Piranesi and the Britain-sized termite structure

photo of termites
Aleksey Gnilenkov/Creative Commons
PhotoAleksey Gnilenkov under CC BY 2.0

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In 2018, researchers discovered a termite structure in Brazil that could be as old as 4,000 years old. The structure, in its entirety, is as big as Great Britain.

When I tell people this fact, their eyes bulge, their heads cock and they open their mouths to tell me something like, “Surely you don’t mean that. The size of Great Britain?” After I assure them that it’s real, they ask something along the lines of, “Is it all underground?”

200 million mounds, some of which stand 10 feet tall above ground. As much dirt displaced as the volume of 4,000 pyramids of Giza. It’s real. And it’s huge.

The mounds themselves aren’t inhabited, but they reveal just how much has been excavated from the earth, how much space these elaborate underground tunnels occupy. But once the scale is conceptualized, the impossibility only swells. If it’s so big, why have we only discovered it so recently? Look at any world map and you’ll see Great Britain as clear as day. In our defense, the structure is mainly hidden by brushwood and forestry unique to northeastern Brazil, and was only discovered in the process of clearing land for pastures. It figures that it took deforestation for us to uncover such monumental biological wonders.

The ancient tunnels are still home to the termites who built them, named Syntermes dirus. They are physically no longer than 1/2 an inch. It took 20 years to build one pyramid of Giza. If at that same rate we built 3,999 more, we would’ve taken 80,000 years, and these insects (about 1/144 times our size) managed to do the equivalent in 4,000.

It’s practically inconceivable.

Most of these termites would never see lives outside of their structure or know its enormity. They might even go their entire lives thinking their structure was infinite. Built for maximum practicality and survivability, this place now dwarfs them. The structure was made to house the termites, but truly, it houses their entire world, and its walls are the self-imposed limits of their existence.

Of course, as humans, we wouldn’t know anything about that. We gape at the immense size of the termite structure from desks in ornate libraries, the ceilings cresting above us and allowing sunlight to spill in from millions of miles away. We puzzle over the structure from skyscrapers that stretch stories above the cracking cement and crumbling streets. “How can that be real?” we ask about cities built to house us, but which end up dwarfing us in the process.

Yes, we are the termites of our metropolises — humanity’s limited world.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian architect, seemed to understand this concept. “Imaginary Prisons” is a collection of his works, and it perfectly encompasses the nightmarish quality — the twisted vertigo of realizing that humanity’s architecture can become so much greater than its creators. Any viewer of these paintings is engulfed by the sheer size of these enclosures, granted no sight of outer walls. Humans in the foreground are nearly featureless, for they are not the subjects of the paintings but rather points of reference for the humans beyond — those who are tucked away in corners, seemingly miles away from those in the foreground, even more featureless — just a speck.

As unimaginable as they are, Piranesi’s visions are founded in mathematical precision, an almost taunting feature for viewers. It is a reminder that these structures are possible and that the monstrosities can seep into reality. Author Marguerite Yourcenar said Piranesi performed a “multiplicity of calculations which we know to be exact and which bear on proportions which we know to be false.” The structures are indeed possible, but they are not practical. They are unlike the termite structures, where every grain of dirt is pulled from the earth with an animal’s instinct for survivability, not a dreamlike design for nauseating dimensions. Who in their right mind would actually conceive of rooting these monstrous structures in reality? Why would we give life to a place that would provide us a false sense of expansion, bringing us closer to the heavens, yet limiting our self-imposed perspective more?

Though, have we not already done so millions of times? Nearly every exploration results in more building, more expanding, more structures filling our conceived notion of available space. Every time we find the outer wall, we build until we can’t see it again. We’ve built a prison, expansion always initially imaginary, and then rooted in reality. Piranesi’s architectural dreams point to humanity’s complex relations to the structures we’ve built to tower over us.

Much is the same for termites in a structure as large as Great Britain, tucked into forests in Brazil. Our stretching metropolises are their labyrinthine tunnels — snow globes inside snow globes inside snow globes. We’ve both built our prisons — our self-proclaimed worlds, yet we continue to pity the 1/2-inch termites which conceived of a structure that dwarfs them and renders them incapable of conceiving an outside world. How much greater would the beings larger than us have to be in order to view us through the same lens we view the termites?

Our stretching metropolises are their labyrinthine tunnels — snow globes inside snow globes inside snow globes.

Would they, too, imbue reality with their nightmarish enclosures? Or would they see the outer walls of their structures and realize they don’t have to trick the mind into thinking it goes on forever? Would they try to justify immense architecture with practicality?

And how would we view them? How do termites view us?

Piranesi and the Britain-sized termite structure reveal just how easily structures can consume us, distorting the idea of our self-imposed limits on reality. Infinity — a seemingly never-ending series of tunnels, a sprawling urban planet, a place to dwell with no thought of what lies beyond. No matter the scale of these structures, there’s an infinity: the concept of endless expansion. There will always be a bigger structure extending its zealous tendrils; there will always be a bigger world that dwarfs us.

We are the termites, and the termites are us, trapped in a prison with few outer walls.

Contact Logan Roscoe at [email protected].