The underground world embodies, in human history, a depreciated space par excellence, “At what point in history did we decide to attribute this bad reputation to it? […] Maybe at the time of the invention of the fear of the dark ” (Margot Baldassi, Pop-Up Urbain). Many beliefs from ancient times describe hell in the underworlds, others link it to the concept “diyu” which means the realm of the dead in Chinese beliefs. The practice of burring the dead, which is very common, is also responsible for this dark misconception. In general, there seems to be a pejorative connotation of underground space across cultures, yet in human history, it has constituted a dimension exploited by our ancestors for so many years to skip the harsh climate or as a hideout from the enemy.
As we already mentioned, despite the various negative societal beliefs about the underground space, a history witnesses the use of the undergrounds as a living environment. This even exceeds the model of troglodyte houses such as those of Matmata in Tunisia to the development of entire cities beneath the ground. These cities have conquered the underground space to become a refuge against enemy invasions. One of the most sophisticated examples when talking about underground cities is the city Derinkuyu in Cappadocia, Turkey.
The city’s layers were connected by a network of galleries as they were housing dwellings for thousands of people serving as an impassable fortress consisting of many traps for enemies. On the first floor, we can find niches for storing fodder and stables for animals. People lived in the lower levels that could reach eight underground levels. In order to survive, the inhabitants resorted to a system of wells: wells for storing water, wells for recovering rainwater and wells for ventilation. There were also spaces dug in the rocks for storing food.
This model of urbanism, which existed since the dawn of human civilization, can serve as a real urban reference in terms of underground knowledge and inspiration for future visions.
The “Manhattan of the Desert”, imagined by four French architects, is one of these visions. Designed for the city of Shibam in Yemen, a UNESCO World Heritage city, the project is inspired by the underground living style and culture of our ancestors. As it was impossible to expand the city horizontally, encircled by a wall, the idea was to exploit the subterranean space by digging under the existing houses turning them into a sort of underground reversed skyscraper, also known as “Earth-scrapers”, while respecting the authenticity of the place.
On the other hand, looking at our imaginary cultural heritage, pop-culture, in particular, shows us that underground spaces are portrayed in many fictitious universes. Fantasies, literature, and movies always manage also to reserve a place in its plot for dark caves, tunnels, and other underground phantasmagorical representations. We can refer here for example to the very famous Japanese cyberpunk manga series “AKIRA”, written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo from 1982 until 1990. The plot of the manga revolves around a secret military base buried under the construction site of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Village. Another well-known example is the British adventure horror film “The Descent”, written and directed by Neil Marshall. The film follows six women who, having entered a cave system, struggle to survive against the humanoid creatures inside.
Fortunately, pop culture sometimes, but timidly, shows passion for this dark universe and its arteries and rocky breaches. I mean who hasn’t dreamed of sharing a pizza with the Ninja Turtles in the New York city’s sewers? Or to hunt down the mystical stone in the Indian hypogea with Indiana Jones, the bad-ass archaeologist. Still, however, apart from a few exceptions, fictitious underground environments are sorely lacking a “comforting aura”.
Now for once in our time, it is not in works of popular culture that we found a prospective horizon for the rehabilitation of underground spaces. This time, it is neither for defensive reasons nor to escape the harsh climate. It is rather thanks to a range of relatively new urban practices that the groundscape of our cities seem to be gradually recovering its breath. Some metropolises have already realized that their undergrounds can contribute to urban development. In Canada and Japan, the use of underground space is now part of the city’s lifestyle. In Switzerland and Finland, effective underground urban planning is being implemented. In Moscow, Singapore and New York, projects for the development and urban valorization of the underground spaces are multiplying. The rest of the other cities that are still in the process of metropolisation are continuously in search of urban intensification and are also interested in their underground dimension and are committed to promoting this alternative. Today, given the compactness of cities and the different typologies and digging techniques, the uses of underground space have become more diverse.