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The many upsides of going underground

January 07, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

WHEN it comes to architecture over the last few centuries, ambition has typically been expressed through height. Designers, companies or even nations intending to announce themselves do so with glittering facades or chest-beating, gravity-defying skyscrapers. They don't dig holes.

But the underground seems to be getting an image upgrade of late. Several recent projects -- the expanded Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, George Washington's Mount Vernon, the U.S. Congress and two sites on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. -- have either gone, or are going, underground. It's not just for James Bond villains anymore. In an increasingly built-up world, projects of all kinds are finding the answers to their design dilemmas underground.

"As more and more properties are being considered historic, it's a natural phenomenon to begin building underground," says Stephen Johnson, the L.A. architect who helped set the observatory's expansions into the Los Feliz hillside. "In other places, public spaces are treasured," and going underground allows them to survive. "There's a recognition that it's not just the structure that needs to be preserved but the setting."

Frank Gehry, the architect who will expand Philadelphia's Greek Revival museum with 80,000 square feet of new gallery space, much of it excavated beneath an existing terrace, says he's "excited" by the prospect. "It's a challenge, but a good challenge."

Gehry's decision to sign on startled some: This is an architect, after all, known for boosting the fortunes of entire cities with intensely personal sculptural designs. In this case, he says, "I liked the idea of not having to do an exterior."

Loretta Hall, whose 2003 book "Underground Buildings: More Than Meets the Eye," describes more than 100 below-grade structures in the United States and Canada, sees not only high-profile civic expansions but a "slow but steady" growth of underground offices, schools, concert halls, campus libraries and even homes. The phenomenon has sort of sneaked up on people, though. "Underground buildings have an inherent image problem," Hall writes in her book. "They don't have much visibility."

Evident or not, they're motivated by aesthetics, population density, environmentalism and rising energy prices.

Dense European and Asian countries are generally ahead of the U.S. in underground building: Tiny, populous Japan has a large warren of housing and shopping underground, and Hall estimates that between 30 million and 40 million Chinese -- roughly the population of California -- live in subterranean homes. Canada has taken a lead, especially because of its cold climate, and Montreal has more than 40 city blocks of subterranean city.

"Underground buildings," Witold Rybczynski recently wrote in Slate, "are all the rage." Could the world someday look like the one H.G. Wells' envisioned in "The Time Machine," with a race of subhuman cannibals living beneath the surface? Or, more plausibly, will underground buildings become as trendy as prefabs?

Historic precedent

GO back thousands of years and most of our ancestors lived in caves or pit houses; underground cities in Asia Minor, inhabited by early Christians, went 20 stories deep. Italian hill towns still have passageways and grottoes dating to the Middle Ages, and London has operated a subway since 1863. Carnegie Hall has had a below-ground concert hall (recently updated as Zankel Hall) since Tchaikovsky's time.

But much of the downward movement in the U.S., Hall says, is of recent vintage. She sees three quiet booms since World War II.

The first, in the immediate postwar period, was provoked by Cold War fears of nuclear attack and led to underground bomb shelters, many furnished with fallout suits and Spam. The second was sparked in the 1970s by the Arab oil embargo and escalating gas prices and connected the movement with the then-nascent push for "green architecture." Architect Malcolm Wells of the "earth-sheltered" movement was the visionary-guru, with designs that recalled the dwellings of Tolkien's hobbits.

The third wave has been hitting since the mid-'90s, Hall says, as concerns over the environment and energy efficiency have dovetailed with greater density. And this time, she says, underground builders are more successfully banishing the old memories of dank, claustrophobic, tomb-like spaces.

Doing that requires overcoming challenges that are both human and structural. People really do have a physical and psychological need for sunlight, for sensing the progression of the day and the seasons. And human life requires fresh air, which has been of mixed quality in subterranean spaces. In the past, psychological studies have detected anxiety and depression -- thought to be caused by these physical factors as well as negative associations -- in people who work underground.

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