EARTHBOX GEOLOGY: Ancient Mystery Beneath Our Feet

Beneath our feet lies an invisible realm, mysterious and forgotten. A sacred vault untouched by human hands containing records of ancient landscapes and invisible rivers flowing through hidden valleys.

To venture into these depths is to go back in time. The lower our descent, the further back we travel.    

In setting out to create a space for stillness and intimate contact with the earth, we were amazed by what we discovered when we started digging.

Peeling back the layers

Located on a previously farmed field at Lourensford Estate in Somerset West, the EARTHBOX site has three distinct and discernable layers of soil: Topsoil, Transported Soils and Lateritic (Plinthic) Soils.

Deposited by wind and water and combined with decomposing organic matter, the topsoil is brown, slightly clayey silt. Previously disturbed by agricultural activities to a depth of 0.7m, it bears traces of orchards uprooted decades ago.

Just below the topsoil, transported soil comprises a 1.4m thick layer of light yellowish brown, fine silty sand with scattered sandstone cobbles, and pebbled gravel marking the base of the layer. 

Geologists estimate that this soil was deposited here (and throughout the Lourensford River valley)  somewhere between 66 million years to 2.6 million years ago.

To put it into context:

This is when the Pliocene epoch came to an end and when the Megalodon as well as countless other mammals and marine megafauna went extinct. 

It’s also when our oldest human relatives first walked the earth. This makes you among the first and only modern humans ever to touch these ancient layers. 

Finally, as we descend into the main chamber, we find ourselves surrounded by rich orange clay originating from the Tygerberg Formation of the Malmesbury Group, originally formedthe rich orange clay characterising the Tygerberg Formation of the Malmesbury Group, formed roughly 635 - 541 million years ago, before being eroded and transported here to their current resting place 2.6 million years ago.

Here, you might notice distinctive colouration - mottled yellow, red and/or black flecks - created over centuries by the movement of iron in fluctuating groundwater. 

If you look closely, you can see traces of long-lost waterways: the rounded pebbles recall the flow of the rivers & streams that shaped them and their shape in the walls reflects the riverbeds where they came to rest.  

200 000 years ago, these streams gave water to the ancestors and relatives of the Khoi and San peoples that later lived here.

The presence of their stone tools in layers of sediment in the region helps scientists date the history of humanity. 

The aftermath of EARTHBOX

When EARTHBOX closes, all the excavated earth (temporarily used in berms and landscape) will be returned to the earth, filling the hole in the respective layers. 

All the materials used in construction will be removed, the roof dismantled and repurposed, boards and roof sheets donated and the entry pavilion auctioned to enjoy another life. 

The field will return to its prior appearance.

The earth returning to its ancient dreams.

EARTHBOX DESIGN: Creating an Unhindered Human Encounter with the Earth

When last did you allow your thoughts to travel down along your bones, through the soles of your feet and into the depths far below? 

For many of us, the answer is… well… never, actually. 

Central to the human experience

Despite the integral role soil plays in the entire human experience - from being the incubator in which our food is grown and  the foundations on which we build our homes, to receiving the bodies of our dearly departed - we spend remarkably little time pondering its presence. 

Let alone exploring its complex textures with our senses.  

There is, in fact, a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that regular direct skin contact with the earth for at least 30 minutes per session (aka Earthing/Grounding) may have a plethora of positive effects on human health and well-being, including reduction of stress and inflammation levels, mood enhancement, reduced muscle damage and even balancing of circadian rhythms. 

Walking barefoot on the beach, gardening without gloves or simply sitting with uncovered legs stretched out luxuriously on the back lawn will do the trick. 

An immersive journey into the world below

However, when we started dreaming about creating a space that could facilitate uninterrupted contact between humans and the earth, we found our imaginations reaching for something well beyond the homely and the known.

We found ourselves asking the question: What if we could experience the earth from INSIDE? 

The idea quickly evolved from creating an experience where people could descend into a hole in the ground and view the layers of earth from behind a pane of glass, to something far larger and more enigmatic.

A vision of cathedral-esque proportions emerged, where raw earth is exposed, offering a full and immersive sensory experience. 

Considering the sandiness and rockiness characterising much of the Cape Peninsula and surrounding -Flats, we did wonder: would this even be possible?

Expert opinions and perfect locations

Knowing full well just how crazy our idea might sound to others, we set out in search of expert opinions. 

Initial discussions with geologists and geotechnical engineers elicited an overwhelmingly positive response as well as a breakdown of the type of geological formations that would be able to accommodate the subterranean chamber we had in mind. 

Within no time, we were scouring the greater Cape Town region for suitable sites and eventually landed upon the perfect contender: a previously farmed stretch of land at Lourensford Estate in Somerset West, largely unused except when serving as a parking lot for the occasional event.

Once an environmental impact assessment confirmed no ecosystem would be harmed, we dug a test pit to see what lay deeper beneath the surface. The first 2.5 metres down consisted of loose, previously disturbed alluvial soils; and below that, dense clay that, if treated right, would hold its shape optimally.

Working engineering wonders

It was soon established that the twin challenges we faced in the construction of EARTHBOX would be to retain and secure the loose and crumbly upper layers while leaving the deeper dense layers relatively pristine.

A detailed plan was devised to secure the upper layers with ‘bobby pins and a hairnet’ i.e. 400 steel rods of 3m and 6m long to hold a high-tensile steel mesh in place that covers and stabilises the loose soil. 

In turn, to make the dense clay chamber below structurally stable, the walls would require a 70-degree angle slope and be benched with a step halfway up. 

The process was continually informed by our design intention of creating a space for unhindered human interaction with raw earth. This means that although the chamber has been optimally engineered, it has been done with care  to cause minimal disturbance to this ancient soilscape. 

Enduring the elements

But little did we know that we were embarking on this challenging engineering project amid the wettest winter the Western Cape has experienced in decades! 

Starting in March, the rain came early and continued throughout April, May and June. Saturated ground and wet working conditions delayed construction, requiring the team to adapt and invent as it became clear that the excavation of the entrance ramp had intercepted a seasonal underground watercourse. 

A certain amount of water was to be expected but the extremes of rainfall and underground water tested the engineers and builders to the limit. 

As is often the case with seemingly insurmountable challenges, however, it also created a perfect storm in which to stretch the limits of creativity and innovation. 

This led to concealed drains and sumps being installed beneath the floor of the Main Chamber to collect and remove any water that might find its way in, redirecting it to a network of hidden drainage channels. 

The completed chamber’s final protection from rain and sun is the earth-covered roof, providing shelter and shade, darkness & quiet. 

Structural engineers calculated the load of the roof to fit the load-bearing capacity of the earth around the excavation and designed the structure accordingly.

How safe is EARTHBOX?

Naturally, people might wonder just how safe it is to descend into an underground chamber composed of raw earth. 

Rest assured that, an important factor in delivering this project was safety, not only of our visitors, but also of the builders who worked on it throughout. 

Geologists and geotechnical engineers spent months ‘reading’ the earth, interpreting the signs of different materials/densities and monitoring the earth for movement. 

Structural engineers, in turn, were called in to design the optimal roofing structure for the Main Chamber and passages, ensuring that it would be able to withstand the mass of earth on top of it, using the minimum materials for optimal effectiveness

Final piece of the puzzle: What’s in the box?

A question we are often asked is what we’ll put inside EARTHBOX.. 

The quick and simple answer is… nothing. But you.

Driving our design intention is the desire to hold space for completely personal, unguided, unprompted sensory human experiences to unfold. A true expression of ‘to each their own.’

Every decision we made at every step of the way - large and small - has had your experience as a visitor at the heart of it. 

The undulating garden offers time and space to transition from the everyday to the unusual. 

Paths meander in a relaxed fashion. 

Grassy berms, formed from excavated earth, offer visual interest and a sense of relation to the mountains. 

The curve of the entry passage prolongs anticipation as you descend, the long curve and the roof reducing daylight as you go. 

The serpentine exit passage is designed shorter and steeper, slowing your departure and exaggerating the effect of gravity, making it harder to leave.

This is a place of quiet and darkness gently lit for you to navigate. 

The absence of colour wavelengths and green and blue hues is a form of sensory deficit – the antidote for our saturated brains.

We look forward to hearing more about your unique EARTHBOX experience. Share with us on Instagram, Facebook or via email.

EARTHBOX: From Dreaming into Being

EARTHBOX: From Dreaming Into Being 

As a world-first artistic installation with no blueprint, it’s hardly surprising that people often ask what sparked the idea for EARTHBOX. 

It’s a tough question and one that doesn’t necessarily have a straightforward answer.

If we had to try, however, we’d say: EARTHBOX was born out of a unique partnership between Marina Busse and Brad Baard, two creative individuals who share a penchant for dreaming up physically immersive installations that offer people unique, once-off experiences of whimsy, wonder and awe.

The Dream Commission

Finding an almost uncanny alignment in their deep-seated desire to bring more joy to the world and an unshakable belief that anything is possible, Marina and Brad decided to join forces, pouring heart and soul into a new endeavour they named The Dream Commission

In many ways, the work they do can be described as the creation of immersive experiences that are truly pioneering and unprecedented. 

“I guess what defines The Dream Commission is a willingness to pursue the creation of things that we don’t know the shape or genre of at the outset, but will certainly push and squeeze people and, hopefully, inspire wonder and awe,” says Brad. 

A birthing of twin ideas

While melding and moulding their thoughts around the concept of The Dream Commission, Marina and Brad also started brainstorming ideas for their inaugural project. 

“So, we came up with this question: what if we could experience the earth from inside the earth? What would that look like?,” recalls Marina. “In my mind, at the time, I imagined something like a hole in the ground in a forest that you could descend into and view the surrounding earth from behind glass.”

Within no time, the idea evolved into something simultaneously more earthy and more grand: a fully immersive, uninterrupted encounter with raw earth while navigating an underground chamber the size of a cathedral.

The only question was how to make this work in the sandy soil that characterised much of the Cape Peninsula and surrounding - Flats. 

Calling on the experts

Initial discussions with geologists and geotechnical engineers elicited great curiosity as well as a breakdown of the type of geological formations that would be able to accommodate the subterranean chamber of this nature.

Equipped with this information, a previously farmed stretch of land at Lourensford Estate in Somerset West, largely unused except when serving as a parking lot for the occasional event, was identified as the perfect location for what had come to be known as EARTHBOX.

Once an environmental impact assessment confirmed no ecosystem would be harmed, the digging of a test pit revealed 2.5 metres of loose, previously disturbed alluvial soils, followed by several metres of dense clay that would hold the shape of the chamber optimally, if treated correctly.

In other words, EARTHBOX was a go!

“When we came up with the idea for Earthbox, there was no doubt that we were going to follow through with it no matter what,” says Marina. 

“Even if the experts had said ‘no, it’s not possible’, we would have probably found some way or kept speaking to people until we found someone who could help us make it a reality somewhere.” 

Turning an idea into reality

What followed was a collaboration of gargantuan proportions, bringing geologists, geotechnical engineers, structural engineers, landscapers and creatives together in ways that no one had anticipated or experienced before. 

“No matter how many times we told people that this is not a normal project, we could see it landing at different stages for different people,” laughs Marina. “It was truly fascinating to see how the various experts we were collaborating with had to adapt and apply their knowledge in ways that were very different to their usual workflows.”

The fact that the build took place during the wettest winter the Western Cape has seen in decades, added an extra layer of challenge, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with meticulous planning and the working of engineering wonders. 

An unusual place to start

In reflecting on the unfolding of EARTHBOX, Marina and Brad both agree that despite being their first project, it isn’t what a typical Dream Commission project will look like. 

“If you talk about it very simplistically, EARTHBOX is a brown project and The Dream Commission is like a rainbow - just take a look at our website to see what I mean,” says Marina. “So it does feel slightly at odds, but the key piece that connects and sits at the heart of everything is the reawakening of wonder and awe. EARTHBOX is one expression of that.”

Brad adds: “Maybe it’s reshaped for us what the possibilities of The Dream Commission are - perhaps taking us beyond the limits that we didn’t even know we had.”

 Visit The Dream Commission website to find out more.