A recent concert in the Rotherhithe shaft, which has been fitted with a new black staircase © Jack Hobhouse

By the south bank of the Thames in south-east London, is the Rotherhithe Shaft, a curious brick drum descending 50ft into the earth. It has not a single window. An elegant new black staircase with a flashy burnt-orange handrail by architects Tate Harmer offers visitors the chance to peer inside the dark, sooty shell and descend to its inserted concrete floor. But why would anyone want to go into an industrial relic? It is owned by the Brunel Museum, which has raised £176,000 to provide access, so they must think it is worth it.

Here is why. This drum holds both thin air and a fat story. It was built between 1825 and 1843, when its stucco-lined interior featured not just windows but a double helix of staircases curving down to the world’s first tunnel beneath a riverbed, a parallel pair of horseshoe-arched thoroughfares whose cobbles at first echoed to heels and hooves. The excitement at this audacious scheme was enormous: the Duke of Wellington proclaimed “there is no work upon which the public interest of foreign nations has been more excited than it has been upon this tunnel”.

What he did not foresee was that in 1869, the same tunnel would become part of the London Underground network — opened six years earlier — making it the world’s oldest underground route for a passenger railway. For the past century-and-a-half the Thames Tunnel has felt the thunder of trains, which rumble on beneath the drum’s concrete floor. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the birthplace of urban mass transport. The New York subway? Paris Metro? They both started here, which makes those sooty walls globally significant as witnesses to the now unthinkable era of underground steam trains, when this drum — and its counterpart on the north bank — were stripped out and consigned to life as mere vents for grime and vapour.

The method employed to construct the Rotherhithe Shaft was similarly astonishing. It was beset with problems, not least the challenge of digging down 50ft. As might be expected, start building a wall against a cliff of soft clay and it will collapse inward. Instead, ingeniously, the entire structure was built on the surface as a 1,000-tonne masonry drum, bounded by chains and then set on a slicing iron hoop that was gradually sunk down through the clay. The earth beneath and within this vast cookie cutter was dug out by labourers who soon found themselves at a level lower than the river. In 1828 a young man almost drowned in the descending drum that his father had designed, when a sudden deluge swept two workmen into the tunnel below. The youth was rescued and sent off to Bristol to recuperate. His name was Isambard Kingdom Brunel and thanks to the formative experience of building this tunnel his engineering genius would change the world.

‘The Thames Tunnel under construction, London’ (c1835) by Carl Friedrich Trautmann, featuring the Rotherhithe Shaft © Getty
‘Entrance to the Thames Tunnel at Wapping, London’ (1836). Anonymous © Getty
‘Building the Thames Tunnel’ (c1830). Anonymous © bridgemanart.com

Its public access, then, is partly about telling the site’s remarkable story, but also about reinstating its original purpose as a place of subterranean entertainment. In the 1840s and 1850s “it saw underground concerts, festivals, even a knocking shop”, says Robert Hulse, director of the Brunel Museum. “We’re bringing that back. Except for the knocking shop.”

The Rotherhithe Shaft is now a venue for 120 people to gather for all sorts of performances — rock music, opera, film as well as a pop-up cocktail bar. The colourful uplighting rakes against the raw walls, illuminating the archaeology of inserted pipes, the scars of removed staircases, patched bricks and the second world war-era concrete roof. That dubious invitation turns out to be an intensely urban experience. Every city should have one.

When real estate in cities is so expensive, an investment of £176,000 seems a bargain to unleash a public venue with pedigree. By extension, the world’s post-industrial metropolises hold enormous potential to transform unloved underground spaces.

Staircase being installed at the Rotherhithe Shaft © Paul Raftery and Dan Lowe

Beneath Cincinnati, Ohio, is an offspring of the Thames Tunnel and the largest abandoned underground transport network in the US. Rather than going beneath a river, it was dug from an abandoned canal. Following decades of discussion, work began in January 1920 only after costs had escalated in the wake of the first world war. Later the Central Parkway boulevard was laid over the arterial tunnel, a useful amenity for a city that would rapidly adopt the motor car in lieu of trains. Seven miles of tunnels had already been dug when, with the Great Depression looming, bond funding ran out in 1927. By this time, the project had come so far that wooden sleepers had been laid for rails that never arrived. By the mid 1930s the city recommended that the hidden network should be forgotten. And so Cincinnati’s tunnels remain today, a bleak subterranean wasteland with seven buried station concourses occupied only by a water main. Ideas for the empty space have included wine cellars, film sets, a nightclub, but a solution depends on smarter thinking.

New York thinks it has a possible answer, through pondering the fate of a similarly abandoned underground terminal. In the wake of the much-vaunted Highline pedestrian garden set over a disused elevated railway, the Lowline Project asks: “How can we build more green space in our cities? What if the answer lay just below our feet?”

The plan, conceived by James Ramsey of design company Raad Studio with help from engineering consultancy Arup, is for a pioneering underground park that harnesses solar power. The chosen site is the vaulted cavern of the Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, beneath Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, whose tunnels ferried commuters for 40 years until 1948.

Ramsey invented a sun-tracking device, a saucer that funnels sunlight through fibre-optic cables to subterranean ceiling-mounted domes, which demand no energy in daytime. Building a full-scale model in 2012 demonstrated that plant growth can be sustained by this light. It is possible to visit the Lowline Lab that is testing 3,000 plants throughout this year at 140 Essex Street in Lower Manhattan.

Ramsey says the concept “is an exploration of design, green technologies, and an almost archaeological investigation. But more than that, it is an opportunity to find space where we thought there was none left, in an area long neglected by the city”.

The pay-off is a one-acre buried garden in an area devoid of much greenery, the recovered space given over to public recreation and cultural events. Negotiations are under way with planning authorities and stakeholders in New York, with the aim of opening the park in 2020. Ramsey calls it a “futuristic experiment” with a legacy of offering “different ways of thinking about the way in which urban improvement is looked at [and] how we think about underground spaces”. He hopes it will create a new conversation about how sun-funnels might be applied around the world to bring light and nature into windowless spaces.

If this technology of transferred light proves itself, and the public is smitten by greened subterranean recreation, it will contribute to the conversation on the future habitat of our swelling population. Nasa plans to send people to Mars within 20 years, and soothsayers such as journalist Stephen Petranek are publicly predicting Martian settlement, but the prospect of living on a freezing, dusty planet devoid of breathable air seems pie in the sky. Meanwhile, an underground realm of existing, cheaply illuminated and easily insulated space awaits development, so why not consider homes? When occupants need a fix of fresh air — as we all do — a drive to the ocean from a verdant, warm bunker is surely less alienating than waiting for a shuttle from Mars.

Going underground — from bunkers to subterranean cities

Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain © Getty

As a species, we emerged from living underground in cave systems long ago, but it seems some of us never left to go by Setenil de las Bodegas in southern Spain, a town built beneath overhanging cliffs. But at least these homes have windows. When, in 1972, a farmer called Latif Acar prodded at a hole in his field in Anatolia, Turkey, he discovered Ozkonak, a hidden underground city comprising 10 floors that could accommodate a population of 60,000. Its age and usage are still uncertain — it may date from the early Byzantine era or even older — but occupation was intended as the rooms were provided with ventilation pipes. Nor was it the only underground city in the region.

Modern wars seem to have bred destructiveness and resourcefulness in equal measure, with the imaginative use of underground spaces a case in point. Beneath Corsham in Wiltshire, southern England, is Burlington, a disused Victorian limestone mine that once yielded sculpted fireplaces and gate piers, but in the 1950s was equipped for the government to occupy in the event of a nuclear attack on London. It features a telephone exchange, library, broadcasting studio and canteen — the fridges still contain ice-cube trays.

In the Crimean town of Balaklava is a disused Russian nuclear bomb silo that looks like a James Bond set, with concrete-lined canals designed for loading missiles on to submarines. The bomb chamber has monumental steel gates weighing 10 tonnes each. They might make someone a decent front door one day.

Photographs: Getty Images; Jack Hobhouse; bridgemanart.com; Paul Raftery and Dan Lowe

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