The entrance to Villa Vals, an Alpine resort in Switzerland built into the side of a mountain. Image via Villa Vals.
Considering the category includes bunkers, crypts and scary government installations, it’s not surprising subterranean buildings often have a slightly unsavory reputation. If it’s something you want seen, logic dictates you don’t place it at the bottom of a hole. That explains why the recently demoed Lowline concept, a proposed underground park inside an abandoned Manhattan trolley stop, has generated so much attention. The plan to redirect sunlight and create a lush green space under Manhattan literally flips our conceptions of utilizing underground space. But it’s far from the only example of imaginative designs for subterranean structures. Whether its utilizing the natural contours of a hillside, finding unexpected room for an expansion or taking advantage of the energy-saving benefits of nestling under layers of soil, numerous architects have created or renovated spaces to create beauty beneath our feet. Here is a study of creative examples that show the potential of underground architecture beyond basements, bunkers and standard train hubs.
VIA CASSIA PER SIENA, 133, 50026 SAN CASCIANO IN VAL DI PESA FI, ITALY
Science fiction writers leave the impression that once mankind is forced to grow food underground, our diets will quickly be reduced to tasteless goo. Nobody told that to the entrepreneurs behind Growing Underground, who have transformed a series of abandoned World War II bomb shelters 100 feet underneath southwest London into the world’s largest underground farm. Beneath the purplish glow of banks of LED lights, the enterprise produces delicate, pesticide-free hydroponic produce, such as pea shoots and rocket, which can move from tunnel to table any day of the year in just hours.
KRKONOŠE MOUNTAINS CENTRE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
This slashed, sloped design of this ecological center, as angular as the accent on Czech architect Petr Hájek’s name, references the jagged shape of the nearby Krkonose Mountains. Hájek designed the education center, which opened in 2013, to create a dialog with nature and provide a responsible example of construction within a national park. The sloped, bunker-like structure, technically more sunken than buried, features windows wells besides the sedum-covered roofs that allow those touring the grounds to peer inside the simple concrete and wood interior.
Archea Associates, the architects behind this expansive Tuscan winery, classify the work as a landscape project, a sensible categorization, as they’ve tucked a series of stunning terracotta-clad vaults underneath folds in the ground. Placing this type of building on a hillside, with a cellar underground, is pretty much the textbook definition of the form. Archea’s work transcends that concept, a lyrical warren of curves and cutaways that offers depth and makes the 538,000-square-foot structure seem almost organic. Comparing this project to a standard winemaking facility is like comparing a label that says “red” to the description of a top-tier sommelier, explaining a wine’s terroir and taste.
WIELICZKA SALT MINE
It’s not a showcase of modern architecture or contemporary design, but that doesn’t mean it lacks the capacity to impress. An original UNESCO World Heritage Sites, these cavernous salt mines have been augmented with carvings and artwork since Poles first began excavating here in the 13th century. New works by current artists stand beside incredible structures hewn from rock, salt artwork (including a recreation of the Last Supper) as well as crystal-like chandeliers created from salt. The mine’s chapel is also said to boast superior acoustics.
CUMBRIA UNDERGROUND HOUSE
Designed by local architect John Bodger of 2030 Architects, this two-level underground home in Northern England built into an old quarry, looks more like an earthen greenhouse, since the exposed façade features a wall of glass. Featured on the Channel 4 series Grand Designs
, it’s built “upside down” into the hillside of sandstone, shale and limestone, with the living areas on the upper level, lit by the glazed wall and a series of sun pipes.
MISSILE SILO BACHELOR PAD
Bruce Townsley, a Chicagoan who had been through his fair share of remodels, wanted a challenge, so he decided to move into a real fixer-upper: a decommissioned nuclear missile silo in the middle of Texas. In 1997, he spent $99,000 on the former home of an Atlas F missile, and transformed it into a 2,200-square-foot cylinder of a home. Within his circular abode, he has plenty of peace and quiet, as well as a fair share of stairs to navigate.
Shaped like a watch dial, the entrance to this underground Swiss chalet exudes the style and engineering expertise of the country’s signature timepieces. Guests staying at this unique example of Alpine architecture enter through a courtyard and patio that leads to the curved exterior, made from local wood and stone. Inside, the high-end interior, featuring pieces from Hella Jongerius and Studio Job, belies the reality of the space, a 72-foot long concrete tube dug into the side of a hill. Guests can take stock of the surrounding landscape, all while relaxing in a light-filled room powered by electricity generated by a nearby dam. The subterranean design also doesn’t block the views of guests at the nearby Therme Vals, the famous Peter Zumthor project.
If this half-buried residence looks like it was slotted into a slice in the ground, that’s because it was: architects from Bercy Chen Studio adapted the former brownfield site, which used to hold a Chevron pipeline, with a glass-clad, green roof-covered dwelling inspired by half-buried Native American pit homes. Atop the home, plantings seek to recreate natural prairie with grasses and dozens of type of wildflowers. Divided into two wings, the home cuts a profile resembling a spaceship, a fitting resting place for the owner, a science fiction writer.
HANNAH ARENDT SCHOOL
Local architects at Claudio Lucchin & Architetti Associati, faced with the problem of extending a school surrounded by historic buildings and a Capuchin friar’s convent, decided the best solution was to go down. The studio fit a three-story school addition into an historic city center by creating what they called a “subterranean city,” a set of classrooms and multi-colored interiors stacked up underneath a massive glass roof. The light-filled atrium in the center of Bolzano even includes a winter garden.
PARC DES CÉLESTINS
Yes, this is a parking garage, a type of structure often derided for being just a soulless stack of concrete. This triumphant twist on the form, an underground ramp spiraling underground in a series of arches, looks like some Cribs episode on overdrive. To cap off the engaging design, the creative team (architects Michel Targe and Jean-Michel Wilmotte and the artist Daniel Buren) added a mirror to the bottom of the central chamber, turning the multistory structure in to car-heavy kaleidoscope. How many parking lots deserve a music video cameo?