A Visitors Center for the Center of the Earth

I received a strange packet in the mail last week, full of maps and images hand-annotated with ball-point pen and partly held together with red duct tape. It implies—more than it describes—a subterranean expedition in a boat led by an unnamed explorer (“note,” it says, “expedition almost goes down the drain,” with an arrow pointing into the abyss).

[Images: Two illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, both by Gustav Doré].

The actual purpose of the elaborate packaging, however, was to announce that there is a party and “underground fundraiser” in Austin, Texas, from 6-8pm on Thursday night of this week, celebrating the opening of a (fictitious) “center of the earth visitors center” and benefiting an organization called the Austin Bat Cave, “a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids.” If you’re in the area and interested in attending, contact underground(at)austinbatcave(dot)org, and tell them that you read about it on BLDGBLOG.

[Image: Viewmaster images of the Center of the Earth Visitors Center by Legge Lewis Legge architects].

As architects Legge Lewis Legge describe their plans for this fictitious complex in Austin, it will be “a visitors’ center for a cave system recently rediscovered underneath the City of Austin, Texas.”

The labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels is only partially explored. The cave system’s first explorers noted many years ago that “some cave passageways have been observed to lead toward the very center of the earth.” Along with Austin Bat Cave, Legge Lewis Legge are concepting and designing the Center, as well as assisting with mapping and rendering cave and tunnel interiors from descriptions recorded long ago when the caves were first discovered.

The idea of a visitors center for the center of the earth is pretty fantastic design brief; I would love to see this taken up as the broader premise of an architectural challenge or summer workshop. In other words, what facility for preparing surface visitors for their forthcoming visit to the center of the earth would be most appropriate (and fun) to design? A museum of the earth’s core; a series of hands-on, experiential pressure chambers; a make-your-own-stalactites class; a mind-bogglingly elaborate series of wormhole-like passages that you crawl and squeeze your way through, for hours at a time, in preparation for the abyss that awaits you.

[Image: The Jenolan Caves in Australia; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Perhaps a worthwhile reference for any such class would be Jeff Long’s over-the-top but undeniably enjoyable, religiously-inflected science-horror novel The Descent, published back in 2001, for its proposed architectural exploration of the planet’s interior—suggesting that liberal applications of hydroponic agriculture, UV lights, and seemingly endless quantities of instant concrete could allow for an organized human “descent” into the planet.

Long writes that his underworld explorers “approached the subplanet the way America [sic] approached manned landings on the moon forty years ago, as a mission requiring life support systems, modes of transportation and access, and logistics.” Accordingly, the Army Corps of Engineers gets involved, “tasked to reinforce tunnels, devise new transport systems, drill shafts, build elevators, bore channels, and erect whole camps underground. They even paved parking lots—three thousand feet beneath the surface. Roadways were constructed through the mouths of caves.”

Apply the personal infrastructure of caving on an industrial scale; devise a visitors center for people about to embark upon an exploration of that underground world; produce a Center of the Earth reading & viewing list for the interested public; and use the whole thing as an excuse to talk about the uniquely challenging design constraints of architecture in extreme environments. The best project wins a lifetime membership at Mammoth Cave.

[Image: The way out. Jenolan Caves, Australia; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In any case, if you’re in the vicinity of Austin, Texas, consider contacting the email address, above, to find out more about the fundraiser.