearthing more skeletal human remains” in the parched hills outside the city—only here given the horror movie ambience of murderous voids opening up beneath houses, making their abyssal presence felt after long winter nights of darkness and endless rain.

In any case, consider joining Subterranea Britannica for a subscription to Subterranea for more sinkhole news.

Secret Tunnels of England

The London Fortean Society, of all people, will be hosting a talk called “Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact” by Antony Clayton, author of the fascinating book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, on March 9. “So-called secret tunnels are a subject of perennial interest,” we read. “Are there really labyrinths of hidden passageways under our ancient buildings, towns and cities, or are these tunnel tales another seam of England’s rich folklore?” See, for example, BLDGBLOG’s earlier look at the Peterborough tunnels. There is still time to get on a waiting list for tickets. For what it’s worth, I also referred to Clayton’s book in my recent essay for The Daily Beast about the Hatton Garden heist. (Event originally spotted via @urbigenous).

Burial Grounds

Blogger Andrew Ray of Some Landscapes recently re-read The Wind in the Willows to his son, stumbling on “an intriguing passage that I’d forgotten all about, concerning Badger’s large underground home.” It is a scene where “the idea of the city has been literally buried,” where, “civilisations decline but nature endures,” an underground world of ruined architecture and vaulted halls disguised as forests.

A Model Descent

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, was once “the largest, deepest and most productive gold mine in North America,” featuring nearly 370 miles’ worth of tunnels.

Although active mining operations ceased there more than a decade ago, the vast subterranean labyrinth not only remains intact, it has also found a second life as host for a number of underground physics experiments.

[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].

These include a lab known as the Sanford Underground Research Facility, as well as a related project, the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (or DUSEL).

Had DUSEL not recently run into some potentially fatal funding problems, it “would have been the deepest underground science facility in the world.” For now, it is on hold.

[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].

There is already much to read about the experiments going on there, but one of the key projects underway is a search for dark matter. As Popular Science explained back in 2010:

Now a team of physicists and former miners has converted Homestake’s shipping warehouse into a new surface-level laboratory at the Sanford Underground Laboratory. They’ve painted the walls and baseboards white and added yellow floor lines to steer visitors around giant nitrogen tanks, locker-size computers and plastic-shrouded machine parts. Soon they will gather many of these components into the lab’s clean room and combine them into LUX, the Large Underground Xenon dark-matter detector, which they will then lower halfway down the mine, where—if all goes well—it will eventually detect the presence of a few particles of dark matter, the as-yet-undetected invisible substance that may well be what holds the universe together.

Earlier this year, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I noticed some cool photos popping up from a Brooklyn-based firm called SITU Fabrication. The images showed what appeared to be a maze of strangely angled metal parts and wires, hanging from one another in space.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by SITU Fabrication].

One of them—seen above, and resembling some sort of exploded psychogeographic map of Dante’s Inferno—was simply captioned, “#CNC milled aluminum plates for model of underground tunnel network in #SouthDakota.”

Living within walking distance of the company’s DUMBO fabrication facility, I quickly got in touch and, a few days later, stopped by to learn more.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

SITU’s Wes Rozen met me for a tour of the workshop and a firsthand introduction to the Homestake project.

The firm, he explained, already widely known for its work on complex fabrication jobs for architects and artists alike, had recently been hired to produce a 3D model of the complete Homestake tunnel network, a model that would later be installed in a visitors’ center for the mine itself.

Visitors would thus encounter this microcosm of the old mine, in lieu of physically entering the deep tunnels beneath their feet.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Individual levels of the mine, Rozen pointed out, had been milled from aluminum sheets to a high degree of accuracy; even small side-bays and dead ends were included in the metalwork.

Negative space became positive, and the effect was like looking through lace.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Further, tiny 3D-printed parts—visible in some photographs, further below—had also been made to connect each level to the next, forming arabesques and curlicues that spiraled out and back again, representing truck ramps.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The whole thing was then suspended on wires, hanging like a chandelier from the underworld, to form a cloud or curtain of subtly reflective metal.

[Image: Assembly of the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

When I showed up that day, the pieces were still being assembled; small knots of orange ribbon and pieces of blue painter’s tape marked spots that required further polish or balancing, and metal clamps held many of the wires in place.

[Images: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Seen in person, the piece is astonishingly complex, as well as physically imposing—in photographs, unfortunately, this can be difficult to capture.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

However, the sheer density of the metalwork and the often impossibly minute differences from one level of the mine to the next—not to mention, at the other extreme, the sudden outward spikes of one-off, exploratory mine shafts, shooting away from the model like blades—can still be seen here, especially in photos supplied by SITU themselves.

[Image: Assembly of the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

A few of the photos look more like humans tinkering in the undercarriage of some insectile aluminum engine, a machine from a David Cronenberg movie.

[Image: Assembling the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Which seems fitting, I suppose, as the other appropriate analogy to make here would be to the metal skeleton of a previously unknown creature, pinned up and put together again by the staff of an unnatural history museum.

[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The model is now complete and no longer in Brooklyn: it is instead on display at the Homestake visitors’ center in South Dakota, where it greets the general public from its perch above a mirror. As above, so below.

[Images: The model seen in situ, by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Again, it’s funny how hard the piece can be to photograph in full, and how quick it is to blend into its background.

This is a shame, as the intricacies of the model are both stunning and worth one’s patient attention; perhaps it would be better served hanging against a solid white background, or even just more strategically lit.

[Image: The model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].

Or, as the case may be, perhaps it’s just worth going out of your way to see the model in person.

Indeed, following the milled aluminum of one level, then down the ramps to the next, heading further out along the honeycomb of secondary shafts and galleries, and down again to the next level, and so on, ad infinitum, was an awesome and semi-hypnotic way to engage with the piece when I was able to see it up close in SITU’s Brooklyn facility.

I imagine that seeing it in its complete state in South Dakota would be no less stimulating.

(Vaguely related: Mine Machine).

Then we descend

[Image: Descending into Mammoth Cave, from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

By way of JF Ptak Science Books, I found myself reading through an old book called Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams this weekend, a travelogue from 1876 exploring subterranean landscapes around the world, including what is now Mammoth Cave National Park.

“Then we descend,” Adams writes upon his arrival at the cave, “by a small pathway excavated among the rocks, until we discover, in the sides of the mountain, and at the bottom of a funnel-shaped cavity, overgrown with verdure, an opening so low and narrow that two people can with difficulty enter at once.”

Slipping through, they pass into “a labyrinth of caves” consisting of seemingly endless sloping rooms, shafts, and corridors.

As my own phrasing there indicates, these spaces are described by way of architectural analogy: as naves and vestibules, chambers and rotundas. In fact, their perceived architectural characteristics are highlighted even on the acoustic level. One cave, for example, is a place “where the voice resounds and, lingering, reverberates, like the strain of an organ through dim cathedral aisles.”

[Image: A room in Mammoth Cave known as “The Maelstrom,” from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

Continuing on their downward trek, Adams & Co. soon wander into “a chamber nearly 320 feet in circuit, whose roof rises like the stand of an immense nave. Its form, its grandeur, its magnitude (it could accommodate five thousand persons), and the strange architectural-like stalactites which embellish it, have procured it the name of the Gothic Church.”

Indeed, standing amidst this ersatz cathedral, and “thanks to the power of imagination, and the varying influence of the light, we here distinguish all the details of a medieval nave, pillars, and columns, and corbels and ogives.”

Among many things, what interests me here is how the interior of the earth is seen as if through the haze of a projection, with architectural forms emerging where, in fact, only inhuman geological processes at work—but also, in the opposite direction, the implied observation here that, in an age of masonry construction, architecture and geology were, in effect, natural cousins, lending themselves to mutual comparison far more easily than in today’s time of glass and steel construction.

[Image: A vast underground room filled with “a silent, terrible solitude,” from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

To put this another way, many streets in Manhattan are often quite appropriately described as “canyons,” not only due to their perceived depth—that is, given the towering buildings on either side, as if pedestrians merely wander at the bottom of artificial slot canyons—but also due to the geological materials those buildings were made from.

However, following widespread transformations in global building construction, our buildings today are now more likely to be reflective—even dangerously so—or partially transparent, whether this is due to the use of glass curtain walls or shadow-annihilating polished titanium, with the effect that our urban environment is no longer particularly well-served by geological analogy.

In any case, the book’s flirtation with an architectural vocabulary is gradually abandoned as Adams and his colleagues venture deeper into the planet. They eventually find themselves standing somewhat uncomfortably surrounded by a “phantasmagoria” of black gypsum walls, all “covered with sparkling crystallizations,” in a vast room whose belittling proportions inspire feelings not of grandeur and religiosity but a kind of exhausted desolation.

Here, Adams writes, “you think yourself on one of those dead and naked planets, where mineral nature reigns in the bosom of a silent, terrible solitude; on some earth never warmed by the sun, and which is animated by no kind of life.”

[Image: An unfortunately rather low-res image from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

The rest of the book—including the image seen immediately above this sentence—ventures elsewhere, into silver mines and glacial caves, even briefly passing by way of underground “artificial ice caves” for the premodern production and storage of ice.

I’m just a sucker for subterranea. Check it out if any of this sounds up your alley, and click through the archives of JF Ptak Science Books while you’re at it.

The Landscape Architecture of Crisis

[Image: An only conceptually related photo from a volcano in Java, taken by Reuben Wu].

The invisibility of underground fires makes them particularly surreal and difficult to imagine: flames with no real room to flicker, moving slowly forward through the planet, relentlessly burning their way ever deeper into the landscape from below.

Whether that fire was caused by the ignition of a coal seam—as in Centralia or, my favorite example, in Australia’s Burning Mountain—or because subterranean strata of human-generated trash have caught fire, these events make for an especially spectral presence in the landscape. They remain entirely out of view except for the haze of their atmospheric effects, as they fill the air above with toxic gases.

This already strange phenomenon is hitting a whole new level of apocalyptic artificiality in a landfill outside St. Louis, Missouri. There, an underground fire is at risk of igniting old nuclear waste from U.S. weapons programs.

As the AP reports, “Beneath the surface of a St. Louis-area landfill lurk two things that should never meet: a slow-burning fire and a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste, separated by no more than 1,200 feet.”

It’s worth pointing out that “the waste was illegally dumped in 1973 and includes material that dates back to the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb in the 1940s.” In many ways, then, this was an obvious problem just waiting to reassert itself.

An “emergency plan” has now kicked into gear to help fend off the potentially “catastrophic event” that would occur if these two things meet—the dormant deposit of nuclear waste and the respiring event of the underground fire.

In effect, this plan is a massive undertaking of design: it is landscape architecture as a tool against crisis.

New structures called “interceptor wells” are being constructed, for example, to maintain a kind of thermal quarantine line between the fire and the nuclear waste—however, the fire already appears to have circumvented these buffers, at least according to the AP. For example, some safety reports from the site have allegedly “found radiological contamination in trees outside the landfill’s perimeter,” implying that the nuclear waste has already, in at least some capacity, entered the biosphere, and “another showed evidence that the fire has moved past two rows of interceptor wells and closer to the nuclear waste.”

Yet another report ominously claims that the management company in charge of the landfill simply “does not have this site under control.”

This slow-burning apocalypse brings to mind our earlier look at writer Robert Macfarlane’s recent work on the vocabulary we use for certain landscapes, how words come and go over time and how spatial atmospheres can be verbally communicated.

Is there a proper landscape term for a subterranean catastrophe ready to burst through the surface of the world and forever change things for the worse in its immediate vicinity?

(Thanks to Ben Brockert and Kevin Iris for the tip!)

Subterranean Saxophony

[Image: Photo by Steve Stills, courtesy of the Guardian].

Over in London later today, the Guardian explains, composer Iain Chambers will premiere a new piece of music written for an unusual urban venue: “the caverns that contain the counterweights of [London’s Tower Bridge] when it’s raised.”

The space itself has “the acoustics of a small cathedral,” Sinclair told the newspaper, citing John Cage as an influence and urging readers “to listen to environmental sounds and treat them as music,” whether it’s the rumble of a bridge being raised or the sounds of boats on the river.

In fact, Chambers will be performing one of Cage’s pieces during the show tonight—but, alas, I suspect it is not this one:

It is rumored that the final, dying words of composer John Cage were: “Make sure they play my London piece… You have to hear my London piece…” He was referring, many now believe, to a piece written for the subterranean saxophony of London’s sewers.

Read much more at the Guardian—or, even better, stop by tonight for a live performance.

(Spotted via @nicolatwilley).

Abandoned Mines, Slow Printing, and the Living Metal Residue of a Post-Human World

“High in the Pyrenees Mountains,” we read, “deep in abandoned mines, scientists discovered peculiar black shells that seem to crop up of their own accord on metal surfaces.”

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Joan Santamaría, via Eos].

No, this is not a deleted scene from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy; it’s from research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, recently reported by Eos.

It turns out that, under certain conditions, subterranean microbes can leave behind metallic deposits “as part of their natural metabolism.” Abandoned mines are apparently something of an ideal environment for this to occur within, resulting in “a rapid biomineralization process that sprouts iron-rich shells from the surface of steel structures.”

These then build up into reef-like deposits through a process analogous to 3D-printing: “Electron microscopy revealed small-scale, fiber-like crystals arranged into lines growing outward from the steel surface. The shells appear to be formed layer by layer, with crystal size and composition varying across layers.”

There are many, many interesting things to highlight here, which include but are not limited to:

Slow Printing

We could literalize the analogy used above by exploring how a controlled or guided version of this exact same process could be used as a new form of biological 3D-printing.

To put this another way, there is already a slow food movement—why not a slow printing one, as well?

Similar to the project John Becker and I explored a while back, using genetically-modified bees as living printheads, damp, metal-rich environments—microbial ovens, so to speak—could be constructed as facsimile mines inside of which particular strains of microbes and fungi would then be cultivated.

Geometric molds would be introduced as “seed-forms” to be depositionally copied by the microbes. Rather than creating the abstract, clamshell-like lumps seen in the below photograph, the microbes would be steered into particular shapes and patterns, resulting in discrete, recognizable objects.

Boom: a living 3D-printer, or a room of specially cultivated humidity and darkness out of which strange replicant tools and objects could be extracted every few years. At the very least, it would make a compelling art project—an object-reef sprouting with microbial facsimiles.

[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Nieves López-Martínez, via Eos].

Dankness Instrumentalized

Historian David Gissen has written interestingly about the idea of “dankness” in architecture.

In an article for Domus back in 2010, Gissen explained that “dankness”—or “underground humidity,” in his words, a thick atmosphere of mold, rot, and stagnation usually found inside closed, subterranean spaces—was even once posited by architectural historian Marc-Antoine Laugier as a primal catalyst for first inspiring human beings to build cleaner, better ventilated structures—that is, architecture itself, in a kind of long-term retreat from the troglodyte lifestyle of settling in caves.

Dankness, to wildly over-simply this argument, so horrified our cave-dwelling ancestors that they invented what we now call architecture—and a long chain of hygienic improvements in managing the indoor atmospheric quality of these artificial environments eventually led us to modernism.

But dankness has its uses. “While modernists generally held dankness in suspect,” Gissen writes, “a few held a certain type of affection for this atmosphere, if only because it was an object of intense scrutiny. The earliest modernist rapprochements with dankness saw it as the cradle of a mythical atmosphere, an atmosphere that preceded modernity.” The “atmospheric depths of the cellar,” Gissen then suggests, might ironically be a sign of architectural developments yet to come:

Today, in the name of environmentalism, architects are digging into the earth in an effort to release its particular climatic qualities. Passive ventilation schemes often involve underground constructions such as “labyrinths” or “thermosiphons” that release the earth’s cool and wet air. The earth that architects reach into is one that has been so technified and rationalized, so measured and considered, that it barely contains mythical or uncanny aspects. However, this return to the earth’s substrate enables other possibilities.

In any case, I am not only quoting this essay because it is interesting and deserves wider discussion; I am also quoting all this in order to suggest that dankness could also be instrumentalized, or tapped as a kind of readymade industrial process, an already available microbial atmosphere wherein metal-depositing metabolic processes pulsing away in the dankest understructures of the world could be transformed into 3D-printing facilities.

The slow printheads for long-term object replication, mentioned above, would be fueled by and dependent upon Gissen’s spaces of subterranean humidity.

Heavy Metal Compost

If it is too difficult, too unrealistic, or simply too uselessly speculative to consider the possibility of 3D-printing with microbes, you could simply eliminate the notion that this is meant to produce recognizable object-forms, and use the same process instead as a new kind of compost heap.

Similar to throwing your old banana peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, and avocado skins into a backyard compost pile, you could throw metallic waste into a Gissen Hole™ and wait for genetically-modified microbes such as these to slowly but relentlessly break it all down, leaving behind weird, clamshell-like structures of purified metal in their wake.

Cropping teams would then climb down into this subterranean recycling center—or open an airlock and step inside some sort of controlled-atmosphere facility tucked away on the industrial outskirts of town—to harvest these easily commodified lumps of metal. It’d be like foraging for mushrooms or picking strawberries.

[Image: An “ancient coral reef,” illustrated by Heinrich Harder].

The Coming Super-Reef

Finally, this also seems to suggest at least one fate awaiting the world of human construction long after humans themselves have disappeared.

Basements in the ruined cores of today’s cities will bloom in the darkness with ever-expanding metallic reefs, as the steel frames of skyscrapers and the collapsed machinery of the modern world become source material—industrial soil—for future metal-eating microbes.

Quietly, endlessly, wonderfully, the planet-spanning dankness of unmaintained subterranean infrastructure—in the depths of Shanghai, London, New York, Moscow—humidly accumulates these strange metallic shells. Reefs larger than anything alive today form, crystallized from the remains of our cities.

A hundred million years go by, and our towers are reduced to bizarre agglomerations of metal—then another hundred million years and they’ve stopped growing, now hidden beneath hundreds of meters of soil or flooded by unpredictable shifts of sea level.

Clouds of super-fish unrecognizable to today’s science swim through the grotesque arches and coils of what used to be banks and highways, apartment blocks and automobiles, monstrous and oyster-like shells whose indirect human origins no future paleontologist could realistically deduce.