Subterranean Renovations

CLUI photo

CLUI photo

SUBTERRANEAN RENOVATIONS: The Unique Architectural Spaces of Show Caves

Like an elaborate stage for an audienceless performance, spectacular natural caves formed and transformed over the ages in the unseen world of the underground. Typically evolving drop by drop, as the earth melted away with the natural dissolution of limestone, strange sculptural creations grew in hollow cracks and capacious chambers; white curtains of speleothems like frozen waterfalls and delicate dioramas of stalactites mutated in geologic slow motion. Shallow pools of still water would mirror seemingly limitless distances, were it not for the absence of light, and sounds would echo, oddly magnified, except for the near total silence.

When modern humans came into this subterranean world, first as explorers, then as tourists, they brought with them both light and sound, as well as shovels, cement, electricity, postcards, and fried chicken. From the first lantern-led tours through Mammoth Cave in the early 1800's to the drive-through caves of today, the two hundred or so caves in the country that have been opened to the public (out of over 30,000 caves discovered in the United States so far) have been transformed by the interests of tourism and the fancy of cave owners and promoters.

Most modifications to the natural cave are of a practical nature, made in order to accommodate visitors. New cave entrances are blasted to allow more convenient access, pathways are installed to allow visitors to move easily along the otherwise uneven cave floor, and lighting of some type is installed to make the formations and pathways visible. The cave developers that go beyond these basic alterations begin a sort of architectural discourse between the strange natural underground features with sometimes stranger-still man-made forms. The effect is the creation of unprecedented, and even sublime spaces, reflecting the complex relationship between humans and the non-human natural world.

1998 CLUI Research Project