Taking it underground

by Misha Lepetic

If you shut up truth, and bury it underground, it will but grow.
~Emile Zola

ScreenHunter_11 Dec. 12 10.26The underground – and particularly the urban underground – has always been a preferred site for writers and commentators to project their dystopian visions. After all, the underground has always implied illegality or illegitimacy – the underworld, while in reality transacting its business on the street or in skyscrapers far above it, has never ceased to be associated with the concealed nature of the subterranean.

Some of these visions were purely fiction, but nevertheless instructive. Around the turn of the last century, two works come to mind: E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) imagines a techno-dystopia where the population not only lives almost exclusively underground, but physical contact is shunned in favour of an experience that is wholly technologically mediated. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) held an even more gruesome intimation – the underground race of the Morlocks operated the machinery that enabled the peaceful and passive surface-dwelling Eloi to prosper; in turn, the Eloi served as an uncomplaining and plentiful food source for the subterraneans.

More recently, authors have mined the actual depths of our cities, and have constructed the world beneath our feet as a specific urban form. Some, like Margaret Morton’s Tunnel, are legitimate documents of underground misery. Others are largely fabrications that exploit our desire to believe that all sorts of unfortunate histories are unspooling themselves beneath our privileged lives. How could it be otherwise? All those homeless and crazy people have to go somewhere, and wouldn’t it be nice if they all congregated in their own communities, but had the tact to do it at a graceful remove from ourselves?

However, for architects and designers, what lies beneath the city is temptation. Especially for cities that formerly had nowhere to go but up, and have exhausted that resource, there remains increasingly nowhere else to go, but down. Thus a new form is not being co-created out necessity and survival, as above, but is being deliberately designed. What kind of a new form is this, and what are its chances of success?

Keen observers such as William Whyte are wary of the consequences of even designing open spaces below the street level, let alone underground. In his supremely enjoyable and crystal-clear documentary, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte looks at what makes any urban public space effective. In the case of spaces recessed below the street, our abiding anxiety of leaving ground level discourages participation in what seem like otherwise well-designed spaces.

Unless there is a compelling reason, don’t sink [plazas] down or put them way up…Most sunken plazas are empty – or nearly empty – most of the time. The action is up top, on the street. But what about Rockefeller Plaza? It’s sunken and it’s very popular. So it is. But look carefully, and you will see that most people are up top, looking down. It’s an amphitheatre, and the people down below are the show…People looking at people, looking at other people.

47_50b18But there is more to Rockefeller Center than the fabled skating rink and its gallery of gawkers. The underground shopping arcade, part of the original 1933 Art Deco plan, was, in 1999, characterized by the Times as mostly unsuccessful: “Since 1933 the Art Deco labyrinth has been traversed by millions of office workers, out-of-towners and subway shortcutters. But for years many shoppers and merchants have seen the concourse not as a potentially exciting retail universe underlying an architectural icon, but as something else: a basement.”

Much to the chagrin of preservationists, the developers went ahead with a redesign that destroyed much of the original Art Deco sensibility, although I must say that the aesthetic’s spirit remains intact. What is more germane, however, is to ask, Does the space work? In my opinion, it does not. Its labyrinthine character is still dominant and anxiety-inducing, and the ceilings are sufficiently low that one feels on one’s shoulders the weight of the skyscrapers above. Whyte’s cornerstone observation, that a successful urban public space facilitates what city-dwellers are most interested in doing – watching other people – is something that one can only engage when one leaves the concourse, heads up to street level, and joins the rest of the people watching the skaters. The best one can do in the concourse itself is shop, and scurry along, although most people seem to do only the latter.

Failed subterranean sites are not exempt from radical design triage; like any intervention, this triage is J-1-.C.Gaudrand--Chute-d-un-toit--les-Halles-Baltard--1971an ongoing feature of the ongoing discourse of urban renewal and redevelopment. This is as it should be. However, much of our pain seems to be entirely self-inflicted. The notorious razing of New York’s Penn Station led to the construction of Madison Square Garden and the unceremonious shoving-under of Penn Station, a design so awful that architect Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in its men’s room in 1974. It remains virtually unchanged today and hopes for converting the nearby post office are mired in red tape and budgetary crises. The only act of architectural destruction perhaps equal to the razing of Penn Station occurred in Paris in 1971, when the market at Les Halles, affectionately anointed by Zola as “the stomach of Paris”, was replaced by a street-level park and four floors of underground shopping. What was the consequence? Carolyn Steel writes in Hungry City that

the citizens of Paris…have had over three decades to lament the loss of Les Halles, the beauty of which put even Covent Garden in the shade. Its fabled glass and iron halls were demolished to make room for an underground shopping centre whose chief contribution to the urban landscape is a series of giant plastic tubes descending into a gaping pit: a desolate, crime-ridden wasteland in the heart of the city.

Like Rockefeller Center, Forum des Halles is in the heart of the city, and is co-located with a significant public transit hub, in this case the Châtelet-Les-Halles. But as with Rockefeller Center’s basement concourse, this confluence of factors is insufficient to guarantee its participation as a vital aspect of the urban fabric. The Project for Public Spaces, whose founding was inspired by Whyte’s work, lists the Forum des Halles on its Hall of Shame for public parks:

Forum des Halles is essentially a subterranean mall; it completely disorients you from the real city on the surface. To experience a city is to be aware of one place flowing into another, to encounter a staggering variety of stimuli continually flowing all around you. But traversing Forum des Halles is a deadening experience; every time through we have been gripped by the urge to leave as quickly as possible.

It is covered aboveground by a park that no one ever seems to visit, consisting of a fussy, unconnected set of elements. We encountered the ultimate sign of a failed space at one of the entranceways, where we found some of the most overt drug-dealing we have ever witnessed in Paris.

Barcelona_mercats_markets2Paris has not stopped trying to fix Les Halles. In 2007, a design competition won by local architects promised a €120 million overhaul that would see shopping – if not the market – restored to the street level (although in this regard Barcelona’s Santa Caterina market sets the bar extremely high). While the project was intended to be completed by 2012, as of late 2010,

resistance has sprung up surprisingly to protect the adjacent garden, and is now threatening the whole redevelopment program.

Work was planned to start in May, but a court suspended it after a group of residents appealed against the destruction of the much-loved Lalanne garden, a rare oasis of vegetation in a city where green spaces are scarce.

“It's the destruction of a now mature garden. The felling of 343 trees in an urban environment really hurts,” Gilles Pourbaix, the president of local residents' group Accomplir, told Reuters on the terrace of the Pere Tranquille cafe.

In this way, even a design widely acknowledged by the local community and government as a failure, manages to paradoxically generate the circumstances that further propagate its own permanence. One ought to also note that there is a significant difference between the idea of a ‘market’ and ‘shopping’ in the sense that the former is participatory and generative of the urban experience, whereas the latter revolves around consumption and is fundamentally transactional. Since the 1971 demolition removed the market (to Orly) and replaced it with shopping, one would do well to question whether any re-design could recapture the vitality that Les Halles once had (one can witness the same transformation being wrought with the displacement of the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan; the replacement is indisputably shopping, and the area is the poorer for it. This difference and the ensuing loss is especially poignant when the New Amsterdam Market makes its weekly appearance nearby).

This dismal record, however, has not stopped people from trying to revive disused underground places. In Washington, DC, discussions are under way to pressgang a series of abandoned train tunnels beneath Dupont Circle back into service. Note the similarities to both Les Halles and Rockefeller Center: all three sites are in the center of their respective cities, and all three sites have access to an extremely busy public transit artery – in the last case, the Dupont Circle stop of the DC Metro. Nevertheless, the tunnels beneath Dupont Circle have already proven immune to development:

In the mid-1990s a developer named Geary Simon opened a dreary food court called Dupont Down Under in the 75,000 square-foot space, but the project was shuttered just 15 months later amid a flurry of lawsuits. After evicting Simon for failure to pay rent, the city ended up stuck in court on the matter for years, the lease eventually transferring to one of Simon's subtenants, a health club chain that opted never to develop the tunnels.

The hope of the groups intent on developing this area now rest on creating an arts and culture scene, replete with galleries, a performance center, eateries and the ubiquitous “major retail anchor.”

20111122_337_LOWLINE-slide-1LYQ-articleLargeIn New York, a similar effort is under way on the Lower East Side. With the runaway success of the High Line, the boosters of this project have craftily dubbed their project the Low Line. More interestingly, one of their proposals is to use fibre-optic cables to shuttle natural light underground, which, in conjunction with the 20-foot high ceilings, gives the space a fighting chance of providing the kind of fluid space that will allow for the kind of milieu that Whyte found successful.

But even a great design can be tripped up by funding shortfalls and bureaucratic complexities. For example, for the Dupont Circle project, “while the District of Columbia owns the tunnels themselves, many of the logical entrances to the underground space lay in the middle of small parks, like Dupont Circle itself, that are controlled by the National Park Service. And…there is no shortage of historic preservation forces ready to pounce on anything that doesn't conform to the classical ideal of the federal city.” In the case of the Low Line, the entire property is owned by the MTA, and the designers have received helpful news from a senior official, who simply stated, “We’re looking at it very seriously because we need the money.” At least on a city level, there are few things that focus the mind like a budget crisis.

The subtler peril of these projects, however, is the challenge that they extend to designers and citizens. TheArbors3To repeat the observation made by the Project for Public Spaces, “To experience a city is to be aware of one place flowing into another, to encounter a staggering variety of stimuli continually flowing all around you.” By definition, subterranean places are already segregated from the city. Few points of entry lead into a nearly complete isolation from the rest of the urban fabric (this was the genius of the High Line – it was already integrated into the city, and in a completely unique way. It was up to the designers to accentuate this attribute; there was no need to create it). This isolation incites designers to create a total experience, thereby denying the generative capacities of a market. In fact, the subterranean site conforms neatly into Martin Murray’s conceptualization of a postmodern urban form, which looks at cities as

characterized by the partition…into gentrified ‘renaissance sites’ of privatized luxury, on the one hand, and impoverished spaces of confinement where the poor, the ‘socially excluded’, and the homeless are forced to survive, on the other…The exponential expansion of such fortified enclaves as gated residential communities, enclosed shopping malls, cocooned office complexes and luxury entertainment sites offers a globally tested mechanism for the propertied middle classes to insulate themselves from the threats – real or imagined – to their physical security and sense of well-being. (p9)

While Murray’s concern is with the kind of security-obsessed enclaves springing up in emerging world-class cities like Johannesburg and São Paulo, it is apparent that the anxiety of going underground, inculculated in us as a species, that will likely lead to even greater security and surveillance in these environments. And it is certainly ironic that the class of undesirables documented by Margaret Morton might very well be the neighbors to – or perhaps even be displaced by – such developments. In the end, it might be useful to ask ourselves, What would be so undesirable about leaving these structures to humble but useful functions, such as growing mushrooms – or even just to the past itself?