There is a striking paradox in the fact that, from that which is called architecture, commonly designing the world of buildings, the ground is excluded, in that the very area in which man has produced the most architecture – one could say that man has most “architectured” – in the course of his history, is precisely the ground itself. The word architecture has become extraordinarily partial and reduced, performing a self-mutilation in separating these two worlds. Besides the growing separation between the realm of buildings and that of the ground, architecture today is not only shrinking, but is also detaching itself from the planet that hosts it.
It seems essential to us, on the one hand, to draw attention to something that is currently overlooked, the ground, and on the other to anchor this fresh attention in an unprecedented awareness of the fact that the ground is constructed.
The ground is generally considered as a membrane. This is the visible part and the surface of exchange between two inextricably linked thicknesses: a medium comprising a material part (telluric) and an airy part (atmospheric). It is an experienced double thickness, and its surface, like a façade, is the threshold that permits these exchanges. Historically, humans have constructed this thickness, in the sense that they have sought to render the Earth habitable. The architecture of the ground represents the manner in which humans have relentlessly transformed the Earth’s crust in remodelling it.
Numerous reasons would explain the historic lack of consideration for the ground and its built character, but two essential ones justify renewed attention, for which we want to appeal to architects and those involved in related disciplines, as well as to broader society beyond.
The first of these reasons addresses the fact that the ground has become rare. We now know the effect produced, in a finite world, by the limits to its known resources. This effect may be called “the great acceleration”, or “the tipping point” (basculement): the exponential curve of the exploitation of the Earth, under the action of demographic pressure and the transformation of technique. We Europeans, notably, who have emerged from this period of brutal expansion, live with what one could superficially call the: “illusory principle of re-balancing”. What is less known, however, is that this acceleration is far from over. Numerous studies identify the extent to which the planet continues its transformation, the urbanisation of territories and the building up of the ground. (In 2012, the American study Global Forecast of Urban Expansion to 2030 notably predicts the tripling of the urban surface between 2000 and 20301). In “fat” economies, as much as in “lean” ones the ground has become a finite resource, a field of tensions and greed on a global scale, on which these sectors meet and confront each other. Obviously, this rarity confers major importance on the construction we now make on this ground.
The second reason is related to the issue of infrastructure, which may be considered a fundamental meeting point between the ground and architecture. The activity of building the ground can be envisaged as the creation of an infrastructure. But what this term confirms today is augmented by what infrastructure technique has become since the industrial “great acceleration”. It has become progressively autonomous, demonstrating its capacity to leave the ground’s surface, to become an identifiable object, while reproducing or replacing it. If the infrastructure is, like the edifice, the product of a programme and a site, in reality it is more than that. Notably, because of its extraordinary temporal and spatial dimensions, it produces, once constructed, a new site, which replaces that which had generated it: it is a new ground. Infrastructure is also an extreme formulation of that which could be the architecture of the ground: at once an architecture (in the sense of edifice) and a ground (in the sense of site). Attention to the ground logically draws attention to the infrastructure. But one doesn’t take this word only to refer to things designed communally (motorways, canals, railways and other links) but also for its capacity to represent an indissoluble connection between the ground and its construction (as a double of the nature-culture binary). This cries out for thoughts about the construction of terrestrial infrastructure.
Evidently the ground intrinsically possesses this character of open space, and the whole project must take advantage of, and even stimulate, that capacity. To think the ground is to consider that each particular (or private) space constructs itself in a subtraction from the communal (or public). The ground is an unachieved construction par excellence, called to adapt and transform itself, and in this sense is surely that which will permit architecture to renew its rapport with its own epoch.
Thus if one considers that to settle in the Earth, to anchor on its ground, necessitates thinking and an architectural action, even though no building makes itself visible, it becomes evident and exciting to throw oneself, to dive into the architecture of the ground.
As a common good and a resource becoming ever rarer, a part of the planet which we share and where we organize collective life, with a decisive ecological dimension in the management of the current environmental crisis, the Earth’s ground lies at the crossroads of basic challenges for our urban civilization. It would seem essential that, on the one hand, attention be paid to this object that is somewhat ignored nowadays, and, on the other, that this new attention should be rooted in a new form of consciousness, an awareness that the ground is constructed and fashioned by human beings. This research being developed by TVK is incarnated and tested in particular in the transformation of the major transportation infrastructures, conceived as open areas, available for new uses, and in the conception of public places where people gather, in which movement, forms of mobility, uses and occupations are intense and play an essential part. These lines of thought, taken as a whole, have culminated in the powerful conviction that the ground is a supreme example of an unfinished construction, called upon to adapt and change, and in this sense, that this ground-based project will undoubtedly enable architecture to renew its relation to time.