John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
It's basically a giant hole in the ground, designed to withstand Japanese earthquakes.
No, not deathscraper, although that's what this reverse-skyscraper would become if you stumbled into it at night.
This hallucination of architecture was featured in the November 1931 issue of Popular Mechanics, a periodical that gets it right on a lot of things but seems to have whiffed here. As the article explains, Japanese engineers wanted to find a way to mitigate the damage caused by the country's frequent earthquakes. They no doubt were scrambling for new ideas after 1923's Great Kantō earthquake, an 8.3 temblor that killed up to 140,000 people and destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama.
The resulting concept for a "depthscraper" describes a 35-story cylindrical antitower made from a steel frame and "armored concrete" for safety and, presumably, to keep out the worms. A single story protrudes from the earth, and it is here you can embark on elevators down to your underground lair (although I would prefer to BASE jump).
Why a depthscraper? Popular Mechanics says the designers were inspired by the "interesting fact that tunnels and subterranean structures suffer less in seismic tremors than edifices on the surface of the ground, where the vibration is unchecked." In the event of an earthquake, the structure's components theoretically would "vibrate together, resisting any crushing strain."
Over at the blog Modern Mechanix, which maintains an extensive archive of old Popular Mechanics editions, commenters maintain a healthy level of skepticism over this claim, writing, "Yeah, just where I want to be in a 9.2 quake, at the bottom of a hole." And: "I’m not sure it’s safe to be underground during an earthquake. What if the structure collapses? There’s no way to run."
When an earthquake isn't actually happening, however, the huge pit seems like a not-awful place to live. Fresh air is pumped down from the surface, and sunlight peeking into the 75-foot-wide hole provides warmth and illumination. When the sun's not shining directly down the hole, which I imagine is most of the day, a huge mirror reflects the beams onto the mole people below. The residents would try not to drown during heavy storms by sealing the hole's opening with a "diaphragm, operating like the iris shutter of a vast camera."
If the depthscraper seems like sort of a Stone Age prison, like that one Bruce Wayne had to claw his way out of in Dark Knight Rises, it's not. The authors of the Mechanics story assure us that it's just as hygienic as a normal skyscraper, and that one instance when they call a depthscraper resident an "inmate" is probably just the way people spoke back in the '30s. Sure.
Interestingly enough, this isn't the first time humans have dreamed of putting humongous, impractical skyscrapers underground. BNKR Arquitectura recently envisioned digging a 1,000-foot-deep "earthscraper" in Mexico City lit by fiber-optic cables and a glass ceiling that doubled as a public plaza. The idea was that space in the metropolis was scarce, so why not dig down to create fresh real estate?
The Mexico City project seems to be on hold, however, with Grist reporting that the mayor has "refused to see the architects behind this design."
Image courtesy of Modern Mechanix.