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Humanity’s playful, long-held passion for underground dwellings

In Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical movie, we feel entitled to go back to the director’s idealized childhood. We see the protagonist’s young, humble parents moving into a whitewashed cave home somewhere near the coast, searching for work and a new start in life. Antonio Banderas plays the mature filmmaker revisiting some of his childhood’s transformative moments.

Arriving at a cave house in Paterna, near Valencia, Spain (“Dolor y gloria,” Pedro Almodóvar, 2019)

Almodóvar didn’t have to recreate the neighborhood of whitewashed cave homes that appears in the movie: they are the Coves del Batà, real homes in the town of Paterna outside Valencia, on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, now a little museum. Thanks to this heritage, we can experience through Pain and Glory a cave home against the blue sky and the sharp shadows of the area, an earthy version of her mother’s enveloping world. Banderas plays the mature director, whereas Penélope Cruz is his young mother during the recurrent flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood.

But such humble homes, a type of vernacular that vanished from Europe as living conditions improved and modern building standards developed, experience a revival as hobbyists and local authorities realize their historical value and potential as cultural attractions, but also as models of low environmental impact and adaptation to extreme conditions.

The underground house Bill Lishman envisioned

Popular culture has often exploited our fascination fur such organic, protective shelters. They also have become the real homes of very particular families, such as the one raised by the Lishmans in rural Canada. Bill Lishman became a world sensation when his little, heroical conservation story leading geese to relearn how to fly back home by flying with them. Lishman had begun training Canada Geese to follow his ultralight aircraft, making his Operation Migration a reality. The Quixotic adventure became the movie Fly Away Home, a family blockbuster directed by Jeff Daniels in 1996.

When we visited the Lishmans’ house in 2018, Bill Lishman had sadly passed away; we were greeted by his wife, who showed us the underground home they had designed and built for their family. They had moved there after spending “too many winters” in a poorly-insulated A-frame cabin; they envisioned a burrow-like, protective underground home that would keep them in perfect temperature conditions all year round, so they knocked the top off a hill in their property, dropped in ferro-cement domes and covered it up again with dirt. Generous, Gaudiesque skylights cut into every dome as the Pantheon’s oculus in Rome, their house was naturally well-lit even in wintertime, despite being below the frost line.

In search of the ideal troglodyte home

In France, some historical regions, such as the Loire and the Dordogne valley, are known for their chateaus but also for their well-preserved examples of cave living in what people call troglodyte homes. Only in the commune Saumur, famous for its limestone, there are over a thousand miles of underground tunnels, sometimes connecting among them some of the thousands of cave homes, which had become ideal dwellings for quarrymen since the Middle Ages. Reviving a troglodyte home can be challenging, economical, and life-changing: such projects take the new troglodyte dwellers out the beaten paths of financing and permitting, and necessary workarounds dictate the realpolitik of living safely in them once restored.

Back in 2011, coming back from some friends’ wedding that had taken place near Nantes, we visited Henri Grevellec, a retired teacher who in 2000 he had decided to renovate an ancient troglodyte compound of six former homes outside the windy town of Grezille. Especially knowledgeable about the history and environmental challenges of his region, Henri explained life at his home with passion. Living by himself in such a big dwelling, he had turned just one of the dwellings into his home. A modern but humble kitchen and bathroom, a modest bedroom and a dining room next to the door covered all his needs. He confessed to having indulged in just one feature: he had added a skylight in his bedroom to improve air exchange and bring a bit of natural light to it.

But the times in which limestone formations in central France had become ideal for troglodyte houses, farms, and even entire villages such as Louresse-Rochemenier, fell into oblivion as country dwellers clustered around cities and organized factories after French Revolution, when progress also meant improvement —and standardization— of living conditions and vernaculars. The houses that survived as humble shelters around villages did so not only as a testimony of past lifestyles and rhythms but also as a vector for social, environmental, and economic reinvention.

Like living inside a Rembrandt painting

Less than one and a half hours by car from Henry Grevellec’s troglodyte dwelling, in the village of the commune of Amboise, known for the royal chateau that hosts the little chapel where Leonardo da Vinci is buried, Alexis Lamoureux wanted to achieve financial independence. So when the town sold a derelict cave home that had belonged to his great aunt at a symbolic price, he enrolled his girlfriend, Lotte van Riel, to restore the structure and a little annex to use as their residence, turning the annex into a rental for extra income. Unable to get a loan, the young couple invested in the dwelling’s structural issues and revamped the interior themselves in their little free time while still working. “We were lucky enough to have a project and focus on it, so all the money we had we just invested it in the place,” explained Lamoureux.

A drive for playing with a challenging project and the promise of turning a hobby into an opportunity for extra income, or even a new professional life in which to align vernacular restoration with the freedom of self-employment, led other people to pursue a similar trajectory with troglodytes across France. Not far from La Magnanerie de Bourré, a noted cluster of restored troglodyte homes around an old site of silk garment production, Sandrine Lafage and her husband found a derelict compound with much work to be done. The property at Noyers-sur-Cher, whose surroundings had hosted thousands of American troops during World War I, comprised the moulin de la Motte Baudoin, a historic windmill, as well as a cave, and a barn. The couple invested their savings in transforming the different dwellings, interconnected through an ancient maze of tunnels, into a B&B.

Five hours south from Val-de Cher, Julien Cohen’s bought his first home, a small cave home ruin perched on a cliff in the troglodytic village of La Roque Gageac, in the picturesque Dordogne, as a fixer-upper bargain. He restored the small derelict building on a budget, living in it as he improved it in his free time. Later, when it became too difficult to live on it for his growing family, he turned it into a rental that completes the family’s income despite the challenge of going through the restrictions of a one-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

From ancestral Puebloan cliff homes to modern megalithic ones

In North America, the Anasazi ancestral people inhabited the present-day Four Corners region of the United States, built pit houses and entire cities — often carved on steep canyon cliffs for defensive and bioclimatic purposes— centuries before the arrival of Europeans to the area. Using stone, adobe, and plant fiber blends, they built a network of villages that the Spanish would later rename pueblos. Left to decay due to forgotten wars or cataclysmic events in the region, Spanish explorers related the mysterious civilization’s remains to the mythic Seven Cities of Cibola —the myth of the cities made of gold, one of the Eldorados, repurposed legends of fantastic riches that Europeans would ruthlessly search for generations across the Americas.

The forming of the United States took shape through the navigation and settlement across the tributaries of the Mississippi, and later on through the caravan westbound routes driving migrants to remote homesteads where they would clash with Native Americans, trappers, fur traders, loggers, and all sorts of hucksters. Frontier dwellings took different shapes, quite often inspired by the evolved temporary and permanent dwellings of different Native American tribes. When lacking wood and in arid conditions, some pioneers would imitate traditional sunken homes such as hogans. Later on, the peripatetic, individualistic character celebrated by Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, or Jack London inspired a counterculture of unconventional lifestyles, from itinerancy to types of simple living that would often seek a symbiotic connection with Nature, as if the playfulness of sunken and underground dwellings were also a way to bring back an innocence lost to modernity.

Amid the forested, steep valleys of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, in the Bavarian-themed mountain town of Leavenworth, semi-retired attorney Steve Demarest bought a rocky, unproductive lot across the road from his house by the river, and ended up using it as his play area: noticing the space that could open under a few massive slabs of rock, he created a megalithic home amid boulders, a project between him and the mountain with echoes in childhood games, but also in primitive times.

Not long from Demarest’s megalithic underground home, which he rents to skiers and excursions, pleased to find it keeps warm in wintertime and maintains its cool in the summertime due to the constant temperature of the dwelling’s colossal thermal mass, Kristie Wolfe bought a hilly rural property where she built an underground home “in the shire,” inspired in fantastic references, from survivalism in the US West to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Wolfe’s folk-traditional approach to inspiring underground living contrasts with the modern, experimental take of one of the pioneers of underground building, both in the literal and in the conceptual sense: in 1968, like thousands of other San Franciscans going “back to the land,” Mike Oehler bought a property and began building a homestead. But, after a freezing winter in a small cabin, he decided to design the most affordable, best possible home to keep him warm in wintertime and cool in summer. Oehler had begun his quest exploring underground homes, eventually writing the underground best-seller on the topic: The $50 & Up Underground House Book. Oehler passed away in 2016, a little over a year since we visited him, writing to Kirsten a farewell email to keep fighting for useful content. Oehler had become the ultimate “Idaho modern oldtimer” indeed.

In our times: survivalism redux

It’s been a bumpy beginning of the century’s third decade, and we have had to revisit a lot of assumptions that nobody questioned until recently. As if extreme climate events and a pandemic were a mere beginning, the risk of open war in Europe (or even the remote possibility of a World War III with a potential nuclear escalation) brings back the specter of history. The consequences of supply chain dysfunction and gas prices require short-term policies that hide once more the undergoing tensions between identitarian and environmental perspectives of the world.

With our YouTube channel, self-reliance and preparedness are stripped of their fringe, wacky labels and get prime attention, as if the lost interest in old entertainment institutions such as the Oscars and award ceremonies had been replaced by survivalist amateur videos and the post-apocalyptic tramp clothing from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. As we picture Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee sauntering across a post-consumer dealing with collapse, we can check in social media how the meme-isation of war brings to any display how this fantasy plays in real life for families in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Viggo Mortensen & Kodi Smit-McPhee, protagonists of the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road”

The interest in small-scale farming, self-reliance, and survival against cataclysms due to extreme weather events, civil unrest, or open war, transcends the current events since it resurfaces the generational wounds and fears that nurture what analytical psychologist Carl Jung called “the collective unconscious.” Bushcraft and survival shelters don’t belong exclusively to boy scouts’ how-to handbooks anymore, whereas book sales and activity in online forums show a genuine interest in DIY adaptation, from guerrilla warfare for dummies to ongoing speculation about urban designs capable of resisting turbulent times.

In pop culture: from The Road to Star Wars

If in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, protagonists escape from cannibal marauders after they luckily stumble upon the hidden, well-provisioned underground doom shelter where they allow themselves to indulge amid the provisions they won’t be able to carry as they try to reach the coast for survival. In Texas, maker Ron Hubbard has spent the last decade building underground shelters. He claims his factory outside Dallas is the world’s largest bomb shelter factory, where he builds underground metallic structures that, once installed, provide emergency shelter for a growing, heterogeneous public. Hubbard can explain a story or two about some of his clients’ wealth or beliefs but did not elaborate. After we visited him, The New York Times ran an article on Hubbard, wondering if “doomsday bunkers could become the new normal.” Fear and millenarian beliefs often go hand in hand in some remote areas of the United States and the world.

There’s no such thing as waste to plants, since their roots feed underground from nutrients coming from the eternal return of the cycle of life, a process of regeneration from decay that has always inspired our speculations about who we are. To Greek mythology, the underworld is a distinct realm, one where one individual goes after death. Being for the Greek one of the three realms of the cosmos along with the heavens and the earth, the underworld had rich, complex geography with rivers, lakes, entrances, meadows, the Elysian fields where heroes were accepted after crossing the Styx, or even the dark, deep no man’s land of the Tartarus. Other traditions have their equivalent to Hades, from Christianity to Celtic, Chinese, or Egyptian mythologies.

Yet in worlds fantastic and real, from Tolkien’s Middle Earth hobbit homes to underground villages and ancient cities in the Levant such as Petra, as well as in Cappadocia, Central Asia, and ancient China, earth homes protect dwellers from extreme events and attacks. Besides the troglodytic tradition across France and some clusters of derelict cave dwellings across the Iberian Peninsula, the Western Mediterranean shores host other populations of partially underground or cave homes sometimes inhabited since the Paleolithic period, such as the Sassi di Matera, in the Southern region of Basilicata, as well as the Berber town of Matmâta, in Tunisia, an arid, hilly landscape mottled with the whitewashed entry of ancient cave homes capable of bringing us to a remote time, no matter if ancient or futuristic: the area’s dwellings entered pop culture in 1976 as a local underground building became Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Hermit dwellings amid boulders

We imagine populations going about their daily routines while protecting themselves against invasions and wars of religion in events from a past that mesmerizes us with their fantastic allure —and their influence in modern science fiction. The sheer scale of some of the rock carvings still stands as impressive: in Petra, the hidden underground town in current Jordan, the massive theatre took shape when the city founders, the Nabateans, hollowed out a hill nearby. The theatre had horizontal sections of seats that accommodated 8,500 people, though the Romans enlarged it later on.

When we decided to take a ferry from Italy into Igoumenitsa, the passenger port in northwest Greece not far from Ulysses’ Ithaca, we made sure our endeavors through Epirus, Macedonia, and Thessaly had some spare time in between to switch from highways to small roads and mountain paths, such as the ones leading to the carved remainings of humble hermit dwellings perched on the almost unaccessible boulders of Meteora. Archeologist studies trace back the origin of such secluded humble dwellings of wood, stone, and precarious masonry to the Paleolithic era, several millennia before Christians were attracted to the area’s majestic boulders. The most primitive perched shacks pop out organically from natural caves and carved burrows on some of the most spectacular vertical boulders. With time, with monasticism flourishing in Byzantine times, the early hermit dwellings were replaced by monasteries, which survived and even flourished under Ottoman rule. Lost in vertical dirt tracks among such Meteora remote boulders, we experienced the area’s silence, isolation, and rough beauty, as if we were transported to the slow rhythms of geological time.

Whether natural-occurring or excavated, underground dwellings keep a steady temperature and moisture levels all year round. After World War II, as weapons increased their range and dangerousness, the two Cold War superpowers set up to build complex underground facilities to keep their respective civilizations running were it be a big-scale nuclear conflict. Sophisticated and rudimentary bomb shelters became the modern version of ancient survival retreats and prepping for post-catastrophe survival evolved at times into a state of mind, often associated with a millenarianism religious interpretation applying an apocalyptic timetable to reality.

Deep time

But there’s also something playful and protective about underground shelters that brings mankind back to a mythical time, one with reminiscences of the oldest cave paintings in the world, or perhaps of our forgotten life in the womb. We seek protection from the elements and external threats in the controlled, burrow-like environment of the underground, and natural caves are among the oldest inhabited natural shelters in the world, but excavated and earth shelters, temporary or permanent, appear among the most ancient vernacular architecture across the world.

The future of underground shelters seems brighter for underground shelters than some would think, though the reasons for the growing interest in underground dwellings are not always reassuring, as extreme weather conditions and the perceived risk of societal trouble rise in the century’s third decade. At this point, we are too far apart from the twentieth century to keep blaming current issues on legacy mistakes.

Above all, Gaudi-Esque, organic-looking sunken dwellings remind us of a remote past we can’t quite picture but hold an intuition or two about, as if, in evoking life on a protective, cavernous burrow we entered the oneiric world of a dream orchestrated by Salvador Dalí. In it, mythology blends with our birth, and also with the commencement of art and religious belief, when tens of thousands of years ago, keeping a flickering fat-burning flame from a bone lamp in one hand while painting with the other, a member of our species (or maybe even a member of a cousin of our species) had illuminated a cave with a mesmerizing abstract representation of the perceived reality.