Underground cities occupy a weird place in the popular imagination, caught halfway between markers of ancient civilizations, such as Petra, and the dystopian future predicted in science fiction (see Zion in The Matrix series). But despite the natural inclination to avoid the urban planning equivalent of the garden apartment, many cities, especially those with limited real estate downtown, are looking beneath the surface. Montreal has created an exemplary example of a working underground neighborhood, while the promising Lowline project in New York, which wants to create a park underneath Manhattan, offers a more hospitable vision of life in a tunnel. Whether its built as a bunker for defense or a network to connect the city, modern examples of underground dwelling fill a strange chapter in the history of construction.
SubTropolis (Kansas City, Missouri)
Hardly hidden—the development has its own logo—this huge warren of business parks carved into ancient bluffs that line the Missouri River claims to be the world’s largest underground storage facility and business park. Since opening in 1964, this constantly expanding operation, carved into former limestone mines and expanding at roughly 3.2 acres a year, has become a massive commercial success, attracting tenants such as Postal Service, the EPA, a cloud computing company, a food processing plant, and even a special firm that stores old film reels. Turns out giving up sunlight has plenty of business advantages; underground living means a constant temperature, virtually eliminating heating and cooling bills.
Burlington Underground Bunker (Corsham, United Kingdom)
Stockwell, Subterfuge, Turnstile, and Site 3: they’re all nicknames for this subterranean safe house for the British government, and all shorthand for the Cold War fear that helped fuel the creation of this grandiose bunker. Built in the ruins of an old quarry starting in the ‘50s, the elaborate refuge was designed to accommodate the entire government, civil service, and support staff. Boasting a series of massive fuel tanks, 60 miles of roads and a large underground lake, Burlington was supposedly built to be a self-sufficient home for 4,000 people, with enough supplies to last for three months. The complex was even outfitted with a telephone system and pneumatic tube system to relay messages. Luckily, it was never used for its intended purpose—especially since the advent of more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles meant the underground village could easily be taken out.
Cheyenne Mountain Complex (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
Of course, the United States also has its own Cold War secret escape bunkers. One of the most heavy-duty, Cheyenne Mountain can still stand up to one of the worst days imaginable. A complex of 15 three-story buildings spanning five acres, which includes a large medical facility, sit 2,000 feet below the surface, basically in the middle of a mountain. The entire facility has been designed to withstand an electromagnetic pulse, every structure is supported on springs to avoid earthquake damage, and it can only be accessed via 25-ton blast doors that can withstand a 30 megaton nuclear explosion. If that’s not enough insurance, Cheyenne Mountain contains a sizable 1.5 million gallon water reservoir, fuel stores, and a power generator. Formerly the main home of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the structure is now used for a variety of military and government functions, some of which are classified.
Underground City (Montreal, Canada)
Recently renamed RÉSO, a play off the French word reseau (network), this huge tunnel complex spread out underneath Quebec’s biggest city is a lot more utopian than many of the other entries on the list. The city, which now counts 20 miles of tunnels and more than 120 surface entry points, began in 1962 as passageways around and through the Place Ville-Marie, a shopping mall designed by I.M. Pei that helped hide an unsightly former rail depot. Decades later, it has expanded into a massive shopping a recreation district, including a hotel and hockey rink, and stands as one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods, most popular tourist attractions, and an escape from winter weather.
Hidden City (Berlin, Germany)
Few remnants of the Nazi era can be seen on the surface of the German capital. But underground, buried tunnels and secret spaces bear witness to some of the oversized ambitions of the Third Reich. In addition to canal systems and hundreds of bunkers, a network of tunnels, meant to help navigate the massive Germania project dreamed up by architect Albert Speer, stand as some of the few vestiges of that particular era.
Helsinki Underground City (Helsinki, Finland)
In a bid to develop within its limited footprint, this Finnish city decided to build underground a few years ago, linking shopping centers and a metro station. Currently, a swimming pool, hockey rink, and church can all be found below the surface. Construction stretches nearly 100 feet below the surface, and the city has a master plan for roughly 200 new underground projects in the works, hoping to connect the region and expand space for industrial facilities, leaving the surface free for more aesthetically pleasing development.
Dixia Cheng (Beijing, China)
While modern Beijing does have its own current network of underground bunkers and tunnels which currently serve as housing for many of the poor migrants who have moved to the city in search of work, a massive government complex and Cold War relic also takes up substantial subterranean real estate.The system of tunnels, called the Underground Great Wall, was dug by hand and meant to serve as a shelter in case of nuclear attack (the presence of a school, movie theater, and roller rink suggest they were prepping for the long haul). It’s since been turned into a tourist site.
Lowline Lab Offers a Glimpse of NYC's First Underground Park [Curbed New York]
Architecture Underground: 13 Clever Subterranean Spaces [Curbed]