Setting the Scene: Designing an underground city

I’ve been waching lot of DIY videos on miniatures and models lately. That, of course, has me thinking, “Hey, what if I make a model of the underground city I need to design?” Unfortunately I don’t currently have the space nor the materials to make that happen. Maybe someday?

What I can do (and what I need to do anyway) is sketch it out.

The city in question is part of the fictional archaeological site at the center of Strange Company. I’ve run into a bit of trouble writing and revising around this as of yet unnamed site. See, I have a rough idea of what I want it to look like and where different areas of the site are located. Unfortunately, I’m not so great at spatial visualization. My descriptions and scene blocking (is that the right term here?), are a bit vague in those scenes as a result.

Since this is going to be an illustrated story, it’ll help to have some visual concepts and art assets ready to go. That said, this is more of a process post than a progress post since I’m still working things out. This site is an imporant part of the story, and I want to treat it like a character in its own right. It’s all still in development at this stage.


All that said, I went into my concept sketches with certain elements in mind. It’s set in a desert with red sandstone cliffs, like those found in the southwestern United States, and it butts up against an old copper mine. Cue quick googling making sure copper ore can be found in red sandstone. The answer? I think so! I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration for the mine and the nearby city from the Copper Queen Mine and Bisbee, Arizona, so I think I’m good there? But that’s what more research is for.

Sketches of square pillars and double doors, as well as designs for the reliefs carved into them. These include haloed and winged beings, birds, snakes, and dragons.
Pillar style variants and design motifs for the carved reliefs

The first thing I wanted to figure out was the big entrance in the cliffface that opens into the first chamber of the city. I wanted to go for that Petra vibe, a large carved façade flanked by pillars. I’ll need to do some more sketches to really nail it, though.

The pillars at Petra are round columns, and after doing a couple sketches, I decided I wanted a blockier look. For that, I took inspiration from Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. I sketched up some examples of motifs based on the reliefs found there to decorate my fictional site’s pillars.

Concept for the main exterior entrance. Eight pillars hold up a large flat slab of stone and flank two large doors decorated with relief carvings.
Concept for the main exterior entrance into the underground city

I applied the square pillar designs, and that of the large double doors that I want to incorporate into the design. Again, I’m not 100% satisfied with it, but it’s a start. For the next attempt, I want to go for taller and more ornate architecture.

As far as the interior of the cliffs, I’m looking back to Turkey and the underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu. I want my fictional city to have an intricate system of tunnels, like the ones found in these real life ones.

That’s a maze I haven’t taken the time to figure out yet, though. My main point of focus was the first interior chamber.

Top: A one point perspective view of the first interior chamber. A road continues into a tunnel in the center of three arches. Doors line the carved walls, and there is a walkway on either side.
Bottom: The same chamber, viewed from one of the second floor walkways
Concepts for an interior chamber of the underground city

This and the chamber beyond are the main ones seen in Strange Company, and will be the most important ones for me to design. I envisioned it as a large chamber with a second floor gallery running along its edges, and a main road leading into the largest chamber. This is accessed by a large arch, again flanked by those square pillars. The doors along the road open to the maze of tunnels carved into the cliffs.

These initial designs only cover a small portion of the whole of the site. Elements I want to cover in further concepts are:

  • The Inner Sanctum, its structures, and the inlaid circle that forms its boundary
  • The upper walkways and gallery that surround the Inner Sanctum
  • Hidden cliff dwellings, accessed by some of the tunnels
  • Cliff gardens inspired by the Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, California
  • The hidden tunnel that Raye and Elijah (and later, Sam and Gabriel) use to sneak into the underground city

Since the underground city is an archaeological site, I’ve been doing some preliminary research into how field schools and CRM firms operate. I have ideas for upcoming posts where I can dive into that, but for now, let’s put a pin in it.

This’ll be the last Strange Company focused post for a bit since next month I’m switching gears to focus on another, shorter project. It takes place in the same world as SC, and they even share a character! But I’m devoting the rest of this month toward prepping for this short comic, since I want it ready for October.

More on that coming up!

One thought on “Setting the Scene: Designing an underground city

  1. Karen says:

    Yooo this conceptualizing work is great! The blending of inspirations really makes it look authentically ancient while being unique to your setting. Hope to see more!!

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