Show Caves of the Nouveau Riche

It's another installment of Entropist, a scifi culture column by futurist design maven Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDG BLOG. The message today seems to be: Become a celebrity, make millions of dollars - and use your fortune to buy alcohol. Get addicted to diet pills. Get your teeth capped. When was the last time the rich got addicted to something interesting? Something that actually made heads turn, made people think what the f-? Why not sink millions of dollars - your entire net worth! - into something truly grandiose? Why not blow your whole bank account building a series of new, artificial show caves beneath the surface of the earth? Why not get addicted to excavation? When it was reported last summer that London's ultra-rich had begun building downward, into the earth's surface, we witnessed what was perhaps the beginning of the world's most interesting subterranean property boom.

Like a strange new race of Celtic gods, London's wealthiest residents, "digging dozens of feet underground," the Times reported, were busy constructing a literally subsurface world for themselves in the ancient waterproof clay of southern England.

As the Times explained, London's "super-rich," including oil barons, Indian steel tycoons, and the odd American hedge fund manager, have been "seeking permission to excavate under the garden... making space for a three-story garage with car stacker, a swimming pool, a gym and a private home cinema." At least one example of this bizarre new form of subterranean architectural eccentricity even includes a "walk-in shower with waterproof television screens and glass walls that turn opaque with the press of a button."

While doing this, of course, there's still a house to consider, sitting up there on the earth's surface - so, in an effort to prevent cave-ins, the "original house" has been "propped up on giant steel pillars." Digging machines and men in helmets, like a painting by Fernand Léger, grind away at the planet beneath.

This spelunking upper class of central London - surely something new in human history? - are even now "engaged in a multimillion-pound game of one-upmanship," the Times suggested, "as they vie with each other to dig ever bigger, wider and deeper extensions."

So I'd like to propose a slightly more interesting addiction for investor class Brits, hip-hop moguls, and easy-money Hollywood types who think cocaine is still a thrill and Courvoisier worth pursuing: Give up your alcoholism and your sports cars and your use of bad drugs from the 1980s - and start digging show caves.

Dig vast, artificial caverns that extend for miles beneath the city.

Show your friends.

Show Caves of the Nouveau RicheS

"I'd like to introduce you to Komatsu earth-moving equipment," I'd say, sitting across the table from Robert Downey Jr. I'd show him a sales brochure. "For the price of one custom Ferrari, you could buy half a dozen of these things - and rip away."

Buy land outside Moab. Buy a thousand mountain acres in Colorado. Buy an estate house somewhere deep in London - and tear the basement up. Go down. Go under. Stay up all night in a haze of klieg lights, dust, and diesel fumes, drilling into the planet.

Rats will flee from you. Water mains will burst.

Now start a few side tunnels and install nice couches.

Because who cares? You're the world's first interesting celebrity. You build tunnels beneath rowhouses and drink liquid Vitamin D.

And forget your neighbors. Slash would have thrown TVs out the window and played his guitar too loud - how exciting! So you're just playing with earth-moving machines at 3am, building artificial show caves beneath the city streets. You've got dredging equipment. Pulverizers.

You could be up, listening to the irritating squeal of a mobile crusher, shredding concrete four floors below ground.

You wake up to hear that Keith Richards has been arrested - and not because he's wrecked a Rolls Royce or bought heroin, but because he's tunneled all the way to France.

Or Colin Farrell gives up sex to construct a network of manmade caverns beneath his house in outer Dublin. That's not an earthquake - it's Colin Farrell.

He's drilling again.

Show Caves of the Nouveau RicheS

Colin Farrell Addicted to Mining, the newspapers report.

I'm reminded of Seymour Cray, founder of Cray supercomputers, who apparently found "his inspiration" somewhere "deep in a dirt tunnel beneath his Wisconsin home." Having eventually tunneled out toward the nearby woods, his underground adventure wasn't always free from surface incidents: "When a tree fell through the top of the tunnel several years ago," Time magazine reported in 1988, "Cray used the opening to install a periscope-equipped lookout."

For Cray, the excavation project is more than a simple diversion. "I work when I'm at home," he recently told a visiting scientist. "I work for three hours, and then I get stumped, and I'm not making progress. So I quit, and I go and work in the tunnel. It takes me an hour or so to dig four inches and put in the 4-by-4s."
But he kept going - and that's what's important.

Of course, Seymour Cray was no by means the first person to relieve a bit of stress through home tunneling.

Two years ago, the excellent blog Modern Mechanix looked at a man named Dr. H.G. Dyar, who had "one of the oddest hobbies in the world": he had "found health and recreation in digging an amazing series of tunnels beneath his Washington home."

Almost a quarter of a mile of tunnels has been completed, lined with concrete. The deepest passage... extends 32 feet down. Every bit of earth was removed unaided by Dr. Dyar, being carried out in pails. He found the tunnel-digging an appealing form of exercise to relieve the intense strain of his work day, which involved much close work with high-power microscopes.
Further, we read, Dyar's "catacombs" were "constructed in three levels, with steps and iron pipe ladders leading between different tiers."

Show Caves of the Nouveau RicheS

Almost anti-climactically, we learn that "the idea first came to Dyar when he sought to make an underground entrance to his furnace cellar" - but, as with all things worthwhile, anywhere, he simply kept going. "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise," William Blake once wrote - and Blake wasn't even a tunneler.

Finally, there was William Lyttle, the so-called Mole Man of Hackney. Lyttle was an east London eccentric who lived in a dilapidated house on Mortimer Road. "But this is no ordinary house," the Guardian reported in August 2006.

Quoting at great length, because I love this story:

Since the early 1960s, the man who owns and lives inside the £1m Victorian property has been digging. No one knows how far the the network of burrows underneath 75-year-old William Lyttle's house stretch. But according to the council, which used ultrasound scanners to ascertain the extent of the problem, almost half a century of nibbling dirt with a shovel and homemade pulley has hollowed out a web of tunnels and caverns, some 8m (26ft) deep, spreading up to 20m in every direction from his house.

Their surveyors estimate that the resident known locally as the Mole Man has scooped 100 cubic metres of earth from beneath the roads and houses that surround his 20-room property.

"I often used to joke that I expect him to come tunnelling up through the kitchen floor," said Marc Beishon, who lives a few yards from Mr Lyttle's house.

His wife, Joy, sees the serious side of the issue, however. "We moved in six years ago and we've been complaining to the council ever since," she said. "Until six weeks ago they had the audacity to tell us the house was structurally sound. The whole of the opposite street lost power one day after he tapped into a 450-volt cable."

Now, after 40 years of complaints, the council has admitted Mr Lyttle's quarrying has put the neighbourhood at risk. Last week it obtained a court order to temporarily evict him in order to enable engineers to fill the holes with cement, at an estimated cost of £100,000 - for which Mr Lyttle will be billed.

"There has been movement in the ground," Phillip Wilman, a council surveyor, told Thames magistrates court.

There has been movement in the ground. The Times then pointed out that "[m]any of his tunnels were big enough to stand up in. 'This is going to be the leisure centre,' he said, sweeping his hand round a large cavern. 'And this in here will be the sauna.'" If only Lyttle had been a hedge fund manager, or the designer of famous supercomputers, perhaps he would not have been arrested. As it was, he only barely missed going to jail.

In any case, how much more interesting would the world be if, say, Eliot Spitzer's recent and mysterious financial transactions had not been directed toward sex - it's easy enough to get that, Mr. Spitzer - but toward weird and illegal machines that caused movement in the ground outside his Albany mansion? Police surveyors armed with ground-penetrating radar swarm the place - and discover several miles' worth of artificial caves in a warren of entrances and exits throughout the city. Eliot Spitzer did this, the gruff, benchpress-ready men quietly say. We've got to stop him.

But I've made my point.

Show Caves of the Nouveau RicheS

What I'd like to see, at some point before I die, is a series of show caves, free and open to the public, that have been excavated and paid for by the film and music revenues of global superstars.

All the tunnels have been supervised by celebrities, who are addicted to digging. Shia LaBoeuf has a tunnel. Shakira has several. Even Bob Dole has one - but he's forgotten how to use it.

You book a flight to Hollywood, then, and you buy a Star Map - but within three hours you find yourself one hundred and sixty seven feet below ground in the most spectacular cave you've ever seen. Its stalactites have been precision-cut by CNC-milling machines, the walls shaped by computer-programmable routers. There is a vague smell of sawdust in the air, and you notice several wood boards holding up some parts of the walls. There are vaults visible in the distance, and a slight groaning sound.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times, was there last week - and he hated the place.

Rumor has it, though, that a vast, echoless complex exists beneath Atlanta, dug by Ludacris. Its dimensions are too shocking to believe. He hangs out down there with Umberto Eco, discussing the Hollow Earth Theory and practicing rhymes.

Show Caves of the Nouveau RicheS

Whenever another royalty check comes through, he digs deeper.

(Note: The final two images show the Excelsior Tunnel, and were taken by the always impressive Nick Catford of Subterranea Britannica; all rights, copyrights, and otherwise remain with him. The opening thumbnail is a South American ice cave, shot by Flickr user Tom Holub)