A Fortress of Solitude

I am a total sucker for “fortress of solitude” type buildings. There is some part of me that wishes I could just teleport myself to Mars, like Dr Jupiter, and build a place where I could do my thing and the rest of the world could leave me alone.

That doesn’t happen, though. Humans need other humans – in fact, I’d argue that a human, isolated from other humans, is not fully human (because, to be fully human, we depend on eachother for things more than companionship). The fantasy is lots of fun, but you’ve got to wonder things like:

  • Where is the nearest good place where I can get pho?
  • What kind of internet service does that mountain-top have?
  • How can I maintain my splendid isolation and keep hunters/prying eyes out?
  • Is the building a fortress, or a trap?

There are other aspects of the fantasy fortress aesthetic that don’t quite line up for me: my real existence is a great big pile of clutter and partially-finished projects. A great, echoing, empty, ultra-stark fortress is exactly the opposite of how I live. In other words, I suspect that, if I lived in Isengard, I’d be kicking the orcs out of the bottom couple floors and building a machine-shop. While I like the idea of living in minimalist balance, I have to face the fact that I am not a minimalist. That’s a tough thing to face up to, too – it’s like when I was in high school and wanted to be a goth but I’m just too big, blonde, and happy to pull it off.

Anyhow, I’ve seen a few of these mountain retreats. One (I have lost the link) is a great black slab jutting out of a granite cliff, somewhere. And then there’s the hotel in Norway where Ex Machina was shot [businessinsider] which I would like to visit, someday, if the world’s shit ever gets back together. These buildings are intellectual descendants of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, in my opinion: their aesthetics derive and depend from integrating wild spaces into view-spaces and private nooks. And, like Falling Water they are ludicrously expensive.

Here’s the fortress I am currently in love with. Obviously “there’s plenty of room at the bottom” and it’d be easy enough to add a sound-isolated machine-shop at the bottom of the stack. [casa brutale] The obvious argument against the place is that “nobody should spend that much money on where they live” – an argument I cheerfully grant because we’re talking fantasy, not reality.

Swimming pool is cool but realistically, I’d probably only get wet a couple times a year. I don’t like the sensation of drowning and I’m a shitty swimmer. My life-long approach to dealing with that conundrum is to stay away from water, especially deep water, and boats (which seem to like to flip over when I am on them) But I immediately saw the pool, with the clear bottom, as a way of projecting light down into the building. These are architects’ renderings:

Even a small earthquake would be a big problem for that structure.

I also suspect that would be a bad place to be sloppy drunk in; if you’re susceptible to motion sickness, the endless light-ripples on everything would be a bit much.

See what I mean about it being a bit minimalist? There would need to be some really big walk-in closets and a “mess floor” or two because there’s no way I could discipline myself to put things away like that.

Of course, the uber-rich don’t put things away: they have staff who know where all their things go, and put them away for them. That’s part of the point of this sort of radical minimalism; it says “I have time.”

Except, nobody does.

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I’m also super-fond of “tiny houses” except, again, for the problem of clutter. The only way a tiny house makes sense is if you’ve got a fortress in a hollowed-out volcano, nearby.

I just realized that the first place I encountered the idea of a “hollowed-out volcano fortress” was reading Tom Swift as a kid (the book where they were finding all the Thorium and rare earths mines)

Feel free to post links to your favorite fortresses!

View from the hotel in Ex Machina:


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    A swimming pool in a high desert locale? That just screams, “Fuck you, environment!”
    And no place to park the car? The paint job and polymer components are not going to age well. If you want to preserve the flat surface aesthetic, I suppose the car would have to go down on an elevator platform.
    I saw Ex Machina. It had an intellectually interesting story, but it sure left me cold.
    Here is a candidate that is not Modernist: Carl Sagan’s last home

  2. dashdsrdash says

    I’m looking at the desert terrain and thinking:

    1. Power. You’re going to need a/c and lights and some place to plug your 100″ OLED TV into, and I don’t see powerlines and I don’t see a solar farm and nobody who can afford that wants to hear a generator.

    2. Water. That pool is going to evaporate, and at the top of a cliff, how deep are you going to need to drill a well? There might not be any water at all. And then there’s the waste plumbing — you want your septic tank to be downhill from the toilets, really.

    3. How far is it to the airport? No helipad? Even grocery runs are going to take a big chunk of somebody’s week. Good luck hiring minions. Where are they going to live?

    I think the only way this is actually workable is if there’s a a medium-big city on the other side of that hill.

  3. flex says

    I’m not much of a Fortress of Solitude person. I mean, even if you are rich enough to send private helicopters to pick up your friends for poker night, are they good enough friends to want to ride in one for a couple hours there and back?

    But I’ve always been interested in architecture.

    From the renderings, this house is at the top of a cliff looking over the ocean. So, basics. Water? It might be possible to desalinate ocean water for household use, and to fill the pool. It would take a lot of energy though. If you are simply fantasizing, then just find a spot on a cliff with a freshwater lake at the top. You can then get fresh water, and even energy by creating a waterfall. Jules Verne suggested a similar design in his novel, The Mysterious Island.

    Electricity/power? This looks like a prime location for solar with a battery backup. Or there could be a town within range.

    Waste disposal? That’s going to be difficult. That artist rendering shows land which is unlikely to perk. So an engineered field would need to be built, but if money is no object that can be done, but it would be pretty obvious in that desert.. Or, the owners can use more traditional methods and send it down the cliff-face.

    Other trash? I guess if you are rich enough you can hire trucks to take away the used take-away food containers. Good luck getting pizza delivered. And there are some places where UPS or FEDEX will not deliver, so you might be out-of-luck there.

    Internet? There are lots of possible solutions, including direct satellite links, if you have the money, Might be tough playing on-line games with that amount of lag though.

    Heating/Cooling? The most interesting aspect I see is that there is a large thermal mass above the living area. It is quite possible that the house would remain naturally cool. Although if the house was in a climate where the pool could freeze, then energy would be needed to keep the pool above the freezing point. If that water froze, and expanded, some serious problems could occur. Further, if the house was in a region where the water could freeze, then emptying the pool in order to prevent it from getting damaged means that the thermal mass is gone and you would need to put a lot of energy into heating the rest of the living area.

    I’m not fond of concrete walls in a living space. I like wood and stone, or walls painted with soft colors (I’m not a big fan of sterile white either). But that’s more of a personal choice. I admire the small house idea, because there are some really neat design ideas in them, but there is a lot of discipline required to live in a small house.

  4. kestrel says

    I guess the location is cool. I’m finding it hard to be charmed by this building: and some of it is downright weird. A cast concrete dining table – facing a concrete wall. ??? Why would you do that? And since it’s cast in concrete I’m guessing the furniture is a bit hard to rearrange. Also I’m concerned about that water, which first of all is super heavy. What do you have to put in it to keep it perfectly clear like that? Would the owner constantly be running out and screaming at seagulls for crapping in the pool? Maybe it’s not really water, maybe it’s acid or something like that. Also, no matter what it is, good luck stopping dust from blowing into it and silting up that pool. I suppose it would provide job security for whoever has to try and keep it clean.

    When I first saw the title of the post I thought it would be about this place: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masada which is a little more to my taste.

  5. says

    When I first saw the title of the post I thought it would be about this place: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masada which is a little more to my taste.

    One of my favorite things about Masada is that you can still see the ramp the Romans built (or, more precisely, the locals built under Roman “guidance”) on satellite imagery.

    Masada features as “Tel Makor” in James Michener’s The Source, which is where I first encountered it as a kid. A hotel my family was staying in had a rotational library (take a book, leave a book) and I was desperate and grabbed the largest page-count I could find.

    There are many great fortresses in history, but they’re designed for numbers. Alamut, Krak Des Chevaliers, La Couvertoirade, Mont Saint Michel, and Macchu Picchu. When I was a kid I wanted to live in Krak Des Chevaliers. But that’s even more impractical than the brutalist fort.

  6. says

    @Everyone: I think part of the point of these ultra-rich fortresses is that the practical details (water, internet, keeping the pool clean, etc) are all solved by the expedient of “throw money at it.”

  7. Ridana says

    I want to live underground, like they do in Coober Pedy. Not that I want to live there – it’s too hot – but I just feel more comfortable in caves. Lava tubes will do in a pinch. So scoop me out a literal hole in the ground, spiff it up with amenities like electricity, water, sewage and internet, and I’d be happy.

    I do kind of resent being called not fully human though.

  8. flex says

    @Ridana, #8,

    When stationed in Turkey I was surprised to find, and greatly enjoyed, the Medieval underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli.


    The pictures on Wiki don’t really do them justice. The corridors are just wide enough for two people to pass, as long as they aren’t particularly large. That stone in the picture on the Derinkyu page is a wheel, designed to roll into the corridor and block it.

    It also changed my view of RPGs. A 10′ wide space is a room not a hallway, and a large room at that. Weapons would be limited to short, poking, things like daggers. You couldn’t swing an ax or longer sword, and pole-arms wouldn’t fit around corners. As for breaking down doors? They were probably mostly cloth, aside from the foot-thick stone wheels. By the time you smashed through one of the stone wheels blocking a corridor, everyone in the city could have fled through the miles of underground tunnels.

  9. lorn says

    Looks good to me.

    The pool is both problematic and helpful. Nothing has thermal mass like a large volume of water. Many deserts are both hot and cold, often in a single day. Lack of clouds and haze means air temperatures are a roller coaster ride. Above 110F and below freezing is not uncommon. With a bit of tweaking with an automated cover and deep thermal wells and it might easily stay a pleasant to swim in 80F. which means your house is going to stay at around 80F. Perfect it you don’t wear many clothes.

    With heating, cooling and daylight lighting taken care of you energy needs will be small. A simple solar water heater and small bank of solar panels and batteries takes care of all the rest. A propane tank and generator makes up any shortfall but properly sized and engineers it shouldn’t be necessary in normal use.

    Deep wells and/or mist/condensation/rain collection keeps you moist. A small gravity fed bog/marsh in the canyon bottom treats your wastewater but plan on at least six people. This will also provide soil for plantings and a garden space. Potable reuse is possible but messy, complicated. and unsafe if not meticulously maintained.

    Gray water reuse, other than a no storage system watering plants (otherwise known as a septic system) is always a failure. I knew on of the biggest advocates and designers and after twenty years of trying he finally admitted in private that all his systems had one small flaw … none of them worked for more than a few weeks.

    Unless you want to go wild there are few practical answers for some issues.
    But, then again, you could go … kid in a candy shop:

    For resupply and visitors, a shapely friend swimming above paints a pretty picture, perhaps you could arrange a set 25 mile range Hyperloop terminals. Air on one end, vacuum on the other and off you go at better than 120 mph. A larger version of tube systems used in offices and hospitals. 1870s tech. Anyway visitation, and pizza delivery solved … you just need to up your budget a few millions of dollars. While your laying you tubes you toss in some fiber for internet and communications.

    With some international connections you could have the remote site declared an embassy. A bit more power and a small server farm, discreetly located well away from the residence, and you have a steady income, political protection, immunity from annoying visits from local authorities, and easy access to high-speed lines.

    Of course by then you need to keep people out … how do you feel about velociraptors for the flats and sharks with lasers in the canyon? Just a thought.

  10. kestrel says

    @Marcus, #6: oooh cool, some of those I have not heard of so I will spend some pleasant time reading about them. Thanks!

    @Marcus, #7: I agree. It’s a way to brag without talking. “I have so much freaking money I can afford to waste a whole bunch of it paying people to do ridiculous things, like keep dust, bacteria, algae and any life-form out of my pool.” And you know, if there should happen to be a leak in that roof, it will give a whole new meaning to “trickle down economy”.

  11. Ice Swimmer says

    My Fortress of Solitude would be on an island. Of course, the reality is that I’m too much of a landlubber and because of my crappy metabolic system, I cannot sustain on Baltic herring and crisp bread, so that’s as unrealistic as a mountaintop palace. One could think of islands as tops of underwater hills.

    The artist/writer Tove Jansson and her partner, graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä had their “Fortress of Solitude” on the skerry Klovharu, basically a cottage on a 6000 m2 (1.5 acre) rock. The ladies spent 28 summers on Klovharu fishing (you can see Tove Jansson holding a gillnet on the second photo in the first link), working and occasionally partying. The two of them lived fairly simply in the unelectrified cottage, eating fish or canned food and only went shopping on the bigger island nearby or mainland when they ran out of cigarettes, vodka or crisp bread.

  12. says

    Ridana @8. Not fully human. Prefers to live in holes in the ground. “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled to the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

    You’re a hobbit.

  13. says

    Just the kind of place for a filthy rich cult leader to lie about looking up at his wife and the pool boy frolicking nakedly. Not visible in this picture: staff, services, roads, power, security cameras, fences, dead antelopes in the pool, windblown dirt, cracks in an unstable cliff face, perverts with drones etc. Elon would fit it out with tunnels to the nearest casino though.

  14. invivoMark says

    The best Fortress of Solitude/example of questionable architecture taken way too far is the House on the Rock in Wisconsin.

    As the story goes, a man who worshiped Frank Lloyd Wright was denied an application for apprenticeship, so he bought a plot of land a few miles up the road and made his own house (on top of a large rock, naturally). The house is a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster of weird angles, oddly-shaped nooks, and visual clutter, capstoned with a giant cantilevered glass hallway leading into thin air.

    If you want space for clutter, nothing could match the endless exhibit halls filled with the owner’s collections, representing the detritus of civilization, entire hand-crafted token-operated animatronic orchestras, and culminating in a massive carousel in a room that’s straight from the mushroom-fueled fevered dreams of Satan.

    Truly a place where one man was able to live his dream. Whatever dream that was, and whatever drugs may have influenced it.

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