These Badass Underground Cities Kinda Make Us Want to Live in a Cave
This is landscape architecture we can actually use.
Over the course of this prolonged period of modified quarantine, many Americans have compared their situation to "living underground." Well, the good people of Coober Pedy, Australia will kindly ask you to hold their beer: they're among the many civilizations that have burrowed into the earth to find home.
Humans have been seeking refuge underground for centuries, digging sprawling cities into mountainsides, setting up shop in caves, and even establishing full-on subterranean cities. Some were strategically built to defend against the elements. Others repurposed old tunnels into affordable housing. And some, it turns out, are paving the way to a sustainable future. Here are the coolest -- sometimes literally -- civilizations that have turned the landscape into actual architecture.
Coober Pedy, Australia
Probably the most well-known destination on this list, Coober Pedy has served as backdrop for a handful of major motion pictures throughout the years. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Red Planet; and, um, Kangaroo Jack all filmed scenes in this remote stretch of South Australia. Many of the town’s 1,800 residents find employment in the opal-mining industry. When they’re not working, they prefer to stay underground just the same. The scorching desert sun drives high temperatures here well into the triple-digits for nine months of the year. Most locals find relief in the earth through multiple-room domiciles aptly named "dugouts." Even if you don’t call the place home, you still can live underneath Down Under by booking a subterranean suite at the Comfort Inn.
You might recognize the Berber village of Matmata as the childhood home of one Luke Skywalker. Back in 1976, it doubled as Tatooine in the original Star Wars. But it remains the real-life abode of nomadic cave-dwellers who have roamed the region for hundreds of years. Their houses, known as troglodytes, were carved into the earth by hand. Construction began with a large circular opening that eventually served as the courtyard for the rooms that burrow off of it. Largely unknown to the outside world until a prolonged period of flooding in the 1960s, it has evolved into a popular tourist destination among Tunisia’s 9 million annual visitors, many of whom are total nerds.
The Nevsehir province of central Turkey was once home to dozens of underground villages, some of which date back to the 8th Century BC. Largest among them was this multi-level city that held more than 20,000 residents. It featured all the trappings of civilized life -- stores, schools, chapels for prayer, and shafts to pipe in water from the surface. Up until the 20th Century, Cappadocian Greeks would find shelter here during times of war. Since 1969, however, the complex has served more as a tourist destination than any permanent residence. Although with hundreds of thousands of square feet of tunnel, up to 250 feet below the earth, you never know who (or what) you might run into.
Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain
Near the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, Setenil is a singularly bizarre sight to behold. Much of the town and its streets are built into the surrounding cliffs. Massive rock overhangs loom 20-30 feet above as you stroll down the commercial corridor. Many of the houses and storefronts you pass along the way are mere façades; held within are caves which constitute the lion’s share of enclosed space. What began as a Moorish fortress 900 years ago is today a vibrant and enchanting community holding 3,000 residents.
And while you’re in this part of the world, you might as well travel 2.5 hours east to explore the troglodyte village of Guadix. About 2,000 underground houses are scattered across the landscape, dug into the compacted tuff. Locals are known for their welcoming ways and often invite passersby to venture inside as guests to their unlikely domiciles. If you’re more down with an upscale experience, book a room at Casas Cuevas Almagruz y Centro de Interpretación Hábitat Troglodita Almagruz: The five-star hacienda is burrowed into a sandstone outcropping on the edge of town.
This ancient city on the arch of the boot -- once a slum considered "the shame of Italy" by people who have clearly not seen Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio -- is among the oldest still-inhabited places on Earth, dating back millennia. Today, the city is vibrant with art, culture, and wine, but its cliffside architecture remains virtually unchanged. Carved into gray limestone and rock, the city isn't so much underground as it is burrowed into the side of the earth. The caves, called sassi, are connected via sairways, tunnels, arches, and courtyards. It's a marvel of ancient architecture made modern, a city that seems a once subterranean and stratospheric.
Beijing Underground, China
As one of the largest and most densely populated cities on the planet, Beijing places quite the premium on space. Which is why approximately 1 million residents opt to live under the earth at bargain-basement prices. They are known locally as shuzu: literally, the rat tribe. During the Cold War, Mao ordered the excavation of some 20,000 bomb shelters to protect citizens from potential Soviet strikes. The tiny, windowless network of boxes -- ranging in square footage from 30 to 300 each -- were converted into hostel rooms in the 1980s. Today they rent out for about $60 a month, often to newcomers trying to work their way up -- both physically and financially.
There are plenty of places on the planet where you can explore humanity’s lengthy history with underground habitation. But in Singapore, you get a sense of how the practice is shaping society’s future. Having constructed malls and museums below grade for well over a decade, the densely populated city-state is now moving earth to place people down there as well. The country’s forward-thinking Urban Redevelopment Authority has already invested more than $150 million into such proposals. In the years ahead, they plan to develop the world’s first "earthscraper." It’s about more than just saving space—it also will conserve energy. Rock absorbs heat during summer months and radiates it outward during cooler periods.
Similar projects are underway in cities such as Helsinki, Finland, where state officials recently unveiled an "Underground Master Plan." Along Manhattan’s Lower East Side the so-called "Lowline" was conceived as a first-of-its-kind subterranean park. Remote skylights were to relay sunshine beneath the street, allowing trees and plants to thrive. This February, mounting costs led to an indefinite hold on the ambitious project. But with global warming threatening sustainability above the surface, building out below is starting to look like an exceedingly worthwhile investment. And in Singapore, it's already begun.