Can you dig it? New urban experiments in underground architecture


MARSEILLE – Half a century after the upheaval of May 1968, the City of Light of France is perhaps on the eve of another revolution, even architectural. No barricade required.

Last spring, the Paris city hall launched a call for tenders to renovate underground sites such as tunnels, reservoirs, car parks, cellars or abandoned stations. The tendering process is part of a project called the Underground secrets of Paris, through which 40 of these sites are delivered to the imagination of architects, town planners, developers, artists, landscapers or even citizen associations. Already, some 200 candidates have made proposals to create businesses, urban farms, party venues, incubators or logistics centers below the city’s surface.

“The basements are seen as service spaces or to store things necessary for the functioning of the city, for the transport networks, the sewer system, the cellars”, explains Jean-Louis Missika, deputy to the city. mayor in charge of town planning. “But just like spaces above ground, their uses are changing.”

Parisian officials expect, for example, that private car use will decrease in the French capital. “This will then free up 80% of the city’s underground parking lots,” Missika said. “So we have to start thinking now about how these places will be converted.”

What’s underneath

Urban planners have long considered Paris as a three-dimensional object that can extend, rise or gain depth. Interest in the city’s underground side also goes back a long way. The architect of the early 20th century, Edouard Utudjian, for example, was obsessed with the so-called “city of the basement”. Utudjian was also very interested in the pioneering work of August Perret on reinforced concrete, which at the time opened up new constructive horizons, allowing the construction of unpublished volumes.

For the young Utudjian, concrete has become an opportunity to put the most qualified utopians in the West to work. In the early 1930s, its underground urban planning study and coordination group included up to 400 engineers, architects, geologists, biologists and chemists, all promoting the construction of underground cinemas, parking lots and civil protection works. .

The more daring imagine entire cities sprawling out below, with multiple connections to the city above – a sort of “urban mangrove,” as architects David Mangin and Marion Girodo called it in 2016.

Some cities have already taken the plunge. For decades, Montreal has been digging under its churches, roads and towers to create the Underground city: a network of trails 32 kilometers long with galleries, stairs and vast underground spaces frequented daily by half a million people fleeing the harsh winter of Quebec. Nobody lives there, but some 1,800 shops, a museum (for Barbie) and even a race track bring this human-sized burrow to life. It is still expanding.

People are realizing the wealth that lies beneath their feet and are starting to see basements from a less technical point of view.

Elsewhere, there are more modest examples of public facilities, cultural venues or shopping centers making good use of the space hidden beneath the city’s surface. In Bolzano, in northern Italy, architects have enlarged a technology school underground, creating nine classrooms and six workshops around a central courtyard. And under Helsinki, a complex of more than 400 tunnels is growing from the first excavations carried out during the Cold War, with a capacity to house the entire population of the city (600,000 inhabitants).

The stated goal of the Finnish capital since 2011 is to reduce surface congestion by moving objects like swimming pools, hockey fields or race tracks underground, and to keep certain buildings out of sight, like the center of data installed in an old underground bunker.

“People are becoming aware of the wealth that lies beneath their feet and are starting to see basements from a less technical point of view,” said Yann Leblais, president of the Association française des tunnels et de l’Espace underground, in a recent speech.

Light the way

But are people ready to live in towns reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s? Metropolis? The filmmaker envisioned a city where impoverished workers lived below, shaking under the weight of the pleasures and luxuries of another society living above the earth.

“Everything is a question of light,” says Corinne Vezzoni, the Marseille architect who created La Fourragère, a transport hub 24 meters underground, accessible through an open breach. The opening, she explains, “offers a reassuring escape reinforced by a wall with reflective sides that guides the sun into dark recesses.”

Vezzoni is inspired by the work of his colleague Dominique Perrault, who masters the art of transforming basements. In Seoul, in 2008, the French completed Ewha Women’s University, which has 70,000 square meters of classrooms, amphitheatres, libraries, cafeterias and other venues, and has become a reference in the underground design. A large breach dug through a hill leads Ewha’s 22,000 students underground while providing both light and safety. People accept underground spaces more easily, this has been shown when they have easy access to the open air.

Complexe Desjardins in Montreal, part of the underground city – Image: GPS

“I had to dig a lot in the end,” Perrault said at a seminar in Lyon in July 2017.

The architect also designed the lighting towers and holes at the National Library of France, and has ideas Рwhich he shared last July during a visit to the think tank La Fabrique de la Cit̩ Рon how to perhaps transform the exclusive Avenue Foch in Paris , cutting out car traffic and building down, like he did for the Ewha campus.

Not to be outdone, the architects of the Mexican firm BNKR Architecture are working on an even more ambitious idea: a “skyscraper”, something like an upside-down skyscraper. The unusual project would be built in the UNESCO-listed historic district of Mexico City and descend 300 meters to create an “inverted pyramid with a central void” to illuminate its 65 floors.


Bonny J. Streater

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