Control room of Noordertunnel turns into concrete

First day back to work after one week of underground explorations during a field trip to Malta.. I get off the train in Utrecht to go to university. As usual I take the Noordertunnel to get to the city center from the train tracks. When I walk past the former technical room of the tunnel I realise people are working in there. Quickly I learn that the technical room will be dismantled and destroyed after today, making place for the fundaments of an office building. I walked by at the right moment. I was able to go in to take a look behind the screens.

The Noordertunnel has been used as an underground shelter during the Cold War. Part of the technical room of the shelter has been made visible for the public by the placement of a thick glass wall in 2010. But behind another concrete wall there is much more to see.


One of the three showers at the entrance of the shelter


Clothes with traces of nuclear radiation had to be taken off upon entrance and were to be locked away behind this door


Deep concrete dump

The shelter was meant for passers-by going to and coming from the train station, built to host a maximum of 2000 people. In total the place covers 2000 square meters. In case of emergency that would be 1 square meter per person. A 10cm thick concrete sliding door in a slit filled with water functioned as the entrance, holding back gas and nuclear radiation in case of attack. In case of a nuclear attack clothes had to be dumped into a deep concrete space through a thick steel door. Showers were ready to wash of remaining radiance.

In the back of the space you can now still find all of the equipment used to control electricity and oxygen in the shelter.  Including bikes in case of power failure to generate just enough electricity to ensure air ventilation.

The building of the shelter was also a message for the enemy to show signs of preparedness. Thankfully a bombardment on the Utrecht train station never actually happened.

The heavy material in the control room has been donated to a museum. A couple more weeks, and this space will turn into even more concreteness. The shelter itself, known as the Noordertunnel, will remain functioning as a gateway for thousands of train passengers every day.



Bicycles to generate electrify in case of power failure


The Noordertunnel is currently used by over a thousands commuters daily to reach Central Station

Posted on July 11, 2016

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Digital view of the underground

Finally online: the first drafts of Escape in collaboration with Plan3D. The plan is to make the escape experience accessible from behind the screen serving as a reminder and temporary substitute for the physical escape.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 13.03.15

Screengrab of the three-dimensional tunnel at Tempelhof, Berlin, Germany. Photo credit: Plan3D, Virtigo & Leanne Wijnsma

Paul Dahlke and Alexander Hey, the guys behind Plan3D, normally scan buildings and deliver three-dimensional interactive architectural drawings to architects. It was amazing seeing them break with their daily routine. They dove straight into the tunnel with all of their scanning equipment, referring to the structure as “informal architecture”.

Leanne 7

Leanne 6

3D scan of the tunnel at Tempelhof, Berlin, Germany. Photo credit: Plan3D & Leanne Wijnsma

My escape tunnels are normally open for just a few hours or maybe a couple of days if I’m lucky. Thanks to Virtigo, who meshed the raw scans and put it into a web viewer, diving into last year’s Berlin tunnel is now possible from back where-ever you are now. Choose ‘First person’ in the viewer mode and use the arrows to navigate yourself all the way through, immersing  yourself in soil. Soon I will dig deeper to bring more detailed digital access to the underground. To be continued.

Many thanks and credits go to Plan3D and Virtigo.

Posted on August 24, 2015

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Experienced tunnel-escapist swiftly flees Mexican prison

Guzmán, also known as El Chapo, is Mexican’s most notorious drug lord. Yesterday he escaped through a tunnel system for the umpteenth time. This time out of the most secure wing of the most secure prison in Mexico, after being re-captured just one year ago.

He went for a shower in a cell and simply never came back. When guards checked his cell they discovered a 60 cm wide hole in the shower with a ladder, which led to a 1,5 km long tunnel leading to a construction site in a nearby neighborhood. And not just a basic tunnel. Well equipped with lightning and a ventilation system, and a motorcycle on rails to transport digging material and soil, the tunnel was tall enough for Mr. Guzmán to walk standing upright.


The end of the tunnel through which Guzmán escaped. Photo credit: Yuri Cortez — Getty Images

Guzmán was already known for digging tunnels since he escaped out of prison back in 2001, after which he was at liberty for eleven years. During his time in freedom he almost got caught several times, but always slipped away in time through tunnels built underneath the houses he was staying in. Right before his capture in 2014 American law enforcement raided the home of his ex-wife, which he was able to flee through a secret door underneath his bathtub that led to a network of tunnels and sewer canals connecting to six other houses.


Inside the tunnel. Photo credit: Edgard Garrido — Reuters

And to no surprise he used tunnels for his criminal work also. Tunnels were used to smuggle drugs across the US border and his tunnel structures were used as a permanent hide-out.

That this most recent tunnel escape worked out so swiftly is incredible. Even though a videocamera watched the cell of Guzman constantly over the past year, it could not hold him back. We may call him a very very well experienced tunneler.

Source: New York Times
Watch a video of the escape here

Posted on July 13, 2015

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No Escape

This week the expected (unexpectedly) happened. My twelfth tunnel in Berlin didn’t make its way through. Sent away twice and a fine for ‘damaging the lawn’. Even if it isn’t an enormous surprise this happened, it made me fairly sad. In the end the main mission of the dig is to be reaching the other side.

We set off at Tempelhof in the morning. The soil was very dry, it was going to be a harsh one. The location and framing were extremely pretty with many urban layers in the background. From the empty field to a cycling path to a highway to the S-bahn coming back and forth.


Photo credit: Video still by Eefje Vaghi

Tempelhof’s security guards arrived after about an hour of digging. The white van drove up to me before I’d even seen it. They told me to leave, it was strictly forbidden to dig even a couple of centimeters into the soil here. I could possibly encounter unpredicted leftovers from the war, like bombs or mines hidden beneath its surface. “Anywhere in Berlin but at Tempelhof you can dig.” They suggested me to go to a small park not far from our spot.

Last year when I dug at Tempelhof I definitely saw the white van circling around the field every two hours. But I was alone, had a spot in the middle of the huge field, and was able to hid in my hole. This time I had a camera woman with me with lots of equipment, we clearly were too obvious.



Photo credit: Video still by Eefje Vaghi

And so we went. With new hope I started tunnelling at Hasenheide. The soil was very doable and very soon I indulged in escapist feelings again. It went quick, and I felt secure. Within a few hours there was a hole of 0,80 in diameter and 1,20 meter deep and I already started making my underground way Westwards.

Totally unexpected we were enclosed by three security vans. I referred to the hopeful words of the previous security people, but it didn’t avail. I had to hand in my passport, pay a €35 fine for ‘destroying the grass’ and close the hole in order to get my documents back. Passer-by’s often ask if I got permission to do this. I always explain why I don’t. Going through the bureaucracy of papers and signatures would defeat the point. The main goal is exactly to escape the fixed structure. I am making a hole. It’s what animals do. It’s what children do. I am reconnecting with the simple experience of being, isn’t this normal and healthy? Why not use the public ground vertically, instead of going to the yoga center or gym.

People also often ask if it’s not claustrophobic in the tunnel. When I got hold back digging this time I indeed felt an immense claustrophobic feeling coming up. We live in a society in which every human action is controlled more and more, constantly remembered of what could go wrong. Too many regulations can only result in meaninglessness and homogeneity. Where do we want to go? The act of the digging, the experience of becoming part of the structure, not knowing what the soil will bring, is an unforgettable experience.
It is time to find deeper grounds.

Posted on June 9, 2015

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Elton’s escape hatch

Last months blogpost about the tunnel that was found underneath the city of Toronto needs an update. Its mystery is solved and a great Escape story unravelled! The tunnel was built by Elton McDonald, just a 10 minute walk from his house. He needed to dig to get away from regular life, so he states.

After the mystery tunnel got reported by CBC News last February the tunnel made international news. The tunnel was build so elaborately that it triggered worldwide speculation that the tunnel was part of a terrorist plot. But it was just Elton instead, a young construction worker from a tough neighbourhood, regularly digging as a getaway.

March 13, 2015.  Toronto, ON.  Elton McDonald.Photograph by Della Rollins

Elton McDonald. Photo credit: Della Rollins

Elton already started digging bunkers as a kid in middle school. But the holes were dug too near to the creek and they filled with water. He got discouraged and quit building underground.

This time he was more serious about it. In the summer of 2013 he started digging for the fifth time. He felt ready for it now, plus he’d found the perfect spot. Hidden in a clump of bush the earth was almost clay-like and not too moist as he figured out after digging a test hole. Exactly as it should be.

He’d go dig on weekends and after work. He called in an old friend to help out when it became more tough. Progress could be slow, sometimes they came across rocks that had to be dragged out. One boulder three times the size of a basketball had to be dragged out with a chain. At some point in their process of digging Elton realised that the ground started shifting above. This was when he started making a plan for bracing its interior.


Working on digging out the tunnel near York University. Photo credit: Elton McDonald.

Of course it hurt him when the tunnel had to be filled up with dirt, but luckily he didn’t get punished with any other official charges. The Toronto Police announced that they’d unravelled the mystery saying the tunnel had been built for “personal reasons”.

It was about leaving his comfort zone and to dream of speculative futures, getting free of the static, negative stuff.

All of the media attention made him think. “I want to make new definition of cool” he says. His mother adds: “You got to break the cycle somehow”. And so he launched the online fundraising campaign ‘Eltons Tunnel Vision Fund’  this month to start up a summer program that will give the kins in the neighbourhood a chance to do work outside and do landscaping.

Source: MacLean’s

Posted on April 22, 2015

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Image of the subsurface

The surface of the earth has been mapped and mastered with lidar, photography and infrared by satellites, manned aircraft and drones. Thermal imaginers can even penetrate thin layers of soil. But the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) goes much deeper.

GPR is a device used for reading the underground. The transmitter emits wideband pulses that can penetrate glass, wood, concrete and bricks. The receiver identifies reflections of the underground, the recorded wave path showing how deep and how near voids or buried materials are located.


GPR is already used a lot by engineers for detecting cables and pipes. The technology is now further developed to find tunnels that run much deeper. The first prototypes that were presented in 2013 are using much lower frequencies that penetrate ground much better together with new imaging technology that can display clear pictures of deep tunnels.

The technology is now being tested and further developed by (i.a.) the US army for detecting illegal tunnels across borders. The way border agents find tunnels is now basically based on luck. Tunnels are of huge challenge for border patrols because they can begin and end almost everywhere; their entrances and exits are often hidden inside buildings or underneath trees. Initially border control focussed on unmanned aircraft equipped with radar technology that would fly along borders in search for tunnels, but they are almost impossible to detect on such satellite imagery. If successful, the new tunnel detection technology will help agents locate tunnels as fast as they can be dug.

Will there still be a place to hide if we will we be able to dig through the virtual underground infrastructure from behind the screen on ‘google-underground-view’ at some point soon?


leannewijnsma_Air GPR raw and processed data copy


Examples of raw and processed data showing a tunnels

Sources: Homeland Security,

Posted on March 3, 2015

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Tunnel found under city of Toronto

Last week the police of Toronto discovered a mysterious 7 meter long tunnel near the York University. The tunnel was located 2,5 meters underground and is big enough for a person to walk around in.


This 3 meter deep hole leads to the tunnel

A lot of building materials were found, like a sump pump to extract water and suppression material for securing the ceiling and walls of the tunnel. Also the interior was well equipped with generator and lights.


The walls and ceiling of the tunnel are well supported by wooden beams

Very good job! It is still a mystery who dug the tunnel and why. Unfortunately the tunnel was filled by authorities. But the good news once more: “There is no criminal offence for digging a hole”, said Deputy Chief Mark Saunders.


Posted on March 2, 2015

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Excavating underground tombs

Two thousand year old underground tombs were discovered accidentally in Dangeil near the Nile river in Sudan when villagers were digging a ditch in 2002. The tombs are now being excavated for archeological research.

The cemetery dates back to the time of the Kush kingdom. The Kushites are known for burying their monarchs with their attendants in mass graves and building hundreds of pyramids above ground. This newly discovered cemetery is in that sense very particular because it contains no structure on the surface and is fully underground.

Last year 52 of the tombs have been identified and excavated. All of them are triangular in shape and are oriented east-west, with a rounded edge on the eastern side. The full size of the cemetery has not yet been determined. The excavation and rescue project is ongoing.

Download the publication about the excavation and the found treasures by The Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project.


Ancient tombs (shown here after being excavated). Photo credit: Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project

Posted on February 24, 2015

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Tunnelling as Therapy

Have you ever felt the urge to escape your everyday routine? Do you want to touch some soil instead of the keyboard, reconnect with nature rather than sync your devices? This must be your intuition speaking, don’t ignore it!

I am hosting a tunnelling workshop for the Platform for Unasked Art in Amsterdam on Sunday 19th of April. Come dig your own escape infrastructure by signing up for one of the six sessions, please email me a short motivation: post [at] leannewijnsma [dot] nl.

About the project: Escape is an action triggered by the modern paradox of freedom — masked as consumerist choices, airplane mode and frequent flyer miles. Escape is a response to a world in which everything appears possible, in which we are always connected and constantly available. Digging tunnels becomes an infrastructure to escape and to disconnect. The process itself is a cleansing experience, diving into the raw earth towards fundament and autonomy. Escape is an urge to do something really banal yet essential.


Escape, Amsterdam 2013. Photo credit: Tommi Vasko

Location: Amsterdam (exact location will be notified a week ahead)
Date: Sunday 19 April 2015
Time slots: 9-10h, 10-11h, 11-12h, 13-14h, 14-15h, 15-16h
Public opening: 17h
Materials and tools will be available. Participation is free and at own risk.

Posted on February 17, 2015

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Free the tunnelling machine!

In July 2013 Seattle began digging a new highway-tunnel to replace its existing and earthquake unstable viaduct. The biggest tunnelling machine ever, designed and constructed in Japan, got nicknamed after Seattle’s only female mayor: Bertha. With 17 meteres in diameter and more than 700 cutting tools on its front head, Bertha (controlled by more than 20 people) would do the job of tunnelling through 2830 meters of soil and rock.


Bertha before drilling began in July 2013. Photo credit: Ted S. Warren

But in December 2013 she got stuck. The machine’s cutting blades encountered a 36 meter long steel pipe left over from recent earthquake investigation. The pipe damaged the cutter blades and knocked her down. It was known that Bertha’s route also featured some man-made fills and unstable debris, but why this couldn’t have been prevented remains unclear. The machine got overheated and also unexpected amounts of groundwater are delaying continuation.


Meanwhile the finalising of the interior of the 300 meters that already have been dug continues

It has been more than a year now, and Bertha is ever still stuck underneath downtown Seattle at only 10% of its journey.. But freedom is near.

In October 2014 engineers started a rescue operation: a big access shaft was dug towards the point where the cutting machine had to give up. This shaft was completed two weeks ago, on January 30th 2015. Now the next step for Bertha is to tunnel through the concrete walls of the shaft, from where the front end of the machine will be lifted up by a crane. At ground level motors will be checked and components will be replaced.


A view into to the Bertha access pit in January 2015. Photo credit: Washington State Department Of Transportation

After re-instalment Bertha will be ready to resume tunnelling her remaining 2400 meters.

Sources: City Metric, WSDT
Follow Bertha on Twitter

Posted on February 14, 2015

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