Underlying Locations

The Threshold In The Groundplane of Beijing's Tunnel Network

Throughout history, Beijing’s underground has been the location of solitude and separation from the world above; from providing protection from a nuclear threat in the past, to housing a second society of migrant workers today. A solution to bringing together the two classes in Beijing of public inhabitant and migrant lies in the threshold between the public surface and the latent underground. In bringing the two locations together, there is exploration in the potentials of development in the ground plane.


Beijing in the 1950s was renamed the capital of China under the People’s Republic, becoming the cultural center of the country. The typical housing type of Beijing became the Siheyuan, the courtyard type, flourishing over much of the developing residential city.

Further into the 1960s, Cold War tensions grew between China and other countries. The threat of a potential nuclear attack had become a reality. Chairman Mao Zedong ordered to “dig deep and prepare provisions”, issuing the public to dig a tunnel system underneath their homes that would provide protection for a majority of the city if there was an attack. 

The idea that life would go on underground if the surface of Beijing had been demolished is evident in these actions. In reality though, the attack never came and as time went on the tunnel program dissolved out of plan and eventually out of memory.

The tunnels would remain untouched until the 1980s when the redevelopment of the city would awaken these spaces and keep them activated till today. The pressure of updating to a contemporary city and the influence of globalization are having a toll on its history and its people. While historical places are being demolished, urban public spaces are becoming few. What was once a city of single-story vernacular courtyards is becoming a city of high-rises. Daily leisure activities are being pushed into the alleyways and rather than finding solitude in the teahouse, the new place for rest has become the corner fast-food restaurant. 

Outside of the urban areas, the effects of industry have had their own toll on the land. Due to the effects of pollution and drought, farmers from the west have been migrating to urban areas such as Beijing in search of work. However, their residence in urban areas has been illegal because their individual status categorizes them as rural citizens. As a result of this injustice, they have chosen to live in the abandoned tunnels of the Cold War. Though they have found ways to live invisibly in Beijing, it is not without sacrifice of natural daylight and healthy air ventilation. 

While their presence has been considered illegal, this workforce is needed and welcomed for the building up of Beijing; because of this their illegality is beginning to blur. In the media their presence in the tunnels is now exposed and they’re slowly becoming a considerable fraction of Beijing’s population. What still remains is their presence in underground with inhumane conditions, and the separation from public society.


The solution for bringing together the two classes in Beijing of public inhabitant and migrant worker lies in the threshold between the public surface and the latent underground. The goal of this project is to develop that threshold into spaces that reflect a Beijing from the past and bring together the people of today.


I was selected into the Architecture Thesis Program in the Spring of 2010 to pursue a one-year independent study of a topic of my choosing and it’s relation to the field of architecture. The thesis I developed, Underlying Locations, was presented in the Spring of 2011 and shortly after awarded the Faculty Design Award for Thesis in Architecture.

The topic of the study is a look at Beijing’s underground typology and its relation to the public above and below ground.




Faculty Design Award: Thesis in Architecture 2011

Archinect.com Editor’s Pick #213

Archiprix International Moscow 2013 Nomination


Project Team:
Henry Moll

Beijing, CN


Undergrad Thesis Study