“Traffic is driving me nuts!” In 2016, when Elon Musk tweeted this in frustration, it touched a raw nerve. We have all been there. Spending hours inside a static vehicle, in all kinds of inhospitable climes, losing precious time that we could spend with our family and friends.
Musk’s tweet was the germination ground for the 3 km-long underground tunnel in Los Angeles. It aims to “solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic,” says the Boring Company on its website. Lofty goal? Perhaps. LA is ranked as the worst city in the world for traffic congestion in 2016, according to global transportation statistics researcher INRIX.
In that scenario, Musk might appear like the typical American superhero, whose traumatic experience has given shape to a compelling solution – that of utilizing underground space. But he is certainly not the first to think of it.
Tunnelling technology is expensive, but for how long?
Tunnels have existed since the prehistoric era when cavemen built extensive networks for storage. During Egyptian and Roman times they facilitated movement, and in the case of Derinkuyu in Turkey, an entire underground city seems to have flourished during Byzantine times.
Today, tunnels seem to exist mostly for housing civic infrastructures like piping, sewerage, and public transportation. But why did we stop with that? The answers are many.
Currently, digging a tunnel is only possible using Tunnel Boring Machines or TBMs, behemoth machines fitted with a wheel resembling a giant pizza slicer slightly larger than that of the tunnel in diameter.
They crunch their way through the soil, rock, and other materials, pausing at regular intervals to fit in the precast concrete lining, at the painfully slow rate of 40-60 feet per day. Ten times slower than a snail as Musk reiterated.
Add to that the expense. The London Crossrail project’s final bill was around US$2.4 billion for digging 42km of tunnels. Engineers have to overcome overwhelming impediments too. Sinkholes, groundwater, massive rocks, and other geological formations are dangerous foes for engineers.
Hearteningly, tunnelling, like any other field, is constantly evolving. Modern TBMs are capable of digging larger areas, and have greater stability, reducing disruptions, thus saving costs. The Boring Company is confident that it can not only speed up processes but also innovate to enable machines to make forays beneath busy city roads without disturbing day-to-day life on the surface.
It’s no wonder then that with improved technology comes a heightened imagination that gives rise to multiple possibilities for improved transport. Singapore, for example, is expected to reveal an Underground Master Plan this year where it will outline ideas to fit an entire ecosystem of buses, trains, cars, and pedestrians.
Future of the underground
So, if transportation is going underground where are we headed? Underground cities, of course. Edouard Utudjian was way ahead of his time when he held forth on the concept of underground cities in the early 1930s. Today, we already have countries like Canada leading the way with PATH, a subterranean shopping area in Toronto, and RESO in Montreal, a maze of interlinked office towers, residential spaces, and shopping outlets. Édouard Utudjian’s ‘urbanisme souterrain’ or underground urbanism is already at play and is poised to grow as tunneling becomes cheaper. But where do all these leave architects?
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Winston Churchill remarked in 1943. Architects are extremely sentient beings who always have one finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist because well-designed architecture demands that responsive interaction between its makers and its surroundings.
The movement underground has forced architects to be unorthodox and leave traditional principles of design to the wind.
Take the incredible Casa Brutale in Lebanon, for instance. A cliffhouse wedged into the earth overlooking the mesmerizing blue of the Aegean Sea, Casa Brutale is a shining example of how life is possible below the surface.
Another structure is the Earthscraper, an inverted 300-meter deep building coming up in Mexico complete with glass ceilings expected to accommodate 5000 people.
The biggest challenge for architects then is to refrain from giving in to the comforting arms of Brutalist architecture. To not sacrifice aesthetics and design to function and practicality. This while coordinating with geologists, engineers, and civic planners to navigate the complex spatial mechanics underground.
What happens if we were to only move our traffic underground? It is spiritually and soulfully uplifting to imagine the immediate hush that will descend when there are no cars whizzing by and when a skyline is devoid of coin-like car park towers or ugly highways. Instead, imagine more green spaces that only has walkways and child-friendly zones, an azure sky that does not hide behind the thick veil of smog, and structures that can be generous with space for its inhabitants.
However, cities underground are a high possibility as tunnels and other subterranean structures are also expected to be cheaper to maintain in the long term than the ones above.
Enticing? Perhaps not. The prospect of spending many hours tucked away in a closed environment induces claustrophobic nausea. But don’t we end up doing that anyway when we sit in the cramped space of a car for prolonged periods?
It’s up to us to decide which one of these is more soul-destroying. The way we see it, at least there is light at the end of the tunnel. Enticing? Perhaps not. The prospect of spending many hours tucked away in a closed environment induces claustrophobic nausea. But don’t we end up doing that anyway when we sit in the cramped space of a car for prolonged periods?
It’s up to us to decide which one of these is more soul-destroying. The way we see it, at least there is light at the end of the tunnel.