Can You Dig It? New Urban Experiments In Underground Architecture

Some designers can't wait to start burrowing. In Mexico, there's even talk about building an 'earthscraper.'

Model of the "earthscraper" by Bunker Arquitectura
Paul Molga

MARSEILLES — A half-century after the upheaval of May 1968, France's City of Light may be on the verge of another revolution, albeit of an architectural sort. No barricades required.

Last spring, the city government in Paris invited bids to refurbish underground sites like tunnels, reservoirs, parking lots, cellars or disused train stations. The bidding process is part of a project called the Subterranean Secrets of Paris, through which 40 such sites are being handed over to the imagination of architects, city planners, promoters, artists, landscape artists and even civic groups. Already, some 200 candidates have made proposals to create businesses, city farms, party venues, incubators or logistics centers under the city's surface.

"Underground areas are seen as service spaces or to store things needed for city operations, for the transportation networks, sewage system, cellars," says Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor in charge of city planning. "But just like spaces above ground, their uses change."

Paris officials expect, for example, that private car use will decrease in the French capital. "That then will free up 80% of the city's underground parking lots," Missika says. "So we have to start thinking now about how those places will be converted."

What lies below

City planners have long looked at Paris as a three-dimensional object that can spread, rise or gain depth. Interest in the city's subterranean side also goes back a long way. Early 20th-century architect Edouard Utudjian, for example, was obsessed with the so-called "basement city." Utudjian was also keenly interested in August Perret's pioneering work on reinforced concrete, which opened new building horizons at the time, allowing construction of unprecedented volumes.

For the young Utudjian, concrete became an opportunity to put the West's most qualified utopians to work. In the early 1930s, his Underground City Planning Study and Coordination Group included up to 400 engineers, architects, geologists, biologists and chemists all promoting construction of underground cinemas, parking lots and civil protection works.

The most daring people imagine entire cities spreading below, with multiple connections to the city above — a kind of "urban mangrove," as architects David Mangin and Marion Girodo termed it in 2016.

Some cities have already taken the leap. For decades, Montreal has been digging under its churches, roads and tower blocks to create the Underground City: a 32-kilometer long network of pathways with galleries, stairways and vast underground squares frequented daily by half a million people escaping Quebec's harsh winter. Nobody lives there, but some 1,800 shops, a museum (for Barbie) and even a race track bring this human-scale burrow to life. It is still expanding.

People are becoming aware of the wealth that's under their feet and starting to see basements from a less technical viewpoint.

Elsewhere there are more modest examples of public amenities, cultural venues or shopping centers making good use of the space hidden beneath the city surface. In Bolzano, in northern Italy, architects have extended a technology college underground, creating nine classrooms and six workshops around a central courtyard. And under Helsinki, a complex of more than 400 tunnels is being expanded from excavations first made during the Cold War, with a capacity to shelter the city's entire population (600,000 residents).

The Finish capital's stated aim since 2011 has been to reduce surface congestion by moving things like swimming pools, hockey pitches or running tracks underground, and to keep some buildings out of sight, such as the data center installed in a former underground bunker.

"People are becoming aware of the wealth that's under their feet and starting to see basements from a less technical viewpoint," Yann Leblais, the president of the French Association of Tunnels and the Subterranean Space, said in a recent speech.

Lighting the way

But are residents ready to live in cities reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis? The film director imagined a city where impoverished workers lived below, heaving under the weight of the pleasures and luxury of another society living overground.

"It's all a question of light," says Corinne Vezzoni, the Marseilles architect who created La Fourragère, a transport hub 24 meters below ground, accessible through an open gap. The opening, she explains, "offers a reassuring escape enhanced by a wall with reflective sides that guide the sun right into the dark recesses."

Vezzoni is inspired by the work of her peer Dominique Perrault, who has mastered the art of transforming basements. In Seoul, in 2008, the Frenchman completed the Ewha Women's University, which has 70,000 square meters of classrooms, lecture theaters, libraries, cafeterias and other venues, and has become a reference in subterranean design. An ample breach cut through a hill leads Ewha's 22,000 students underground while providing both light and security. People accept underground spaces more readily, it's been shown when they have easy access to the open.

Desjardins complex in Montreal, part of the Underground City — Photo: GPS

"I had to do a lot of digging in the end," Perrault told a seminar in Lyon in July 2017.

The architect also designed the light towers and holes at France's National Library, and has ideas — which he shared last July during a visit to the think tank La Fabrique de la Cité — for how to perhaps transform the exclusive Avenue Foch in Paris, by removing car traffic and building downwards, as he did for the Ewha campus.

Not to be outdone, architects with the Mexican firm BNKR Arquitectura are working on an even more ambitious idea: an "earthscraper," something like an upside-down skyscraper. The unusual project would be built in Mexico City's UNESCO listed historical district and would descend 300 meters to create an "inverted pyramid with a central void" to lights its 65 floors.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.



• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.


"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."


Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.


It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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