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Triple Canopy: China’s Underground Development

December 2, 2009
I came across this Triple Canopy interview with Shu Yu, an underground planning expert based in Shanghai. I recommend reading the whole interview. Among other things, he talks about green-roof strategies being a throwback to ancient Chinese cave dwellings, Shanghai’s geothermal energy strategies, and Tokyo’s law to streamline underground construction. The interview is especially pertinent in light of China’s massive underground construction developments. Shanghai is on track to expand their 300 million square feet of underground facilities by a third. Beijing is building an underground town, which, by 2020, will cover 22,000 acres – roughly the size of Miami.
However, some of Shu Yu’s ideas at the end of the interview are unsettling. Namely, his strategies to make underground space look and feel like aboveground space:

We need to make the bodily experience of being underground not feel like you’re underground. We should change the composition of the underground environment—the space’s lighting, shadows, colors, materials, shape, and texture—so that it matches what people are used to above ground. We should change the quality and flow of air. We are also thinking of ways to introduce key elements of the natural environment underground, such as sunlight, green plants, flowing water, and small animals. If we can’t do that, we can at least project images of surface life onto the walls underground.

Shu Yu is proposing a nature-free, comprehensively technological world. There’s a kind of irony here. In many ways, underground architecture is environmental activism. Conserving energy, preserving landscapes, alleviating pollution and congestion – these are motives behind building underground. And yet, Shu Yu is proposing an environment which actually excludes the natural environment. While the engineering concepts he’s proposing are miraculous, I am imagining sci-fi anti-utopias like those “The Machine Stops” by EM Forster, or the Time Machine by HG Wells.

Colonizing the urban underground

December 1, 2009

Toronto PATH system

I’ve been thinking about how city dwellers are spending more and more time underground. Think about it: as you read this sentence, there are millions of people beneath our city streets. And they’re not just riding subways, or parking cars. They’re eating in restaurants, browsing in shopping malls, exercising in gyms, working in offices, going to classes, movies, concerts. Hundreds of thousands of people a day move through the vast pedestrian complexes beneath Montreal and Toronto. Paris has a multi-tiered complex beneath Les Halles. Berlin has a similar structure beneath Friedrichstrasse. Helsinki has over 400 buildings underground. Throughout Japan, China, Korea there are hundreds of underground concourses. The COEX Mall in Seoul accommodates 300,000 people day – that’s larger than the population of most regional cities. Many of these concourses are linked via subway or pedestrian tunnel, with the effect being a series of contiguous underground villages. But what if the whole world looked like that someday?

Montreal Underground City

With the way things are going, that image might just come true. We started building beneath our cities to save space on the surface, and because underground structures are more energy-efficient and sustainable. In the next few decades, urban populations are set to explode and the energy/climate crises will become more intractable. Look for our downward migration to continue.

So how will spending prolonged periods of time underground will affect the human race?