Caves, architecture and ‘Disappearing Ground’

To build above, you must understand the forces below

In geology, there are no perfect circles. Lakes, craters, caves and sinkholes can approximate the shape, but a closer look always reveals the effects — messy, irregular and inevitable — of erosion and sedimentation. Contours and boundaries are constantly changing.

For architects and designers, this poses a challenge. How does one build in a landscape that is perpetually evolving?

This fall, students at Washington University in St. Louis explored that question as part of “Disappearing Ground,” a speculative design studio centering on Fogelpole Cave. Located about 30 miles southeast of St. Louis in Prairie du Rocher, Fogelpole is the largest cave in Illinois, situated within a vast sinkhole plain that boasts miles of underground creeks and rivers.

“A sinkhole plain is limestone that’s internally drained, so when water hits the ground, you don’t see surface streams,” said Aaron Addison, director of collaborative research and data/GIS for University Libraries, who co-teaches the studio with Gia Daskalakis, associate professor of architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

“All that water is going underground and flowing out through a spring,” Addison added. “It’s really a contained ecosystem, both hydrologically and biologically. You see the interaction of organisms with water, with land use, and with human impact in that one very confined area.”

Over the past several years, Addison has been part of a team researching and mapping those underground waterways. For “Disappearing Ground,” students visited Fogelpole and explored how the cave continues to be shaped by sinkholes and other forces. Then, back in the studio, the group began speculating about what a potential logistics camp might look like. For example, the program might include facilities for research and storage, a small library, temporary housing and pathways to facilitate movement.

“The students are trying to understand how the sinkhole relates to a larger landscape,” Daskalakis said. “How do you insert some new understanding into a condition that you’ve found? So being able to go into the cave was fantastic.”

Architecture student Ruth Blair Moyers concurred, noting that, at first, students were simply drawn to the uniqueness of the site. Yet the more they learned, the more responsibility they felt to find ways to integrate their designs within the landscape, rather than simply imposing their designs upon it.

“I think a lot of us have realized that architecture, especially in a sinkhole plain, has to be gentle on the landscape,” she said. “Because the landscape is always changing.”

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