The problem with underground architecture.

What we build.
Sept. 20 2006 7:31 AM

Big Digs

The problem with underground architecture.

In 2003, Congress decreed that, since the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was a "substantially completed work of civic art," the construction of any additional memorials within its confines would henceforth be prohibited. The Mall was, in effect, full. However, the same statute included a single exception to the new rule: a proposed visitor center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Perhaps aware that it was authorizing what would be the only freestanding visitor center on the Mall—the Jefferson Memorial has a small facility in its basement—Congress added a rider: "The visitor center shall be located underground."

The U.S. Capitol.
Projected view of the entrance to the U.S. Capitol's underground visitors' center

Underground buildings are all the rage. An underground extension to the Virginia State Capitol is now under construction, buried in the hill below Thomas Jefferson's classical temple. A few years ago the Texas legislature added underground office space next to its own historic capitol in Austin. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is proposing an underground parking structure to be situated beside its Greek Revival building. And the U.S. Congress is building a 500,000-square-foot visitor center beneath the East Capitol grounds. Exceeding half a billion dollars in cost, this behemoth is due for completion in 2007.

To the layman, underground buildings must seem like the perfect solution to building in a historic location. Just bury the sucker; you won't even know it's there. But constructing underground buildings is not that simple. To begin with, people have to get in and out. Military bunkers have ingeniously camouflaged entrances (especially in Hollywood films), but public buildings need plenty of doors, handicapped access, ramps, emergency egress, and exterior assembly areas. None of this can be easily hidden. The entrance to the U.S. Capitol visitor center, for example, will inevitably alter the experience of the Capitol itself. The style of the Virginia State Capitol extension (which also includes a visitor center) will be more or less Classical, so its exterior risks looking like a Jeffersonian mine entrance. All buildings—aboveground or below—need a back door, the place where trucks make deliveries and haul away the trash. Vehicle ramps are rarely attractive. The Philadelphia parking garage, for example, is to be hidden by boulders and landscaping, but cars will drive in and out. There will be stop signs, lights, noise, and other disturbances. All this is unlikely to enhance the experience of the beautiful museum next door.

The Virginia Capitol.
Projected view of the Virginia Capitol extension

Buried buildings tend to have dark and gloomy interiors, like crypts (which is why the names of the World Trade Center victims have been moved out of the underground level). Skylights can brighten the interior, but glazed structures sticking out of the ground defeat the purpose of burying the building in the first place. Horizontal skylights, like the glass blocks sometimes used in sidewalks, are more discreet and can be integrated with the surface, but while having people walking above you is OK if you're in a storage basement, it would be distracting in a commemorative space. Since skylights glow at night, they would also draw attention to the "hidden" building. Equally problematic are ventilation exhausts and other mechanical outlets.

For all these reasons, an underground building on the National Mall will hardly disappear from view. On the contrary, its presence will be felt in a dozen small ways. Leaving aside the question of why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial requires a visitor center—as a New York Times editorial pointed out, there is already a wealth of interpretive material, in museums, libraries, and the curriculums of schools and colleges—one can only view this proposal with dismay. Ironically, the buried visitor center will also undermine—literally and figuratively—the Mall's most moving subterranean memorial, that implacable, name-filled wall of black granite.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.