The architecture for no one:
Onkalo, nuclear waste disposal sites and other impossible places.
“The cave rumbles loudly, like a startled bear running into the last depths of its lair.
There is something frightful about this loud repercussion of the human voice,
in a place it wasn’t meant to reach.”
Alexandre Dumas – Travel impressions, Switzerland
This winter, as I walked to my hometown cemetery to pay my respects, it was terribly foggy. The air was too cold to hold all the water it took from the soil, and was now relieving itself in front of me, in the form of a stagnating and breathable humidity. Cold water in the air and in my lungs. The kind of fog that erases the sky and brings your gaze straight to the earth. So I watched the fields all around the cemetery. And my new red shoes covered with mud.
Belgian mud, northern soil, nothing special really: It is soft, and fat, gorged with water because it often rains. So the soil is always at various stages of drying, and as the water leaves it brings along all the perfumes of the hundreds of things living on the surface. When you play as a child and lie face down on the ground, that’s when you can smell it: the fat soil that a weak sun can never fully dry up. And what is inside the soil?
Roots, fat roots. Sugar beets and potatoes. I remember the sugar beets especially. Giant piles left on the side of the road, after the harvest. As children we would pick one beat in the pile and cut a slice with a pocket knife, to find below the rough and muddy skin the very discreet taste of original sugar. The piles were two or three meters high, and naturally we had to climb to their top… The beets would roll down under our feet all the way to the road, and our parents would yell. Those were the only mountains we had in the center of Belgium. Mountains of sugar.
So in Court-st-Etienne, my hometown, the cemetery is surrounded by fields of beets and potatoes. There was one nearby the church, but they ran out of room in 1885 so they chose a new site on a plateau, they put a wall around it, and they called it “the new cemetery”. A simple brick wall, and on the other side, the fields. In one of them you can still see some world war one trenches – the soldiers who dig them are now buried fifty meters away behind the brick wall, in the cemetery. They have a special area.
It is in that cemetery that some people I knew are now buried. In the fat soil. Between the beats and the potatoes. The soil there is the same as anywhere else. Ready to cover the dead or feed the living. Just needs to be available, make time for us in its long mineral existence. Our graves, for the soil they are only a short break. They are not eternal. I saw the signs in the cemetery: soon some of the burial plots will be reattributed, that is the law in Belgium, 50 years. What a strange discovery. One would think that, death being a permanent state, so would be the place of death. But there is a time limit. Where do the dead go? I cannot help but imagine them, on the 50th year, wearing slippers and pijamas, climbing out of their grave, to slip an envelope with the exact rent under the gravedigger’s door. “I don’t want to move out”, the dead say, “Change! Change, is for the living!”
But as architects we should not speak for the dead, only for the soil we give them.
The soil: as we bury the dead within it, the soil receives the meaning of the dead, and after a while, because when visiting we have nothing but the soil to touch and look at, it somehow becomes the face, the façade of the dead. In a fragile relation we rely on the soil to be the sign of the dead, its presence depending on our interpretation. But just as the dead dissolves in the soil, our memory of the dead dissolves as well. And the sign disappears.
This dissolution is inversely proportional to the size of the plants above the grave: at first carefully maintained, they eventually grow wild and proudly explode with life. I was walking this November in Toucheng cemetery, an island among the rice patties; a green island, because the shiny colored tiles of the graves were covered by a thick mattress of weeds, and the graves were turning into hills. I thought I was climbing a pathway but it was in fact the house of Mister Lin.
Eventually, when there is no one left to claim the opposite we decide that the soil finished emptying itself of the person that it once contained. We then declare “well, the dead is not here anymore”. The soil can be used for somebody else. And we hope the presence of the dead within the soils faded along with our memories, that the dissolution is complete, that the soil forgets as well as we do.
What the soil does for our dead, we must ask, can it be done for Onkalo? Onkalo is an underground complex in Finland for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The first of its kind: 500 meters deep galleries inside the granite bedrock below Finland, to store the nuclear waste produced by Finland during the 21st century. In 2100 the galleries will be sealed and the Onkalo will truly begin to operate: it will have to shield the world from the deadly beam inside it, while it slowly dissolves in the soil. This will take a hundred thousand years, for a hundred thousand years the architecture of Onkalo will have to remain empty of us, empty of people. Forbidden soil.
An architecture for no one. It is hard to imagine, especially a few weeks after writing about Pokémon Go, a digital architecture desperately relying on our actions to bring it into the actual world. Pokémon Go is global but it is light as a feather – even its name is childish, it is difficult to write anything serious about Pokemon Go – and indeed a few weeks later the magic has passed, we realize how silly we were chasing invisible monsters in the park, we stopped playing and the architecture went away. But this is how architecture works, careful and sensitive limitations on all the possibilities of time and space, but if we are not there to play out those possibilities architecture is just an empty frame. Architecture is waiting for us.
Except Onkalo. Onkalo cannot wait for us. It is deadly. Onkalo doesn’t want us, we built it to refuse us, Onkalo cannot happen. Once the waste has been placed we will stuff its galleries with clay, close back what we opened. Onkalo cannot be filled with a single possibility, it has to be an impossible space. For a hundred thousand years, impossible. And then the dirt will swallow Onkalo as it swallows our dead. There is a date. Not fifty years: a hundred thousand.
For the decaying matter inside the copper cans in Onkalo, a hundred thousand years is a day like any other. For us this amount of time is only a concept. Homo Sapiens is 200 000 years old, but our entire breathing mass, from the oldest woman somewhere in Italy, to the child who is born right now, the entire mass of our species saw of the world only its last 117 years. We were all born yesterday. Everything we know we learned yesterday, from memories, or text and other recording devices invented yesterday. It is yesterday also that we discovered that our species is in fact 200 000 years old.
The great timeline of our existence is not extending as we move, it is strapped to the back of our pants and we drag it around with us. If we look backwards we can see, it is not very long. A piece of fabric made of strings each as long as the age of the things we know. The further we look the less strings there are, and at the very end there are very few left and they quickly slip off our hands. How quickly it goes. One hundred thousand years, can we go as far? Let’s try and forget a moment the Gregorian calendar. If we decided that this year is the year one, turn around and counted the years backwards, we would see all the things that make our culture disappear one after the other. Being erased instead of recorded. Architecture being actually deconstructed. The roof, then the walls, then the idea of it. Empty soil everywhere. From now all the way to 100 000, what would be left at the end?
27. That’s my age. But really we are the same age:
117. That’s the age of all of us. So it is also the age of everything we know. None of us has seen what happens after 117. Passed 117 we have to trust our recording machinery, the buildings, the writings, the family stories. The photographs: one of my great grandfather, wearing his military uniform. 27 years old. Handsome. Belgian air force. During WW2, taken down then captured by the Germans. He got married, became an architect. He had an affair, he died in a car crash, coming back from her house. On her chimney, two glasses of Champaign. This is what my mother told me of that photograph.
119: that’s the age of the word “radioactivity”. Coined by Pierre and Marie Curie. Further than that and we lose that word, Onkalo doesn’t mean anything, we lose the meaning of Onkalo.
1889. We lose the Pantheon, the pantheon is unbuilt.
2250. The Great Stupa of Sanchi, a Buddhist monument in India, is unbuilt. The oldest building still in use today is 2250 years old. Passed 2250 all we have left from architecture are ruins and artefacts.
3200. The earliest Chinese characters, the jiǎgǔwén (甲骨文), are not written. The turtle shells are empty of words. We lose our oldest writing system.
3500. We lose Hinduism in its earliest form, our oldest religion.
4570. The great pyramid of Giza is not built.
5200. We lose writing altogether, in Mesopotamia and Egypt. From now all the things we meet speak to us in silence. We enter the Neolithic age.
6800. The age of the oldest standing architecture: a stone mound in Barnenez, France. Eleven chambers, with symbols engraved on the walls, their meaning is not clear, we name one of them “the dolmen Goddess”. Past this point, none of the constructions existing today are visible on the surface of the earth.
12 000. We lose agriculture. We lose cities. The last civilizations in China and the Middle East disappear, humans are now nomads and hunter gatherers. We enter the Paleolithic.
14 000. A glacial period starts. Finland, and the site of Onkalo, is covered with ice.
30 000. The time of human evolution, or the time of human extinction. The Neanderthal man appear, another human species who makes tools and clothing; who cooks like us, perhaps even makes art just like us. Everything that is human now belongs to us – Homo Sapiens – and to the Neanderthal.
40 000. A woman, a Venus, and a man with a lion head, carved in mammoth tusk. Our last figurative art.
70 000. There was Sapiens and the Neanderthal, now there also is Erectus. Erectus uses fire and tools, just like us. Erectus will last two million years.
80 000. Triangular marks carved on a rock in Blombos cave, South-Africa. Possibly one of our last piece of abstract art.
100 000. The time of Onkalo. Also the time of Erectus, and Neanderthal. Without words to write and figures to draw, how to tell them about Onkalo? How powerful silence has become!
100 000: Also the age of one of the oldest architectures we know. A grave, buried, like Onkalo. 15 skeletons laying close to each other, in the soil, in a cave, on the bottom of a hill. There wasn’t any names left there for us so in the scientific literature they were given numbers. 8 has a bloc of stone at his feet, and fragments of ochre at his sides. 11 was an adolescent. There is a stone block and ochre in the grave of 11 as well, and the ankles of a red deer are clasped between his hands and head. 10 was a six year old child, laying at the feet of an adult, number 9, and we think perhaps 9 and 10 were buried together. Maybe it was important for them.
But archeologists are very careful when giving those meager findings any symbolic meaning. Plausible is a word they often use. Same goes for the deer ankles, the ochre and the stone block, we want to scream “what do they mean” but instead we must say it is plausible that they mean anything. We barely know in fact that this place isn’t an accident, that those bodies were placed there by decision rather than by chance. We barely know that this place is architecture. This is the state of an architecture that is a hundred thousand years old: to be plausible. A hundred thousand years ago the soil was opened, then closed, to the eyes of someone it became the place of a dead, and when those eyes closed as well the certainty of architecture went away. The law in Belgium says it can take as little as 50 years, but then who knows, those were different times.
A hundred thousand years later, the soil and the land all around were named Israel. The hill above became “Qafzeh”, Precipice in Arabic, and it is said that an angry crowd from Nazareth brought Jesus there to hurl him over the edge. Crusaders in the middle age called it “Saltus Domini” (The lord’s leap). Byzantines dug an altar in the rock and paved the floor of the cavern. In 1934, the pavers were removed when French archeologists started the excavations. The burial site they found became known as the Qafzeh cave, and in the 1970s we knew through Thermoluminescence dating that the deposits were a hundred thousand years old. The natural radiations they received since they last saw sunlight gave away their age. Radiations in exchange for a number. In symmetry with Onkalo. Like the two extremities of a wire-walker pole, that we would hold right in the middle, when walking on our tightrope. But the pole is enormous, kilometers, and when we look left and right we cannot see both ends. Their position is a mathematic hypothesis. They are plausible.
As we broke the pavers in Qafzeh what was left in our hands? In a painful paradox, it seems that the moment we got knowledge of the place, the place was lost. It was stored in the soil, and everything that the mass and volume of the soil made impossible. It was stored in the absence of sunlight, absence of breathing air, absence of empty volume; there was a slow decay and geological disturbances, but none of our living impatience was possible there. Because there was no possibility of space there was no space for possibilities. No event, nor time. A sense of eternity, buried. The architecture of the grave was removed from out time, taken away by the impossibility of the soil – until we brought it back here with shovels. And when we pulled away the soil and the bones met the air, there was an irresistible decompression, the eternity was sucked away. There is something missing from our world for it to retain eternity.
Eternity must remain there, in the impossible place, the architecture for no one. So maybe, it is plausible I mean, that the people of Qafzeh, after burying one of their own, would gather around the freshly piled square of soil and contemplate the eternity they had placed within it, buried in the impossible. Out of reach: for them, for the carnivores, the Neanderthal, the Byzantine, the French.
Yet we found it, and, with the greatest respect – you can read it in the archeological reports – with the greatest respect we dug it up. We had to know, we need to know. I want all of us to know the gigantic number. But I cannot help shivering with fear and shame when thinking that, hundreds of generations later, people might just say the same before they start shoveling the soil right above Onkalo.
Deep inside the blue, there is yellow
and deep inside yellow, there is black.
Black standing up and watching
Black that you cannot beat down like a man with your fists
In the previous chapter we talked about the time of Onkalo. It will take a hundred thousand years for the spent nuclear fuel buried there in the soil of Finland to reach an acceptable radiation level. We tried to grasp this time but saw we could barely trust it. It is simply too great. Little of architecture remains after such a distance. So I would like to come back to the shorter distances we can find in the architecture of the present. To the walls, doors and veils on which we lay a hand or a feet and wonder what is hidden behind or below.
I wonder for example how it would feel to walk on that soil, in Finland. Knowing what is inside, way down below… I know: it is safe but… Would you take your shoes off, walk bare feet on that soil, knowing? Would you put all your weight, your skin on that grass, knowing? Or lie face down like a child, half your body against the soil, and feel the soil is warmer than the air, it radiates; maybe just giving back some heat after a hot day, or…
You feel this pressure on your belly. It’s from the other side, from behind and below the horizon, pushing on the floor line, pushing on this side of the landscape. Onkalo sleeps under the green blanket, you can see it breathing through, the whole landscape moves up and down with it. Invisible, off limits, absent yet unbearable. We wanted to say it wasn’t architecture because it was deserted, but it does stay on our minds. We must acknowledge the mark Onkalo leaves on the landscape above it.
Onkalo is the question: what about that all that space and time we push behind the limits of architecture? Where the practical, known, domesticated environment stops and the infinite starts? The invisible places below the floor line, between the surfaces of the walls, in the thickness of a boundary, in the transparence of the air, even. What we bury in the soil or sweep under the rug. The rest of the world. The great absent part that the limits detain.
The Italian parrot
I am in Shanghai now. I wanted to see a place where the limits were thin enough, brief enough, numerous enough I could catch one and take a look inside. I wanted to see a metropole but I ended up in a microcosm. A tiny piece of Shanghai evolving too fast to be referenced by the maps on Google and Baidu. As if they had given up. Soon this area will disappear under the excavators, you should go while you can, the internet says. So I’ll reference it as you reference a web page, with the date: Around Guangqi St, west of Xiaonanmen Station, Nanshi District, Shanghai, retrieved on December 21th 2016, between 9:00 and 16:00.
This place is made of parallel alleys growing around Guangqi Street like legs on a centipede. Except those legs themselves grow legs, which themselves grow fingers, with hair growing on their tip. Guangqi area is one of those architectural mazes where you have to give up on any form of control. Matta-Clark’s labyrinth. The GPS only shows abstract shapes and geographic coordinates. I progress in those alleys by crossing successive strata of porticos, indoor and outdoor furniture, drying shirts and pants, mirrors I almost crash into, while constantly looking for street signs to make sure I haven’t entered somebody’s living room, because the extremity of an alley is always the subtle start of a private hallway or staircase or courtyard.
People occupy the street almost as they occupy their homes. Thus the stranger, especially the stranger with a camera, is continuously trespassing. Much too close to other people, as the walls on both side of the street are closing in.
There is an old lady cutting vegetables in a bowl on the concrete floor, I almost have to climb over her to get across. I pass another portico… Then a small plaza with a public sink, where a woman prepares pieces of chicken she takes off a large red basket. Further still, and there’s another chicken, alive, its leg attached to a table with a rope, the leg rises up and the rope tightens as the chicken tries to expand the limits of its territory. Regarding the temporal limits there’s nothing the chicken can do. The chicken will end up in the sink. Then there’s a dog, sitting inside an old kitchen furniture, followed by a cat on a windowsill, followed by a man in blue workwear fixing his electric tricycle – electric but fast, the man says, which I must repeat here.
Four old women play Mahjong, in their dining room. I stop for a while. They are too busy to chat but yes, the camera can pass the open window. They are preparing a new game, shuffling the tiles under their eight palms, making large circular plastic streams on the green mahjong mat.
Those mahjong mats: I have seen some you can roll up, little places made of foldable limits you can store in a closet. And when you take it out for Chinese New Year, it’s an entire room you unroll on your dining table: with its peculiar time and rules, its own winds (east, south, west, north, each assigned to a player), with its own range of skillful gestures, with the rustling of the bakelite tiles on the mat and the appetizing candy-like sound they make when they hit each other. The whole thing pops out like a paper sculpture in a Kirigami book, limited somewhere and sometime around the simple folding and unfolding of a mat. Games have limits that can take various forms, ranging from the football stadium to the simple words “Let’s play rock-paper-scissors”, but they always manage to isolate their peculiar space and time from the entire world. Modern game theorists call those limits “magic circles”. An indeed they say, there is “something truly magical that happens when a game begins”.
I see a circle on Guangqi’s macadam. Barely there, a thin chalk line scratched by the texture of the tar and the crushed stone. Not a game, but magical still. Somebody sat in front of the circle and lit a fire inside to burn joss money, just like that; on this road where people walk and spit, a simple circle sufficed to delimit the well that would feed the ancestors with fresh currency. A well large like a manhole cover, one hour old between the cars and the tricycles. The ashes inside are blown away by the traffic. On the side of the well the road pushes, the road wants to fill in, wants the well to be just a road again.
Somebody grabs my arm. Forget about the circle. There is something I need to see, something that needs to face the camera. A few more corners to the alley 169, and then: a red parrot.
Magnificent. Enormous. Species: Eclectus. With blue feathers on the chest. About the parrot, I should say that I count it among the damages of my partial knowledge of the Chinese language. This knowledge is itself a territory, with its own limits. Beyond the limits there is an ocean, deep and dark, and on the bottom lie the wreckage of hundreds of conversations, which sank after colliding with a single unknown word. No compartments in the hull… A tiny leak, one word only and a precious meaning is lost at sea.
The limits of this territory expand not by simple will but through everyday life necessities, which means, regarding geographic vocabulary, that this territory matches exactly the parts of the world actually visited. I never went to Australia. Australia is not part of it. Therefore, when the woman holding the parrot tells me the parrot is of Australian origin, Aodaliya in Chinese, from the Australian continent, Aozhou, I hear Yidali, Ouzhou and I decide that the parrot is Italian, from Europe. An entire species displaced from one continent to another. Red clouds of wild parrots in the streets of Rome and Milan, speaking Chinese better than I do, thanks to the tourists. This is what happens when you talk about an exotic animal, in a foreign country, in a foreign language. And I am convinced that, through some conversation mechanism, the woman believes to this day that I am Australian.
The parrot is smart: it doesn’t speak a word. So with the woman and her husband, we talk about their house. A very nice house, as seen from the street, 60-70 years old they say. The entrance door is covered with two lines of poetry written on red stripes, the Duilian (對聯), to be replaced every new year. The two lines are balanced in a complex correspondence of characters tones, amount and signification, which quality will not survive my translation: “abundance, tranquility, peace and longevity, for years to come (年年有餘增康寧。歲歲平安晉福壽。) .” The Duilian stand on the external limit of the house and guard all the space behind with their profound meaning. Someday that limit will be overrun, and destroyed, and new red bands will have to be placed on the door of some apartment building. “Someday. We don’t know when”, says the husband with a polite smile. The parrot is red, the woman’s jacket and the Duilian behind her are red, the messages of the government on the red banners above the street are red, and there will be a time when the government will complete de replacement of Guangqi. In Nanzhanjia Street, the alley 48 leads to a wall. And behind the wall, you can see the new high-rises, waiting.
Meanwhile however, Guangqi is not static. Already, in my ongoing exploration, I can hear the rustling of the Guangqi I’ve known closing up behind my back. There was an opening in those limits, just enough to let me pass, and now they shift and crack for the passage of somebody else. How long can the imprint of a parrot conversation last in those alleys? And probably by now the game of mahjong is rolled up inside a closet. The tricycle fixed and running. Chalk circles erased and drawn somewhere else. New streets have appeared as dry laundry was removed. And let’s not even talk about the chicken. All too fast for google and Baidu. Guangqi erases the limits I’ve known, and soon, Shanghai will erase Guangqi. We can imagine there the shadow of the modern urban plan deploying over our heads, with its lobbies, its large sidewalks, its young trees which have not yet taken root; unrolling on Guangqi like a sod lawn, or like a mahjong mat.
Looking above we can see the soles, tires, and foundations of those who will soon roam this part of the city. This future landscape. They are above, and we are below. Below and behind the limit of their floor line. In their view we are in the place of Onkalo. What is this place then? If those people up there could find the corner of their mat, maybe in some joint in the sidewalk that wasn’t correctly sealed, and they lifted the mat a little, just for a peek, what would they see down here? The old Guangqi? But which one? At which state of its continuous rustling? Are we even in it, looking up and waving, or…?
Such is the infinite we catch a sense of, as we stand within those fragile limits. A time and space big enough to contain the frightening movement of everything that was, will be or could be. With architecture we can only hope to push it back a little to develop some sort of passable track, but behind the protective surface of each rule and limit, we can hear rumbling the formidable amount of possibilities that the rule and limit retain. The great yawning rest of the world. Never completely absent.
Like the Derridean trace, it is the invisible extension of the architectural language. It stands behind each limit and therefore being the matter of the limit itself. Its thickness. It follows the limit inside architecture, seeps between the two sides of the walls, glass, fabrics, in the chalk lines, chicken ropes, under the floors and mats; it is right there on our plans and sections, this black filling of the floors and partitions that we call: poché.
The term “poché” should be extended to the matter of the thinnest of limits; even the lines and dashed lines have a thickness, and inside is hidden the chaotic poché they prevent; even the word we speak to designate a space contains the depth of the poché, because as a word it conceals the trace of all its possible Australian-Italian deformations.
The incredibly thin carbon structure of Junya Hishigami’s pavilion at the 12th Venice biennale carries all the pressure of the poché. Hishigami is in search for an architecture that will not divide nature, but no matter how thin his structure is, it is a new order that pushes, and nature pushes back. The now famous intervention of a mysterious cat made the whole thing crumble just before the opening.
You will also find the poché outside the limits of a schedule. In the time before and after opening hours, when lights are out and the place you knew turns into a dark collage of lines and corners. Under the bed, there’s the poché again; the bed that you didn’t climb but jump on when you were a child, so that the creature living below could not grab your legs on the way.
But maybe the bed creature is also scared and jumps, there is a whole Pixar movie about that. Limits are relative and so is the poché. When we hear a light rattling sound across the surface of the walls and ceilings we remember: in their black thickness live the mice. And the mice hear us too.
We are ourselves the mice living inside the anonymous black poché filling the space between the streets on the urbanist maps.
In the previous chapter we talked about the soil. Below the floor line there’s a deep poché in which we bury Onkalo. We bury the dead. We excavate, we mine, but we never see the end of it. We venerate its endless grandeur, where it seems all matter begins and ends. The earth, used by the goddess Nuwa (女媧) to create our bodies, molded with clay and mud. Or the earth, hungry: Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess, with her skirt made of snakes, who had to be fed with human sacrifices.
Our body, made of this earth-like matter, is also a poché. A clockwork, mobile poché. We insert calories, oxygen, sensorial stimuli, and we obtain in return all sorts of screams and residues. We look at ourselves, and we see this mysterious mass protruding under our eyes and falling heavily onto the floor. With architecture we want to push back the unknown, obscure place of the poché, while in fact we carry one with us wherever we go. A moving protuberance that disturbs space and time regardless of their quality, that “rushes against the carefully established rules of architectural thought”.
We knock tables with our toe. We lean our backs uncomfortably on a wall angle.
But we have to get by. Find peace and harmony, with that body holding us at its mercy.
Because there is, of course, that limit. A limit that cracks… and suddenly a body is inert.
Someone went away and left it behind. It lies there awkwardly, now estranged from us. An intrusion of the poché within our narrow walls. It has to be returned.
It is then worth seeing how different cultures, in the incredible act already partially described in the previous chapter, find in the limits around them the gap, the passage to the hidden part of the world through which they can hand back the body.
There is the earth yes, that we open and close. There is fire, that takes everything up in the invisible layers of the atmospheric poché – fire which peculiar power can be contained within a simple chalk line. There is the organism of wild animals, especially carrion birds in Tibetan mountains. And there is the Wari.
In the forests on the south-east of the Amazon, the Wari eat their dead. They first hold the body in turns, never living it alone, sometimes for days until all the neighbors have arrived. Then the body is prepared. It is laid on the back of a relative lying on the ground, so that, as it is dismembered, the body leaks on friendly skin rather than dirty soil. Once ready the flesh is cooked – the architecture of the village bears the scar of the wooden beams taken to build the pyre – then ingested. The small pieces travel gently from the pyre to the mouths on the tips of wooden sticks. The mouths alternate chewing and crying. The Wari don’t eat because of hunger, but because of respect. Better inside another Wari than inside the earth: “it is cold in the earth” the Wari says. So the body disappears piece by piece into the poché of another, leaving the world through the very place it first came in.
 Dumbster / Open house, 1972
 SALEN –ZIMMERMAN, Rules of play, MIT press, 2004, p95
 BERNARD TSCHUMI, Architecture and Disjunction, MIT press, 1996, p123
 BETH A. CONKLIN, Death, mourning and Burial, Blackwell pub., 2004, p250
“We were assaulted by a sense that there could be no time more suitable than now
for the phrase ‘what should not be’, the impossible.”
Hideo Furukawa (Horses, horses – 2011)
For the Finish word “Onkalo” there are several possible translations. Onkalo can first mean “cave”, and indeed we think of a cave when we look at the pictures of the site. Its galleries were carved directly into the granite and we can see on their walls the irregular marks of the excavation. The galleries are high enough for the trucks to pass with their load, but more importantly there are deep: their extremity remains hidden by darkness, or by a curve in the helicoidal path which descends 500 meters below the surface. There is no natural light. We imagine deep down the sound of the machines digging, and then, the silence that follows. A silence that can erase in us the impression of an outside world. The Finnish probably thought of the word “cave”.
But Onkalo can also mean “cavity”. The cavity is not as deep as the cave, maybe just a bump or a scratch, an accident on a smooth surface. Because of its lesser depth it cannot exist as a single place, it remains attached to the original surface, as a part of its texture. We always talk of a cavity “in” something. The cavity is therefore closer to the hole, the perforation, than the cave. Without being an autonomous space it creates through its recess the passage into something else. It is a place suspended at the intersection of two elements. The water running in the mountain, the wind gliding between the dunes, the bacteria carving the enamel. Or the spent nuclear fuel the trucks are bringing inside the soil of Finland.
Perhaps Onkalo is not a cave but a cavity. It is not the deep well we dream of, the dark chamber we can close with a stone and forget. Onkalo is an access. It is the soil that opens and stretches and fills with a nuclear time, a long time. A time too great to cover. And the depression remains open, accessible, unresolved. If we’re not careful we’ll fall back in. Onkalo is a cavity in the surface of our world: suspended between the familiar space of the Finnish soil, and the inhuman dimension of a faraway time we can no longer forget.
Everywhere in architecture, cavities open and close. They are an essential device. If as we said, we design architectural limits to hide the chaos of space and time, what we called the poché, we must then use cavities as a trick, a deformation within those limits allowing the access towards the poché. The curtain we pull to go backstage. An airlock for the comings and goings of what belongs to both worlds. The dead depart through the soil, or through fire, or through the mouth of the Nabis; then through chalk circles on the street in Shanghai, we send money to the dead: all these passages are cavities.
The Taiwanese natives used to bury their own below the protective limits of their houses – the cavity of a compromise: not in, not out, but below. And above the house of our childhood, in the pitched cavity of the attic, we find sometimes vinyls, comic books and old clothes through which we can reconstruct the tactile and olfactive impression of an ancient time that belonged only to our parents.
Sometimes the movement is inverted. The cavity is turned inside out like a surgical glove for invisible hands to reach in. Through the holes in the walls, a mouse might come in. Or a god…
Or a burglar. And after waking up we find in our living room the traces of his trespassing: smashed glass and muddy prints, the convex and odorous presence of a foreign cavity. The burglar extended its space and amputated ours of an equal amount.
The cavity is a place to pass – or trespass. Onkalo might be one of those places creating a forbidden path through the limits of time and space. And the embarrassment we feel might come from this infraction we are committing. Our cavity broke into a foreign territory and we should attempt to define its limits.
The trumpet player
The first atomic cavities were made of a different time. Of split seconds. Appearing 600m in the air, so that the blast coming out could efficiently spread on the city below. In Hiroshima this height was precisely ascertained by geologist Shogo Nagaoka shortly after the explosion, by measuring the length of the shadows casted by the surfaces stopping the radiations. Very much like what we learn to do in architecture school. At a latitude a, for a wall height b, and a shadow length c, what is the time of day, and the position of the sun?
A sun. In the sky of Hiroshima a cavity opened in the limits of science and ethics, and the impossible appeared out of another world or another time, projecting upon the architecture of the city a 4km wide circular perforation – a wound made of all built and living masses, leveled out. The black poché of an indistinguishable landscape, a place suddenly taken away from man. Those who return inside see their vain attempts at human decency melting into something absurd. Shogo Nagoaka, who went there to measure the shadows, recalls:
“A mourning mother searching for her daughter’s remains decided at last that one mound of ash, indistinguishable from the ash all about, was what she was looking for, and ceremoniously collected this, and was satisfied ”.
Of course the image we have of a perfect circle projected onto the city is only a theoretical view. According the US strategic bombing survey map, the actual damage area was more of a jagged shape, following the city’s topography, like a water puddle spreads on the pavement. But we prefer to imagine a circle so we can understand. We hope for a simple limit outside which: “everything is fine”.
Surely you also remember those circles on the TV screen, in march 2011, all around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
I remember the face of my Japanese friend… when we were students in Europe, as he sat in front of his computer, watching the news for hours, without saying a word. The circles were 60 km diameter this time. Radiation circles “looking like the sun”, writes Hideo Furukawa. “The land of the sun. The new country of Japan”.
In Hiroshima today the circle has very little physical presence. What remains has been carefully isolated. Even at its center, ground zero, exactly below the point of explosion 600m above, there is only the simplest of monument: “it’s just a plate (只是一個牌子)” declares the top mandarin comment on TripAdvisor  .
Fortunately 200m further stands the landmark, the Genbaku dome. Thanks to its reinforced concrete structure it could not be completely erased by the blast and the flames. Today its carcass in half-life is maintained behind fences, so that it doesn’t pour its horror out in the adjacent urban space. Other calcined or distorted remains are kept in a modernist museum designed by Kenzo Tange, which windows are nowadays darkened, and which is separated from the ground by piles, in a park itself separated from the city by the river Ota and Motoyasu. And all around the city lives, with its parking towers, its tramways and drunken businessmen. Detached from its ancient remains as if to say: it did not happen “here”. It happened nowhere. It happened everywhere.
Thus the tourist cannot find here a solution to his problem. He who was prepared to find a place for a tragedy must face the weight of a tragedy that remains within him. So, as a form of relief, to give it some kind of dimension in the space of the city, he engages into shameful games of superimposition. He imagines the boundary of the circle, which passes right behind a tunnel 300 meters from his hotel, where the street crosses the Shinkansen tracks. 300 meters to escape the circle. He plans multiple escape routes: the shortest would be to pass the bridge above the Enko river. After the bridge everything still burns for a kilometer, but according to the American survey maps, the survival rate reaches 73%.
On a rental bicycle the tourist makes the experiment, from the hotel to the bridge, only three minutes if all traffic lights are green. That’s the time it takes to escape. He then tries other routes, crossing the limit on several locations, all day long under the august sun, he measures the circle. Eventually the tourist crosses the entire diameter from north to south, passing the Hiroshima castle, the Dome, the red traffic lights and the tramway tracks, which takes him 40 minutes. Those 40 minutes… Is that enough of a dimension?
He rides along the river for several kilometers, all the way to the Hiroshima bay. The river widens as it prepares to flow in the ocean. The water is flat and calm, offering against the tight Japanese city the refuge of a radical surface. On the bank, a few fishermen. And the strange vision of a man playing the trumpet while a woman stands in front of him, holding the music sheet. The woman is slowly stepping back, as if to force the sound out of the trumpet. The man plays louder but the river is too large and takes back the sound from him right away.
So the man stops playing. He walks to the tourist and explains: he plays for the Carps, the baseball team of Hiroshima. Every morning he comes here to practice with his wife. He describes, to the tourist, the sunrises early on the morning, there on the east, behind the river and the city. And the helicopter he saw once, and the American president that came out of it. Of course everyone here remembers the discourse. About the bomb. And how it can still happen, anywhere… but it was important for the president to come here. And for the trumpet player to tell that story.
He returns to his wife and starts playing again. So the tourist looks east. He imagines the sun rising there, all red, and the helicopter flying in front of it. And above the city, above the sun, far enough to be entirely visible, the sphere suspended 600 meter in the air, boiling. We can only imagine such a landscape.
Will we be able to imagine Onkalo? What could be the shape of a memory that can sustain 100 000 years? What discourse can we make for those we will never know? When the artist Christian Bolanski was asked if he could imagine a memorial for the holocaust, he answered: “If one were to make such a memorial, one would have to remake it every day”. Because the act of remembering only arises in the present, memory is the privilege of the living. At their mercy. To be fragmented and rebuilt at wish. De Certeau writes: “it is not localizable, sort of an anti-museum. Or an “anti-monument”, as defined by Spanish theorist Josep Montaner when describing Eisenman’s holocaust memorial in Berlin: “pure silence” in which memory is ceaselessly delocalized and brought back in the present by the act of wandering between concrete slabs.
But for Onkalo we must build the memory of a tragedy that is yet to come. We are tempted to transform this memory into a warning. To inscribe it on Onkalo itself in the most readable language, signs able to cross cultures and ages, and which solemn character would perhaps remind us of the curses left on the walls of Ancient Egypt:
“They who shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose”.
But we must say, of those curses, that they are in fact extremely rare, at least in a written form that we could find today. Most Egyptian graves did not bare any. And that is for us the most important warning: that the Egyptians themselves did not find them necessary. That is, they could not imagine that the world, someday, would be different enough for someone to dare coming inside those sacred places. They could not imagine us today, going in. There is, in the simple passing of time, a hidden revolution that gives an ancient closed door less value than a new one. This is the man to whom we would give the memory of Onkalo: a man that venerates then later desecrates the exact same place.
Perhaps would it be wiser not to remember Onkalo. The cowardly relief of oblivion… surely it will come, but not from us. We cannot just take a chair and sit on top of Onkalo and then wait until we forget. That cavity is there, and we stand here, terrified. We cannot forget because we know what it would mean. To forget is to take our trust back from men and give it to chaos. And hope chaos won’t bring picks and plows to the wrong place. But during those 100 000 years, there will be enough time for that.
This time that appeared in our hands as a residue of nuclear fission, it is unwanted, inhumane. It is the time of nature. Long, motionless and continuous. Inside the conscience of the human species unwinds, discontinuous, a circular progression of returns and repetitions; the descend of man that goes down its spiral staircase, misses a step, wakes up a level below without any recollection, then keeps descending. Several times maybe the amnesiac man will encounter Onkalo. This lengthy time distills human certitude into a pool in which everything is possible. It builds the possibility of man into an impossible place. Transforms this place, despite us, into architecture. And to counter this time we can neither trust ourselves to forget, or to remember.
Onkalo is to time what the atomic bomb was to space. The Hiroshima cavity was an enormous circular perforation of space, happening in a single moment. In space Onkalo is only a dot, but it stands at the extremity of a long line, a linear deformation reaching deep into the black poché of time. Stretching the limits of our landscape to future places it doesn’t belong.
The cavity is a well resembling our chalk circles, but these are not the faces of our ancestors that we see inside, these are the faces of our descendants. And these are not prayers, food and currency we hand to them, but the decaying matter of their own death. Death as a fact that we left unresolved. Unfinished. Detached from us, it has acquired its own body. A body made of a place – and of the formidable dimension of natural time. Death is inside the architecture for no one, happening without us. Inside the cavity, death is outliving us.
Another architecture made of a natural time.
The soil of Belgium is muddy and fat, it lies there and doesn’t move much. It does what the soil should do: it gives us potatoes, and a surface to stop us from falling, and for our gaze to rest it gives us the horizon.
In Taiwan the soil moves. One year ago in Pingdong, there was an earthquake, do you remember? It was during Chinese new year.
All day long we play Mahjong… And the TV is on, and the screen is a bright wall behind all the delicious food on the living room table. All day long dishes come and go in front of the firemen and the ambulances and the journalists on the TV screen.
There are those images of an apartment building in Tainan, 17 floors, laid down, or, slumped down on the street. The carcass of a struck down beast. A museum dinosaur. The curve of its spine is outlined against the blue sky. And the balconies turned vertically form the parallel lines of its rib cage. Tiny red and yellow silhouettes are walking on its back, scavenging birds,
or rescuers. They spray on the balconies the number of each floor, even though now every floor is the ground floor. In a few steps they walk all the way to the 17th floor, simply crossing the height of the vanquished building, then dissapear in one of the dark openings from which still hangs a window frame. The TV camera follows them inside. There is no natural light, and the image turns green and noisy. All day long we eat, and all day long they broadcast those images. Of disrupted worlds without floors and ceilings, only walls, and voices, the voices of people piled up among their own things. Chairs, and televisions, and carpets, and wall decorations… Our things. An impossible movement removed them from their daily usage: it is the impossible movement of the soil. And because we had to attach them to the soil, the buildings above move along with it. Suddenly in the evening. When you are lying in bed, all brushed up and clean, that’s when it happens.
You hang on to the sheets. To the person besides you. You’re used to it, you calmly study the intensity of the movement. Nobody says anything, everyone studies. You wonder what is the weight of the reinforced concrete beam above your head, and the weight of the one above it, and the one above it. Was all that weight necessary after all? You wonder from which intensity of movement you would have to get to the front door and run down the eight flights of stairs all the way to the street. Or if you should go to the roof instead. If you have to get out half naked or if you can at least put on some pants and look like a civilized man. A civilized man within rubbles.
This is us. We stand ready. For example it is worth wondering: is it moving right now? Because it can happen anytime in a way it happens all the time.
The floor: above to move, and reinforced concrete, about to give up. Turn over.
It is terrible of course, but also I want to say, obscene. This turnover is obscene. Some apartment, with an entrance door, a bell, where you have to remove your shoes before entering, turning over like a box, turning against its people. Their entire intimacy comes crushing down on them and drags them along in its fall, in some obscene betrayal. The resulting pile is not destroyed but deviant,
a distorted architecture, apartments turned into nightmarish waiting rooms, cavities between two worlds. Inside people survive by drinking what is left from the water dripping from the fire hoses, waiting to be either extracted in time, or definitely buried.
The 2016 earthquake resulted in 117 deaths. The 1999 earthquake was 2415 deaths, so for that one there is a museum. Built around the ruins of a school. A typical Taiwanese school – straight rows of classrooms along the balconies and the sky – today in various states of collapsing which give its balconies the indented esthetic of climate change graphs. There’s also parts of an athletic field. Straight white lines waving a bit, then cut for good.
The ruins are included with care into the architecture of the museum. A new architecture enclosing one that has failed. Gives it a place and keeps it from overflowing. Like the Genbaku dome.
Through the glass and the hallways of the new architecture we look at the remains of the old one, our curious faces pressed against the windows, like the passengers of a car passing over another car crashed into a tree. “Not for us, not for today”.
But surely a new earthquake will someday erase the architecture of today. Will we then build yet another museum, around this museum, around the school? It seems only architecture can suture the wounds of its own failure, again and again. Facing the unpredictable time of earthquakes, the time of nature, we’d like to dream of something else.
The esthetic of the museum appears, perhaps involuntarily, as an ironic answer. Insead of opposing the destruction of the school in front of it, the museum becomes its reflection: following the tendency of those last thirty years, it is made of diagonals, of contradicting angles – a controlled disorder. Pre-stressed. Pre-destroyed? A pre-destruction that would be the esthetic of generation which is too conscious of its speed to think of itself as indestructible. Which abandoned the myth of an eternal architecture for the myth of a timeless one. We do not oppose time, we rather don’t leave anything time could grasp. We build a satire out of it. Next time here, there won’t be any “beautiful ruins”, only ironical ones.
Considering the fast piling of the architecture of the 20th century, Rem Koolhaas wrote the famous statement: “We do not leave pyramids.”
With Onkalo I believe we now have one. The main difference with the Egyptians being that we already know it will fail. No matter how well it is designed, it will never be able to provide us the assurance we need. Whereas the earthquake architecture, which can arise anytime, takes from us the certainty of the present, Onkalo takes from us the certainty of the future. Both architectures are made of an inhuman time which unpredictable dimension cannot be resolved. One cannot shape uncertainty.
The form we give the cavity will only be the décor of the terrible fate of those who will be determined enough to come in. We could leave them messages… Explanations or apologies. But Onkalo in itself is a clear enough message: that a civilization was once willing to produce a hazard it was not able to contain.
Should we build a memorial? Our own “anti-monument”. An ironical one perhaps. Dedicated to the memory of events that haven’t occurred yet… a memorial to the future. Not for our descendants to remember Onkalo – we have seen how hard it is to maintain memory through such an amount of time – but rather for us. For us to remember that someday people will forget.
But isn’t that precisely what Onkalo already is? The architectural representation of this unavoidable turn of fate. A memorial containing its own tragedy… A memorial to oblivion – to be itself forgotten, victim of its own meaning. Victim of a time made by us, forced on us.
Onkalo is an architecture which greater part remains invisible, hidden in the ground, hidden the depth of time. We can only imagine that landscape. Our landscape, the wall of Onkalo, the endless face of a cliff. Within the tiny limits of our time we crawl, we climb the wall, carrying our ropes and picks and shackles, and deployable portable edges that we hang to sleep in the air.
But because Onkalo is invisible we will be able to say of it whatever we want. We’ll have to take advantage of that only right. As it sleeps on the other side of the wall we will talk of Onkalo. We’ll make up stories and rumors – or dances, or paintings. Anything beautiful will count as a small revenge. The absurd power of the words “we know”. And the murmurs of many generations will be silently gathered by the long wall of Onkalo. Could that be, finally, the accurate architectural representation of our human existence, in time? //
 Robert Jungk, Children of the Ashes, Flamingo, 1985, p.24
 Ibid. p.25
 Hideo Furukawa, Horses, horses, in the end the light remains pure, Columbia Uni. Press, 2016 , p.28
 Tripadvisor.com.tw, 2017.03.23
 A. Forty – S. Kuchler, The art of forgetting, Bloomsbury Academic, 1999, p. 6
 Michel De Certeau, The practice of everyday life, Uni. California press, 1988, p.108
 Josep Maria Montaner in : Stefano Corbo, The architecture and philosophy of Peter Eisenman, Ashgate pub, 2014, p. 96
 Valley of the Golden Mummies, Zahi A. Hawass, p. 94–97, American University Press in Cairo Press, 2000
 Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace, Quodlibet, 2006, p. 24