Landscapes of the Void: Speculative design for tunnels, mines, cemeteries and other underground spaces

Tokyo Underground Floor prevention center

At once welcoming and foreboding, the underground realm has long captured our attention. When considered metaphorically and literally, it is simultaneously womb and tomb—infinitely expansive and claustrophobia-inducing. A well-organized infrastructure that challenges rationality by seeming outside time and space, it is also a storage space for human waste, computers, and even, in the Arctic, a plant-seed bank created in case of an apocalyptic event.

In recent years, architects and designers have increased their focus on what lies beneath us. Necessity, in part, has driven attention downward: It is estimated that by 2050, about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, where space above ground is finite. Solving the needs of these future megalopolises by continuing to build into the sky is inadequate and dangerous. Not only does the fetish for ever-taller buildings privilege visuality and surfaces, it supports an ideology that ignores earthly and human-scale problems, such as climate change and inclusive community-building. The logical conclusion of this hubristic, isolationist, and individualistic predilection—leaving Earth itself—is no longer cast as a total fantasy either.

Solving the needs of these future megalopolises by continuing to build into the sky is inadequate and dangerous. Not only does the fetish for ever-taller buildings privilege visuality and surfaces, it supports an ideology that ignores earthly and human-scale problems, such as climate change and inclusive community-building.

Underground spaces need not always be built anew. Many already exist but have been abandoned or entirely forgotten—even steps away from the GSD. As a child, Jungyoon Kim walked to kindergarten across Harvard Square, where she passed a nondescript grate each day. Decades later, she learned that this portal leads to the Brattle Tunnel, a decommissioned section of America’s oldest subway system. Opened in 1897 and completed in 1912, the Cambridge section of the subway was in part built underground as a means to preserve the landscape of the area’s historic buildings. Since it was closed in 1981, the Brattle Tunnel portion of Harvard Square Station—a 450-foot-long, 45-foot-wide, and 18-foot-high space just two feet below ground—has remained an empty and, to most, hidden chamber.

In her studio “Below and Beyond: Imagining the Future of Underground Infrastructure at Harvard Square,” Kim asks her students to imagine the site as a public space whose design is sensitive to the urban fabric at ground level as well as to the Charles River and its surrounding landscapes. “The main topic we’re dealing with is where you should open up the tunnel so that people can have access to it,” she says. “We are also reconceiving the infrastructure which was once monofunctional and illegible into something multifunctional and legible, for the pleasure of the public.”

Image of architectural section
Section by Edda Steingrimsdottir (MArch ’22), “Below and Beyond” studio.

Any speculative redesigns for this enclosed, cavernous space require attention to the location of the bedrock, the soil type, and other structural and natural concerns around the site. But these elements should not be viewed as limitations. Edda Steingrimsdottir (MArch ’22), for example, considers the area’s geothermal-rich soil as an impetus for turning the site into a heated swimming pool—a destination rather than an incidental or, as is the case for many underground sites, a transitory space. Annie Hayner (MLA ’21), looks at using the tunnel as a water passage, whether for emergency use (like Tokyo’s flood-defense systems) or as a detention area to slow down run-off caused by increases in torrential rain. This water can then be used to recharge the soil and keep it moist. The run-off could also become an aesthetic feature, echoing the Hakka Indenture Museum in Lishui, China, where an irrigation channel on the site’s roof creates a water curtain in the interior. These structural concerns demand that an ecological framework be introduced to conversations regarding urban growth.

Image of architectural section hugged by city and centered with a water collection system
Section by Annie Hayner (MLA ’21), “Below and Beyond” studio.

The students’ interventions will make legible the existence of the tunnel to those moving across Harvard Square, establishing novel relationships between them and the spaces below their feet. The same legibility issues are not present with all underground spaces, however. The vast mining pits that surround Santiago, Chile, for example, are etched into the urban fabric and in many instances draw its boundaries. “Santiago is defined by its topography,” says Danilo Martic. “The city is flat, but we’re surrounded by mountains. There are also a number of hills which have been a part of life here for hundreds of years. The Native peoples used to dwell in them. These mining holes are a nice counterpoint, making the cross-section of the valley not just a flat line with hills.”

The mountains and hills are not the only inverted relationship in the city that involves these gargantuan holes, which can be carved roughly 60 meters deep and hundreds of meters wide. The gravel, sand, and stones extracted from these sites become construction material for buildings, turning the subterranean spaces into visible marks in the earth that are materially linked to the built environment. Martic emphasizes this relationship in his studio “Landscapes of the Void: Urban Projects on Residual Topographies” with a quote by photographer Edward Burtynsky: “I remember looking at buildings made of stone, and thinking, there has to be an interesting landscape somewhere out there because these stones had to have been taken out of the quarry one block at a time.”

model and image collaged together, black and white
Collage by Michele Chen (MLA I AP ’21)

Rather than acknowledge these ecological scars as scars, current laws dictate that the holes be refilled whenever mining activity ceases, typically after a few decades. This erasure creates another type of void, because after the filling process—which can also take decades—no new buildings can be constructed on these sites. The policy compounds what was initially a brutal act against the natural environment by foreclosing many future possibilities for these spaces.

Martic asks his students to consider how these pits might be transformed and utilized in terms of their landscapes, which introduces questions of topography, planting, and programming. For many of the city’s inhabitants, the holes are embedded in their collective memory, and the sites evoke a sense of mystery. “These places are fenced off, but you can smell them, hear the machinery and the explosions, and see the dust flying and the trucks carrying sand and gravel. But you don’t see what is done there. Young people try to find out, by trespassing,” Martic says. “These sites can be just 10 meters away from your house. It’s only fair not to erase that aspect of people’s reality.”

Black and white historic image of Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market sometime between 1955-1964. Image courtesy of Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

The disappearance of collective memory also concerns Mohsen Mostafavi’s studio “Fudo/Umwelt: Devising Transformative Environments in Japan,” in the context of the underground realm’s associations with darkness, the illicit, the disruptive, and play. The project’s site and focus is the location of the now-demolished Tsukiji Fish Market. Opened in 1935, it was the world’s largest fish and seafood market and a major tourist destination in a densely packed area of shops, stalls, and restaurants. The tuna auctions and other activities of the inner market, a site of commerce and spectacle, took place at night, beginning at 3:00 a.m. and finishing by 9:00 a.m. Now, in an effort by Japan to compete as a corporate business hub against other Asian cities in particular, the 23-hectare site will become a sterile convention center, with the fish market moving to nearby Toyosu.

“This nocturnal affair happened out of view from the vast majority of people. Its operations were a little extraterritorial as well—not seen, in the dark,” explains Mostafavi. “The experience of the city was different there. The marketplace is a circumstance with its own theater and is against normative rules and regulations. With its disappearance, the citizens of Japan and tourists face certain forms of erasure because new markets, whether in Paris or Tokyo, are farther away, much bigger, and more and more hygienic, which includes not letting people inside them.”

Image of sectional drawing enclosed in black background
Section by Marie Stargala (March ’22), “Fudo/Umwelt” studio

Hygiene has been a focus of urban design and planning since the 18th century. The relationship between the Enlightenment’s obsession with cleanliness and the city began with the purgation of cemeteries from urban centers and continued, for example, with pushing prostitution and drug selling to urban peripheries. “The fish market is still a component of that argument,” says Mostafavi. “Part of its removal is the idea of not being able to bear witness to it, and part of it is also not enabling citizens to participate in situations and scenes that are thought to be not clean. It is a denial of participation in those operations of the city which make it vibrant and dynamic. When you turn the market into a convention center, you deny the theater, joy, and excitement that it offered and replace it with something that’s hermetically sealed, interior, often without windows, and where events don’t take place every day.” In contrast to the proposed convention center, students are developing projects with a range of programs, compositions, and densities. The work draws on a multiyear research project at the GSD supported by Takenaka, a major Japanese design and construction firm.

Section by Saul Kim (March II ’21), “Fudo/Umwelt” studio.

In the studio, the Tsukiji site serves as a means to examine the sectional city, which Mostafavi describes as similar to “the architectural section in that it doesn’t have to do with the facade or appearance but that which is drawn but not made visible.” This concept has particular resonance in a Japanese context, where developers have long looked to the underground as a space for retail, restaurants, and other businesses, to maximize land value. As a mode of investigation, Mostafavi first had his students transpose “more than 100 buildings, landscapes, and urban assemblages from around the world onto the site at 1:1 scale,” including civic gathering spaces such as the Shanghai Bund and London’s Barbican Centre. Through this process of montage and photo-collage, they created unexpected architectural arrangements. Each student then chose as their focus a single fragment on the site, which, Mostafavi adds, “is never completely independent of its relationship to something bigger.” Every human, animal, inanimate object, and natural system that comes into contact with that fragment, he explains, sees and interacts with that space, and through it the entire site, differently.

Illustration of colorful architectural section
Image by Isabel Chun (March I ’22)

These exercises use the palimpsest as a tool, which Mostafavi describes as enabling “the students to start imagining multiple narratives, multiple stories, and essentially multiple descriptions of that site. It’s also a form of excavation. They have to do some digging to imagine how these things might work, fit, be there.” The introduction of foreign, and in many ways unexpected, architecture onto the site in the initial montages, and the process of making them fit together, forced the students to participate in a kind of archaeology that expands the capacities of their imaginations. “Part of this studio is how one constructs the circumstances for certain forms of imagination to take place,” says Mostafavi. “We’re not just relying on the pure intuition of the students. I prefer the concrete and described to going immediately to poetic associations and references.”

The site for Mira Henry and Matthew Au’s “Underground” module also functions as a palimpsest: the Crenshaw Discount Store, located at the western border of Los Angeles’s Leimert Park neighborhood. It shares the shell of the original Grayson’s Women’s Fine Apparel (1941), designed by Victor Gruen. Adjacent to it is OneUnited Bank, notable for providing Black and brown families with home loans to combat redlining, as well as the currently under-construction Crenshaw Corridor, which involves an extension of the metro system and retail and residential developments.

While Mostafavi’s studio focuses on the relationship between the palimpsest and the strange to create new conditions of possibility for the students’ imaginations, Mira Henry and Matthew Au’s module foregrounds pleasure. Their students will design a subterranean nightclub at the Discount Store site, which in turn will inspire their designs for two street-level facades. “We’re putting on the table that there are things that are valuable but not always seen as visible. It’s a counterargument to the hyper-visuality of a lot of architectural goals,” explains Henry. The project, she says, also riffs on the relationships between the historical demographics of the neighborhood, its history filled with underground clubs intended for a specific public, Black space, and the Underground Railroad. “The building itself is a little anonymous; it doesn’t present itself,” she says. “It plays with the idea that there is some sort of discreet network, a flow of communication, a set of resources, and a culture that is not in full view.”

Image of interior scene of performance in a dark room with warm red and orange lights underneath a scaffold stage set up
“Audiencing” by Nikita Gale, presented as part of the VW Sunday Session at MoMA PS1. Image courtesy of MoMA PS1. Photo by Maria Baranova.

In contrast to Kim’s Harvard Square studio, where the relationship between the above and below ground will likely be made more legible, here the students will preserve the underground’s hiddenness. The effects of this choice, Au suggests, extend beyond the aesthetic to the social, political, and existential. “The club is out of view and can internalize itself without the external pressure of having to display or show itself,” he says. “It becomes a space where a mythology can form.”

Image of structure and colorful and reflective fabric
Images by Kyat Chin, “Underground” studio.

The party as a ritual event will serve as the genesis of that mythology. “We’re hoping to engage in a conversation about social practice and pageantry,” says Henry, who will incorporate works by artists Maurice Harris and Nikita Gale as further design inspiration to students of “highly generative and theatrical things embedded in pleasure.” She and Au also intend to probe the unique multi-sensorial aspects of nightclubs, which often invert traditional design practices and expectations due to being underground. These include limited lighting, which reduces visibility; unique lighting designs throughout the environment; and sound dampening. Together, such features create a highly embodied experience and support intimate relationships between occupants and with the elusive space. Henry hopes that “this rich interior will exist as information which, dialectically, will move in some manner to the exterior design.”

Just as the Tsukiji fish market challenged power through its perceived uncleanliness, the club’s celebration of darkness and excess counters a hegemonic demand for surveillance and control. Like the other subterranean sites explored in these studios, it also resists capitalist injunctions for regimentation and order. As we build more and more into the earth, the challenge will be to retain these spaces’ potential resistance to such forces. By treating the underground not as a space in which to copy the world above but as a unique stratum whose symbolic dimensions resist fixity, its fugitive character can enable transformative design.