Smarter Cities

Subterranean Future: Top Architect On Brains And Beauty Of Underground Buildings

France's star architect Dominique Perrault is focusing his attention downward: "We come from the earth and we shouldn't be afraid of it..."

Ewha Womans University's central underground building, Seoul
Yelmarc Roulet

GENEVA — The brand-new glass door to the office is marked DPA — for Dominique Perrault Architecture. The renowned French architect has hung his shingle in Geneva, specifically on an unattractive street in the industrial outskirts, near the Vernier oil warehouses.

For the designer of France’s National Library building, the start of the academic year has been very Swiss. A mixed-use tower in Fribourg, a new neighborhood around the train station in Lugano-Muralto and a complex development in Zurich.

He is also joining the faculty of the Lausanne Institute of Technology, but not just to be near his various Swiss projects. He is the inaugural appointment to a new chair dedicated to underground architecture. It’s a promising domain in Switzerland, where buildable land is nearly exhausted.

“Ignored and rejected, what’s below our cities is a vital treasure,” school officials said in announcing the new chair. Le Temps spoke with Perrault to learn more about the possibilities of underground developments.

Le Temps: How did this interest in underground construction come about, and how have you explored it over the course of your career?

DOMINIQUE PERRAULT: In hindsight, I see a connection between the architectural concepts that I’ve worked on extensively, the majority of which have been completed. At the French National Library (completed in 1995), you only see the tip of the iceberg. Three-quarters of the building’s volume is underground, and the gardens are 14 meters below the surface of the Seine. The velodrome and olympic pool in Berlin (1999) were even more radical. From ground level, you only see the roof, and there is an apple orchard planted around it. More recently, the Women’s University of Seoul (2008) is a valley dug into a hillside. We are always constructing a landscape.

When we are talking about underground architecture, it sounds like it’s better to talk about a concrete discipline, not a utopian vision?
You could push it to utopia, but it’s really a very pragmatic discipline. By building underground, the Women’s University in Seoul was able reduce its energy use by 60 percent compared to a traditional building, thanks to the insulation provided by the soil and Canadian well technology that allows the building to use natural heating and air conditioning. That’s the ecological advantage of this type of construction. The other major advantage is to free up surface space to prevent the built world from expanding to infinity.

The Lausanne Institute of Technology has also developed the concept of a “Deep City” to take advantage of buildable spaces underground. Are these two components of the same discipline?
They complement each other. There has barely been any coherent theoretical development regarding the subterranean, just very fragmented approaches. The “above” and “below” camps are quite separate today, but that was not the case in 19th century cities. Haussmanian Paris developed a harmonious relationship between the services above ground and the networks in the basement. Cities need to re-discover that harmony. We can create more density by building up, but also by building underground. Underground density has the advantage of being invisible and not causing the city to lose breathing room. Quite the opposite — it creates empty space.

What should be put in the basement?
At the base of buildings, at a depth of up to 10 or 20 meters, we can put complementary services. Or storage facilities — for example for packages for an e-business — for whom the current delivery system requires intense traffic from polluting trucks. We could get the merchandise closer to its destination.

You also envision applying subterranean building to residential buildings, but how exactly?
In our project in the industrial region of Geneva, we are developing a web of apartment blocks with a central garden that is one floor below street level. That is already underground! The apartments will look out on the garden from one floor higher than they will look out on the street, which will make for very handsome residences. We’re on even terrain, but it doesn’t create a feeling of vertigo. It’s not about creating anxiety. We have lost our relationship with the ground by building everything totally flat. The ground has become a part of the landscape that is reserved for cars and machines. But we come from the earth and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. We celebrate our reunion with the ground!

Should cities develop a plan for underground urban development as opposed to piecemeal underground construction?
Absolutely! Osaka and Montreal both know how to build an underground city, undoubtedly because of the cold. Here, we are learning to transform subway stations into urban environments. That’s what we are doing at the moment at the Naples train station, making natural light penetrate 40 meters below ground. The underground network is too frequently developed in isolation.

What specifically are you going to teach at the Lausanne Institute of Technology?
I would like to allow young architects to widen the field of their discipline, to invest in the subterranean as an element of urban life, of architecture and as an element of environmental quality. Perhaps the basement, which is often a rejected space, can be brought to the forefront.

The Lausanne Institute of Technology has just completed a sprawling extension, called the Learning Center, that is not exactly an example of an economic use of the ground. Would you have built it differently?
No. It’s important to have visible connections between the fields of instruction on a campus. In addition, the building plays with the terrain as well, because you can walk underneath it. But my students and I are working on subterranean spaces on campus meant for common use. I am going to invite civil engineers, doctors and biologists to holistically address the underground city and its viability.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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