Listen to the World Beneath Your Feet

Laura Di Summa & Achille Varzi

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St Louis, Missouri. Photo Robert A. Melnick

In 1994 ROBERTO CASATI and ACHILLE VARZI published a book called Holes and Other Superficialities with MIT Press. In the same year a book of photography of manhole covers came out, looking at their design, beauty and variety.

For holes have marvellous metaphysics, and there is a quantity of manholes that cannot be ignored. It is also a question of quality, the outstanding quality of holes. A manhole is an inevitable implication of the main act of living in a city, or rather, walking in cities is an obstacle race among holes, urban holes.

Let’s build up a guide, something to make us remember how much theory lies behind a hole, how much upside-down architecture there is, and how much of a dream this can be.

Lousville, Kentucky. Photo Robert A. Melnick

Immaterial Errors
Let’s start from the beginning: we all perceive the existence of holes, but not their substance. A hole is something that isn’t there. The first step is to pretend, to lie, and lying about holes is a way of simplifying: I talk about holes so as to avoid talking about everything that surrounds them, a perimeter that also includes what is underneath, or covered. Or you can choose to see them as imperfections: holes as gaps or errors, and errors are human and therefore acceptable.

Lastly we say nothing: holes are complementary, a complementary dimension. Something which goes on just below the level of the pavement. These are manholes and the level is a walk around the city.

Berkeley, California. Photo Robert A. Melnick

Building back to front
Manholes are cities in their own right. Vertical forms of construction, with surfaces which extend horizontally. Objects which can be used, utilised and put together. But the vertical and horizontal dimensions are infinite, and extend way way down, not to the underworld, but to the world underneath, the sudden existence of which gives rise to pure astonishment. Building upside down means starting to dig, discovering that holes were the first dens, the safest lairs, more human than animal.

Lousiville, Kentucky. Photo Robert A. Melnick

The emptiness below
Cities are weak organisms that grow over holes. They are cultural stilts which have grown over history. Catacombs, the entrances to pyramids, underground cities with earth where the sky should be. There’s nothing we can do: the ability to dig holes is an evolutionary mechanism, a skill which determines natural selection.

The best holes are models, projects. Urban models. Little excavations, holes of different sizes, holes as the magic key to the eternal city, something we never see, but we never doubt the existence of. And under the manholes lie sewers, cables, heating: things we never see but which are always, undoubtedly vital.

New York City. Photo Robert A. Melnick

Timeless tales
Manhole covers bear few words encapsulating the identity of their holes. But down there, where the human
dream goes out and the urban dream lights up, something is being guarded down there. It is the invisible democracy of space. Underground, the outermost edges of light dissipate, as does the horizon. The revolution of holes lies in the achievement of reinventing space by eliminating it, piecing together time by doing away with chronology. Holes are all incredibly timeless.

Los Angeles Water, photo Robert A. Melnick

Endless shapes
A hole is the sum of all holes. Just as metaphysics is the sum of its various versions. Thoughts travel round cavities, spaces that fill up and others that empty out. Rational thought and perception lie together in the same hole, at once finely woven designs traced on a sketchpad and experiences where a stroll is an adequate form of intuition. Two cities in the same hole: fallible sensitivity and infallible rationality. And only now do we begin to understand that holes have edges and outlines, but no end.

Topek, Kansas, photo Robert A. Melnick

Indelible truths
No-one can fake a hole. I have seen children tread on them with insistent regularity, and I thought they were
doing it to grow up, to lend an adult rhythm to their unsteady steps. They were making their own regular form of truth. Perhaps I was one of those children myself, and maybe I found my own form of regularity much later.

When I began to think that a gap was an event and that this event lay just under a cover. A heavy cover bearing designs not made for display. That was when I started paying attention to them, just like when I was a child.

Beaumont, Texas. Traffic button. Not a manhole cover, but a good place to stop. Photo Robert A. Melnick

Alice fell down a hole, and Wonderland opened up before her. It was a world with a narrow entrance, but a dream that cannot be forgotten.

Holes are cavities to fill memory with imagination. So the imagination does not take flight, castles in the air are turned upside down, spires reach downwards to the deepest darkest places, in a dream of an underground city which, quite simply, we have never seen. But now we know where it is, and where the doors are: dozens of them in a single walk.