Shedding Our Concrete Skin: On Bjarne Mastenbroek’s “Dig It!: Building Bound to the Ground”

By Lyra KilstonApril 1, 2022

Shedding Our Concrete Skin: On Bjarne Mastenbroek’s “Dig It!: Building Bound to the Ground”

Dig It!: Building Bound to the Ground by Bjarne Mastenbroek

IN 1971, PHILIP WYLIE wrote the teleplay for an episode of the TV series The Name of the Game entitled “L.A. 2017.” Set in a future where Los Angeles had been moved entirely underground due to lethally toxic air, the episode opens with a man driving to an environmental conference in 1971 who suddenly time-travels to 2017. He’s instantly knocked out by the contaminated atmosphere, then rescued and taken down a warren of tunnels to the surreal subterranean city. The story is one of many that have imagined salvation through underground dwelling after earth’s surface has been poisoned (for an early example, see E. M. Forster’s brilliant 1909 short story “The Machine Stops”). Tunneling down is perpetually offered as an escape route once the planet becomes unlivable, mirroring the urge to rocket upward in search of “Planet B.”

But what if tunneling was viewed differently? Instead of a dystopian split between ruined landscape and underground refuge, what if there were better ways to engage with the surface, and with better outcomes? A new book from TASCHEN, Dig It!: Building Bound to the Ground, looks at how humans have carved and dug into earth’s surface by offering a visual survey of architectural projects that “merge building and ground.” Such merging, the book argues, counteracts a long and destructive history of domination and separation from the surface (a.k.a. the natural landscape or unbuilt environment). It takes the Back to the Land movement literally, not just getting back to the land but into it.

Dutch architect Bjarne Mastenbroek, his Amsterdam-based urban planning firm SeARCH, and photographer Iwan Baan spent a decade putting Dig It! together. The book’s encyclopedic range spans thousands of years, multiple continents, and a hefty 1,400 pages. It’s organized into six sections, each of which examines a different strategy of merging: “Bury,” “Embed,” “Absorb,” “Spiral,” “Carve,” and “Mimic.” Spread across those sections are about 100 case studies illustrated by building plans and orientations to the ground, historical photographs or drawings, and a few interviews with practitioners. Baan’s colorful photo essays illuminate the sites’ everyday uses, such as scenes of pilgrims visiting a thousand-year-old church carved into the ground in Ethiopia or sunbathers lolling outside a partially subterranean museum in Lyon.

The introductory essay offers a sprawling, sometimes wildly discursive history of how buildings separate or reconnect us to nature, primarily in the West. In this telling, ancient Greek and Roman civilizations began pushing nature “further and further away,” viewing its resources as something to control. Land was something to be plowed for agriculture, dug into for defense, or pressed and polished into gardens. Eventually, the rapid urbanization following the Industrial Revolution triggered a backlash, with projects like Ebenezer Howard’s famed Garden City concept. As he explained in his 1898 book Garden Cities of To-Morrow, Howard hoped that his plan would spark “the spontaneous movement of the people from our crowded cities to the bosom of our kindly mother earth, at once the source of life, of happiness, of wealth, and of power.” In Mastenbroek’s view, the Garden City movement was formally influential, but Howard’s original vision was ultimately “watered down to an unobtrusive pastoral ideal, more of a leafy suburb than a radical alternative.”

A few decades later, however, Le Corbusier was celebrating the potential of the city as “the grip of man upon nature.” He and other modernists saw the ideal city as a rational grid of high-rises, elevating humanity above a landscape engineered into what Mastenbroek derides as a “green carpet” rolled out between efficient but sterile towers. The consequences of this separation from nature, he argues, reached a tipping point in the mid-1960s, when architecture had evolved into “highly sophisticated building envelopes separating us from our own ecosystem.” Specifically, Mastenbroek cites 1964, the year he was born, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was in wide circulation and production had begun on Jacques Tati’s film Playtime (1967), which would offer the ultimate depiction of a life constrained by the steel and glass boxes of midcentury corporate modernity. (It was also the year that Philip K. Dick published The Penultimate Truth, a science fiction novel about underground dwellers who were conned into believing that the surface of the earth had been destroyed.)

Maestenbroek’s treatment of subsequent architectural developments is by turns hopeful and horrified. The dawning awareness of the planet’s fragility in the 1960s and ’70s led to innovative proposals for ways of living more lightly on earth’s surface, using inflatable structures, lightweight geodesic domes, or DIY shelters hammered together out of salvaged scraps (à la the Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968). Mass destruction of the earth’s surface has become more innovative, too, as shown through aerial photos of the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile and the Athabasca Oil Sands Region in Canada. “All of this digging,” Mastenbroek observes, “is literally the fuel (the oil) that supports the growth of the concrete skin of the contemporary city above the ground.”

This manifesto-like introduction, which bounces across millennia, is enlivened with copious illustrations and digressions: a short section on how gunpowder caused castles and forts to recede into the ground, a survey of Land Art. A photo essays shows nature as a “romantic backdrop,” including indoor frescoes depicting trees and gardens in ancient Rome and 18th-century England, the tropical gardens of the Crystal Palace in 1851, and the mid-20th-century Farnsworth House designed by Mies van der Rohe in Illinois, whose glass walls frame the forest’s green glow. Later, a quote by Philip Johnson characterizes such methods of incorporating nature into built environments as “very expensive wallpaper.”

The themed sections — “Bury,” “Embed,” “Absorb,” etc. — offer fascinating examples of ancient and modern architecture, pulling together swaths of history, engineering methods, and social context. The section titled “Spiral” starts with a 4,000-year-old Ziggurat and ends with Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s recent Vagelos Education Center at Columbia University, wrapped in sleek ribbons of stairs and terraces. “Absorb” includes homes, a convent, and a library from the past century that permit the existing landscape to shape the design. Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro, pierced by a tree and supported by the slope of a hill in São Paolo, is a prime example. “Mimic” shows how buildings copy nature, seen in Venezuelan architect Fruto Vivas’s elevated tree-like forms used for housing or a 2009 forest observation tower built by SeARCH in the Netherlands. I enjoyed the burst of vitriol in this section against “greenwashing” buildings with “living” walls of plants, a popular strategy likely coming to a tower near you. These hanging curtains of vines or vertical quilts of succulents are derided as “token gestures,” virtue-signaling naturalness while distracting us from the building’s negative environmental impact. More very expensive wallpaper.

At times, the dizzying visual inventory makes this survey feel unwieldy. But Mastenbroek’s passion and almost manic associations can also be exhilarating, and rather colorful. Comparing the tension between building and site, he writes, “Both are snogging and tearing each other’s clothes off like teenagers, unaware of what their future might bring.” There is strength and surprise in the breadth, too, such as quotes from comedian George Carlin and psychologist B. F. Skinner, or an interview with landscape architect Diana Balmori, who the authors call a “key source of inspiration.” Balmori believed landscape design should be launched simultaneously with any architectural scheme, not brought in at the end. She embraced the idea of a “thick line” that blurred the division between architecture and landscape, telling Mastenbroek about an influential visit to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, where the garden path to the hilltop teahouse was designed to offer a gradual and deeply considered transition between realms. To her, this gentle porosity was the opposite of conventional thinking around building and landscape — a big box rimmed by an afterthought of shrubbery.

A somewhat uncomfortable aspect of the book is that projects by Mastenbroek’s own firm, SeARCH, conclude each section. Their 20 projects are lauded, in layouts replete with puffy marketing copy, while work by others occasionally gets a lashing. The firm’s projects show a long dedication to merging with various sites, from building around a glacial boulder in Rotterdam to blending into a souk in Bahrain. While it is not unusual for architects to air their unfettered philosophical views to promote their artistic vision, this format felt like a subterfuge here, smuggling a corporate retrospective into a historical tome.

The concept of “merging” may convince some architects to recalibrate their designs, and this book certainly offers a slew of provocative examples. Beyond inspiration, though, I wondered if the case studies offer a practical path forward. They are singular, un-replicable projects full of vision, ambition, and style, but they don’t necessarily address the ecological problems that Mastenbroek vigorously outlines in his introduction and in each section’s prefatory text (problems so severe that one might be tempted retreat to an underground shelter). The various examples canvassed in the book don’t seem to reach beyond their own footprints, even if such footprints are radically wedged, carved, or spiraled into the ground. In other words, we can admire a Brazilian resort embedded into a raw seaside cliff, but the embedding alone doesn’t negate the project’s other impacts.

Of course, this is a familiar quandary, and most architects acknowledge that the only truly ecological approach is to not build anything in the first place. Mastenbroek agrees, and at one point praises the igloo as the most efficient building type: it melts back into the earth without a trace. Nonetheless, as architects debate the greenest building materials, energy sources, and carbon offsets of the future, the aim of softening the line between nature and the built environment remains a vital, and deceptively simple, method of ecological repair.

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Lyra Kilston is the author of Sun Seekers: The Cure of California(Atelier Éditions, 2019). She lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Lyra Kilston is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in IconTimeWiredNext City, and KCET’s Artbound, among other publications.​

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