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Below Ground Level: Creating New Spaces for Contemporary Architecture

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By Ernst von Meijenfeldt. Birkhauser, 2003. 264pp. £42.50 Why don't we build more underground buildings? It seems logical that we should begin to utilise more space, and if towers are de rigueur, then maybe building downwards is the next big thing.

While there may be very sound, positive and logical reasons for underground developments, there are often dubious, negative and irrational reasons for doing the same. Both objectives can result in fascinating architecture, but surely the former ambition is a much more credible statement of intent.

In the early days of modern underground construction, individual architects sought to retreat from life above ground. In this book, even though the resultant designs are often beautiful (the photography is very good indeed, although it often does not convey, possibly intentionally, the 'undergroundness'of the buildings), the overriding philosophy is even more defensive than in the opt-out 1960s.

Just as tower blocks are justified on how small a footprint is sterilised (but they make a major aesthetic impact on the 'natural' environment) underground architecture has come of age, whereby, theoretically, it sterilises no land at all and is effectively invisible. This is self-conscious sustainable architecture writ large, where it is so embarrassed about daring to impose itself on the public's gaze that it literally hides itself under a bushel.

In Below Ground Level we find designers who want to 'give back'something (to society, to nature), and end up with a highly moral, and moralising, architectural language. The editor romanticises the pre-Industrial Revolution period, remarking that 'the close, animistic, intuitive relationship with nature that existed made way for one of domination'. Unfortunately, the lack of clarity of some of the arguments put together in this handsome book are compounded by a poor translation. Speaking of a Dutch ring road, for example, the book says, 'the Rotterdam model could become the proverbial first sheep'. Presumably this is a good thing.

More benign chapters abstract themselves from the social consequences, although they recognise that underground developments are not yet socially acceptable. Jaap Huisman argues: 'The development of the underground - and therefore the birth of the 3D city - will only succeed if the way is paved psychologically. Users will have to perceive subterranean space as being of equal value to that above ground level.' This recognition of 'cognitive dissonance'crops up time and again, and there are interesting analyses of the problem. But, even here, Huisman defensively suggests it is necessary to challenge hostility to underground living because of a) the pressure to preserve historic cities, and b) the loss of space due to congestion.

Floris Alkemade of OMA writes interestingly about 'ground-level manipulation', integrating layers of buildings to provide more humane internal/external spatial relationships and greater integration. This is a good start to see how design can be more inventive without being overly prescriptive. Unfortunately, we are then thrust into a world reminiscent of Metropolis in an interview with Norman Foster. 'Population growth, ' he says, 'and the advent of mega cities are increasing pressure on sensitive areas. The underground has enormous potential for realising spatial benefits.'

Even though my negative reading of this chapter is open to interpretation, once again, the translation doesn't help.

Pictures of the Breda Panopticon prison by Lex Sip and the Dutch Government Buildings Agency are quite shocking but, apparently, 'the imposing views offered by the three panopticon prisons in the Netherlands are cherished by the Dutch National Trust'. Meanwhile, the images of Helsinki's Itäkeskus swimming pool (pictured) by Hyvamaki-KarhunenPakkinen Architects are a delight, blending a swimming pool with the government's requirement to construct a public nuclear bunker! It is Diederik Samwel's essay that begins to throw some intellectually researched light on the subject.

The issue of 'energy'crops up in the last section, but with an interesting twist. The known thermal benefits of underground developments are welldocumented, but here Ed Melet notes that 'proper insulation is required to prevent excessive heating of the surrounding earth'. He points out that crossventilation and pressure differentials across the underground buildings are difficult to achieve and, remarkably honestly, adds that 'it is not presently possible to allow natural outside noise to penetrate into underground buildings, which means that risk of an acoustically dead and, therefore, dismal atmosphere'.

In the last chapter, photographs of Peter Vetsch's Nine Houses in Switzerland sum up things visually.

While looking pristine, novel and challenging, on a second glance they resemble comical, pseudoorganic houses of Woody Allen's Sleeper: a dated, futuristic model whose ironic time may have come.

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