False Safety


Sometimes, human efforts in pursuit of survival take a turn toward the ridiculous.  During the Cold War, the underground was considered the last refuge.  Subterranean chambers held perfect replicas of the government offices above, built with reinforced concrete and steel and many tons of earth.  Tunnel corridors, secret networks of exits and access points, and steel doors are still in readiness for one final outcome, but the ultimate contradiction is the unsuitability of the underground to sustain life for long periods; humans cannot tolerate indefinitely the social dysfunction arising from a confined and lightless environment.   When one stands within a cavern, it is hard to forget that the underground is the common place of burial; the croft and the crypt closest to Hades.

Entire towns in Switzerland constructed mirror-image replicas underground of above-ground civilizations to maintain operations during wartime occupations and after nuclear explosions.  By law, 110% of the current Swiss population can find safety in the caverns, handily distributed throughout the country.  Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre deMeuron describe this as “a characteristically Swiss form of urbanism, possible only in a country where the withdrawal mentality and the need for security have acquired an almost hysterical reality.”  Alternate communities below ground with streets and homes, offices and cultural facilities, proved unacceptable to most governments due to the intense allocation of resources required to build and maintain them, but families with resources created security theaters beneath their terrestrial homes, complete with shooting galleries, putting greens, and swimming pools.  These arenas of false safety have degenerated into tourist attractions, as decades have come and passed without a need to commission these glorified archives.

Human reactions to enclosure vary from mild discomfort to severe phobia – with claustrophobia as one of the most commonly reported and tenacious phobias, affecting 5-7% of the population.  Physical effects on soldiers confined within bunkers or submarines include disturbance of circadian rhythms, eye fatigue, headaches, and insomnia. 

In the struggle for survival, communal relationships dissolve and social regression ensues.  Constant, enforced contact with others provokes irritation that can flare into rage and rebellion. Anxiety about loved ones who may be separated by geography or coincidence during a catastrophe intensifies fear and helplessness.  Confined within a structure – even one designed for safekeeping – can cause an itch of resentment and apprehension which grows into a frantic urge for release.

Underground shelters oppose the tenets of sustainability through their dependence on mechanized systems: forced air, shutters, pumps, and artificial light.  These constraints result in an architecture often not worth defending.  Society will not settle for architecture of unremarkable consistency: inefficient and windowless bunkers or concrete monoliths.  The Cold War models of the 1960’s no longer represent our values, if they ever did.  No mundane or placid architecture can lift the spirit or transform a terrible experience into gratitude for deliverance.  Instead, we must utilize new technologies to provide uninterruptible services and armored envelopes above ground, with access to air and light.  The building can then defend against the new enemies: the loss of connected and compact communities, climate change, and shrinking fuel reserves.