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Going underground: The art of the man-made burrow

The recent escape of Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo’ via a mile-long tunnel takes us down the rabbit hole of architecture’s subterranean other

The unseen race to the bottom is the hidden correlate of an architectural culture seemingly obsessed by height: the death-drive counterpart to the phallic exuberance of towers. Secret burrowers abound, however, as a recent brace of tunnels demonstrates. The escape of Mexican mafioso ‘El Chapo’ from that country’s highest security jail, via a mile-long tunnel, is the most spectacular (and also the most improbable: as Ed Vulliamy asked in the Guardian, ‘How deep inside was the escape planned, and how high up the echelons of power?’). In a literal sense, the tunnel was deep indeed: 60 feet in places, reinforced with beams, lit by electric lights, ventilated, and equipped with an improvised railway to speed the drug lord’s escape. At just over 5’6” in height, it was tailor made for the use of one (short) man. El Chapo’s jailbreak has eclipsed another high-profile escape perpetrated only last month by two violent criminals, David Sweat and Richard Matt, who fled from a maximum-security jail in upstate New York by cutting through walls and pipes with power tools, to emerge from a distant manhole cover. The process took weeks of preparation and raises questions about the complicity of prison personnel. But these were not troglodytes aiming for the netherworld: for them, an Orphic descent was just a detour on the road to freedom.

In other cases, the hole is the goal: gruesome characters in fiction such as Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, or real-life monsters like Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his victims in a dungeon beneath his house. In the infamous case of the ‘Mole Man of Hackney’, tunnelling became an art for art’s sake. William Lyttle, to use his real name, was a former civil engineer who spent four decades digging beneath his East London home before being instructed to stop by the council, after his unexplained burrowings caused the street to cave in. Lyttle was temporarily evicted in 2006 so that the area could be secured, but he died in 2010, and the artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster have since bought the property. In October last year it was announced that David Adjaye had submitted plans to the council for redeveloping the house, incorporating some of the Mole Man’s earthworks as a basement studio and sunken garden.

House of the Hackney Mole Man in 2009

House of the ‘Hackney Mole Man’ in 2009. Source: Wikimedia

The Mole Man seems unique in his anti-social mania for the subterranean, but the story is not so unusual in today’s London, as the so-called iceberg homes of the the super rich proliferate in Kensington and Chelsea. The Royal Borough is now as worm-eaten as a rotten cheese by vast basement extensions accommodating cinemas, swimming pools, bowling alleys, car museums, wine cellars and servants’ quarters. It seems probable that these basements also incorporate less publicised features such as high-security vaults for gold, art, and other valuables, and reinforced panic rooms or – why not, for the oligarch who has everything – bomb shelters. Multi-storey excavations have elicited much opprobrium from their neighbours, annoyed by noise, the risk of subsidence (in literal terms and in property prices), and motivated by just a hint of snobbery directed at non-dom nouveaux riches. In consequence, the borough has now banned the practice.

‘Our own leaders would turn tail and flee down their own tunnels given half a chance, leaving us surface-dwellers to deal with the consequence’

In Switzerland, by contrast, reinforced basements have been mandated by planning laws since the 1960s. As of 2006, there were 300,000 nuclear shelters in homes and institutions, each with armoured steel doors and ventilation systems, and 5,100 public shelters. At the same time, most households are equipped with military hardware, since up to 2006 (when a double murder led to a change in legislation) young men who completed military service were each given their own gun to take home with them. It is perhaps understandable, then, that this nation of paranoiacs is alleged to have bored gargantuan caves into the Alps in order to accommodate its infamous gold reserves – a rumour that harks back to ancient legends of dragons guarding underground hoards. It is certainly the case that the Swiss have a network of ‘aircraft caverns’, where their military planes are stored for safekeeping.

American soldier lifts the styrofoam lid of Saddam Hussein’s bolt-hole, 2003

An American soldier lifts the styrofoam lid of Saddam Hussein’s bolt-hole, 2003. Source: US Navy

All this is reminiscent of the great movie lairs designed by Ken Adam, from Blofeld’s volcano launch pad to Dr Strangelove’s war room. These were not just figments of Adam’s imagination, but responses to a very real phenomenon. During the Second World War, Hitler had his bunker and Churchill his underground war room, and in the succeeding decades such facilities multiplied, as the risk of nuclear war demanded deeper, safer and more well-equipped hideaways – such as the 35-acre facility beneath Corsham in Britain, the 10,000 square feet of tunnels beneath Iron Mountain in Massachusetts, or the alleged one million square foot complex beneath Shanghai, capable of sheltering 200,000 people. Put in this context, Paul Virilio’s 1975 Bunker Archaeology seems a lament for a happier era when all we had to worry about was conventional weaponry.

Today, all world leaders are – it is reasonable to assume – equipped with subterranean retreats, and yet one of the most popular motifs of the toppled dictator mythos is the shameful discovery in a hole. From the fevered speculation that surrounded Al Qaida’s ‘impregnable cave fortress’ in Tora Bora, alleged to accommodate 2,000 men with all mod cons including a hydroelectric power plant (and which turned out after the invasion to be just some ordinary caves), to the discovery of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi in drains, it is a truth universally acknowledged that bad men are cowards who hide down holes. But the fact is, our own leaders would turn tail and flee down their own tunnels given half a chance, leaving us surface-dwellers to deal with the consequences. In this light, the schadenfreude that greets each new iteration of the dictator-down-a-hole motif seems the surfacing of a subterranean enmity directed towards bad daddies everywhere, including our own.

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