Sewer, sump, swamp: drowned Londons

29 08 2014

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

The prospect of drowned cities is a significant part of the rhetoric of climate change: from recent maps issued by the Environment Agency showing the catastrophic flooding that might result from increased tidal surges, to Google Earth’s Flood Simulation software that allows one to picture the effects of apocalyptic rises in sea levels on London’s iconic buildings, the tops of its skyscrapers the only visible reminders of the city beneath. At the same time, both recent literature and, to a lesser extent, television, have enlarged these powerful images into fully-fledged narratives: from the eccentricities of Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), where a 100-metre sea-level rise reduces London to the settlement of Ham, which is now the top of Hampstead Heath; to the turgid TV film Flood (2007), when an enormous tidal surge overwhelms the Thames Barrier, flooding the whole of central London.

Map issued by the Environment Agency showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

Map issued by the Environment Agency in 2014 showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

 

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Yet, the submerged city has long been a significant trope in the literary destruction of London, and going back to these precedents enlarges and complicates the meanings of contemporary prospects of urban flooding. In the literary imagination, the submerged city is a representation that acts as a metaphor for a wide variety of processes, whether the revenge of nature, the unconscious mind, the return of the past, or the processes of ruination. Here, I focus on three literary visions of drowned London: as sewer, sump and swamp.

Sewer

Richard Jefferies’s After London (1884) is an ur-text of the post-apocalyptic genre, a deeply strange book that channels the author’s expertise as a naturalist, his neo-medievalist yearnings and his hatred of industrial modernity. In this novel, the cause of the end of London is unspecified, but Jefferies’ text hints at vast geological upheavals that have resulted in England becoming unrecognisable: a vast lake surrounded by pastoral landscapes and a chivalric society of feuding nobles. Yet, overshadowing this otherwise bucolic post-apocalyptic England is what remains of London: a toxic wasteland that nobody comes out of alive. When the novel’s hero, Felix, accidentally ends up lost in the former metropolis’s poisonous miasma, he experiences a city both drowned and petrified:

‘As he advanced, the remnants of buildings increased in number…In some places the crystallised wall had fallen of itself, and he could see down into the cavern; for the house had either been built partly underground, or, which was more probable, the ground had risen. Whether the walls had been of brick or stone or other material he could not tell; they were now like salt.’

As revealed by Jefferies, London has literally been drowned in its own wastes: first the city’s crumbling buildings choked its rivers, creating a stagnant swamp; then the ground rose and the sewers came to the surface, further poisoning its already foul waters. In this vision of submergence, London’s vertical structure (the characteristic Victorian high and the low, the above and below ground) is flattened, but this leads not to redemption (as it might in socialist narratives) but extinction. If the cataclysmic forces that precipitated the end of London were beyond human control, the city’s toxic afterlife was a direct indictment of the vertical city’s environmental and social degradation.

Sump

As After London demonstrates, the idea of submergence grows out of an awareness of the city’s multiple layers. If these layers must normally be imagined to be seen in their totality, then at certain times, the city’s vertical structure might be inadvertently revealed, such as in the aftermath of the Blitz during the Second World War. Perhaps nowhere are the war ruins of London evoked more strongly than in Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Here, the city’s ruins play host to adolescents, namely the exiled 17-year old Barbary and her half-brother Raoul. In this novel, which drew on Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of wartime London, the ruins of the Blitz are a refuge for traumatised children who have yet to work through the catastrophic upheavals they have just experienced. In the City of London – where over half of its buildings were either damaged or destroyed by German bombs – the city’s layers are temporarily revealed, creating a spectral landscape of half-exposed cellars and caverns, staircases reaching to the open sky, and abundant vegetation reclaiming the ruins.

In Macaulay’s ruined London, the underground spaces act as a sump for what cannot be accommodated in the post-war world, namely the unhealed traumas of the recent return to savagery. Indeed, the submerged city points to the disturbing notion that this sump of savagery might indeed be the bedrock of civilisation, rather than a temporary aberration:

‘No civilisation lasted more than a thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its own say and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day.’

Swamp

The memory of savagery forms a key ingredient in perhaps the most powerful literary vision of submerged London: namely J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World. Widely seen now as prophetic of climate change, Ballard’s novel uses the image of the drowned city to reflect on how humans might adapt themselves to cataclysmic changes in the environment. Set many decades after an intense increase in solar radiation had led to massive temperature rises and the melting of the polar ice caps, a small party of scientists are leading a reconnaissance trip before joining what’s left of humanity in the arctic – the only inhabitable zone left on the earth. All else has reverted to the Paleozoic period: drowned by the rising seas and now subject to boiling temperatures, London has become a tropical swamp of flora and fauna that had evolved accordingly: giant iguanas now reside in former office buildings which are smothered under silt; enormous mosquitos plague the visitors; and the whole steaming environment secretes a ‘terrible stench….the sweet-compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses.’

Ballard’s hallucinatory vision of a submerged London in turn haunts the main character of the novel, Kerans, who, like others in the book, is experiencing his own inner evolution as he eventually yields to his residual Paleozoic self and becomes one with the new environment (even though that undoubtedly leads to his premature death). In Ballard’s view, the drowned city mirrors our own unconscious minds, that is the ‘inner space’ of submerged desire, historical memory and as yet undreamt of possibilities. For Ballard, accessing the submerged world holds the the key to redemption – it makes room for an alternative consciousness to emerge that may chart new trajectories of history into the future.

Sewer, swamp, sump: very few of the recent imaginings of how London will be affected by climate change offer such a rich diversity of representations as these. Yet, if Ballard is right, they are all caught up in a ceaseless exchange between the material and the mental. The submerged city is always to some extent a mirror of our own submergence; if it drowns, we too must drown.





Ruin Lust: fettered pleasures at Tate Britain

31 03 2014

 

J M W Turner, 'The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey', 1794

J M W Turner, The chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey (1794)

Ruin Lust – on at Tate Britain until 18 May – explores artists’ fascination with ruins from the eighteenth century to the present day. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition takes us on a journey through the many meanings of ruins: as sites of aesthetic pleasure, melancholy reverie, or war-torn devastation; as places of memory or premonitions of the future; as sites embedded in landscapes or encompassing entire cities. From Turner’s delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey from the 1790s to Laura Oldfield Ford’s disquieting paintings of present-day housing estates, ruins have for centuries been imaged by artists as places to think through the meaning of time: for all ruins, whether ancient or modern, invite (or perhaps demand) a kind of awareness that moves slower than normal, one that inhabits (for a moment at least) a gap, or a place apart. 

Joseph Gandy, 'A Bird's-eye view of the Bank of England', 1830

Joseph Gandy, A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England (1830)

Indeed, before we even enter the exhibition space of Ruin Lust, a series of quotations invite us to think in a certain way, to make the link between ruins as physical objects and what’s going on in our minds, whether an extract from W. G. Sebald’s late novel Austerlitz (2001) or James Joyce’s apocalyptic musings in Ulysses (1922). Why is it that gazing at ruins seems to mirror something fundamental in the human body? The title of the exhibition suggests that the act of looking at ruins is invested with libidinal energy, a kind of revelling in the sensual excess of decay that is perhaps rather unseemly. Yet, very little in this exhibition is suggestive of the kind of ‘ruin porn’ that is increasingly filling up the internet and the (electronic) pages of tabloid newspapers such as the Mail Online. Rather, here is ruin lust at its most refined, deriving more from the mind than the body. Only John Martin’s end-of-the-world bombast and Laura Oldfield Ford’s lurid canvases of post-punk revolutionaries waiting for action in ‘sink’ estates come close to the daemonic energy of the kind of ruin lust that draws in the crowds to the latest apocalyptic blockbuster or the Mail Online’s almost daily dose of ruin porn.

Jane & Louise Wilson, 'Urville', 2006

Jane & Louise Wilson, Urville (2007)

Indeed, much of the work on show in this exhibition is meant to direct us away from ruin lust towards a more contemplative or critical gaze. Thus Joseph Gandy’s extraordinary painting Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England (1830) shows John Soane’s recently completed building in the far distance future, its otherwise secure spaces opened up to view through a process of ruination. Here, ruin speaks of a kind of beauty in ageing, although to a contemporary viewer it cannot help but be a barbed critique of our bloated financial overlords. No lust here from the vantage point of a passing crow; only distanced longing perhaps. Back down to earth, Jane and Louise Wilson’s black-and-white photographs of the fantastical outsized sculptural objects that are the remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications speak more of alien presences than material excess, their mythic titles – Azeville (2006), Urville (2007) and Biville (2006) – signalling a temporal shift into some kind of mythic time. Like the revelatory ruins of the Statue of Liberty appearing at the end of The Planet of the Apes (1968), the Wilsons’ photographs seem to disrupt conventional notions of time – are these the ruins of a defunct ancient civilisation or those of our own in the far distant future? 

Laura Oldfield Ford,

Laura Oldfield Ford, TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012)

What most of these representations steer away from is the sensual excess of the ruin, its power to overwhelm and envelop the subject, something the cultural geographer Tim Edensor has written beautifully about in his book Industrial Ruins (2005). It’s as if these images are saying: ‘don’t get too close to ruins – keep your distance so you can make them mean something else’. This pervasive sense of ruins as allegories is challenged directly by Laura Oldfield Ford’s paintings (and more generally in her practice as an artist). Rendered in shocking pink, her depictions of semi-ruined spaces are unashamedly tasteless and suggest that even (or perhaps especially) mundane dilapidation can be fertile ground for subversive desires. In TQ3382: Tweed House, Teviot St (2012), the two young female figures are engaged in focused yet unspecified activity, amidst the shabby (but definitely not shabby-chic) interior of their modernist apartment. There’s something peculiarly repulsive about this painting, a feeling that is mirrored in the visceral quality of modern ruins. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens spoke eloquently about the ‘attraction of repulsion’ in Victorian London; Ford has rendered this in the contemporary city. Ruins, if they are ‘real’ rather than manicured, always produce this attraction of repulsion; they invite you to rub your nose in their material excesses, to roll around in their vulgarity, to delight in their repulsiveness. As Ford reminds us, to live in ruins is precisely to embrace them as ruins, to allow them to be places that incubate strange, fertile and potentially revolutionary desires.  

 





Accelerated ruins: the aesthetics of demolition

4 10 2013
Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

When the BBC’s New Broadcasting House (1976) was demolished on Oxford Street in Manchester in October 2012, thousands of passers-by witnessed the violent death of a large building. Over the course of a few weeks, the building was transformed from ruin to rubble, and thence into just one more unimaginative (yet ubiquitous) Manchester car park. Demolition is perhaps the most commonplace form of what Marshall Berman has termed ‘urbicide’, that is, the deliberate destruction of the built environment of cities. And yet it’s certainly the most ignored: buildings come and go, their unmourned deaths usually heralded by long periods of decline, marked by the failure to find new uses for obviously defunct structures.

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Deliberately contemplating buildings undergoing demolition is a transgressive form of looking. Seeing a building being killed is a discomforting, even shocking experience. Buildings – even long-empty ones – are essentially anthropomorphic structures, designed to be lived in and to be shared spaces of existence. Gaze at a building being demolished long enough and you begin to feel the pain of that death: its broken walls, gaping windows, and twisted metalwork eliciting a kind of bodily sympathy in the viewer. The violence of demolition also contrasts with the serenity of the ruin. Where, with the ruin, nature is allowed to re-establish her former claims to the building, producing (at least for a time) a peaceful sense of equilibrium, the building undergoing demolition is violently annihilated by the very tools that raised it up in the first place. No wonder that most demolitions are shielded from public view behind makeshift screens.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Representations of demolition are thus transgressive in that they both expose and forestall the violence of architectural annihilation. On the one hand, photographs articulate the half-demolished building as somehow still existent, even at the moment of its death – the architectural equivalent of a coroner’s report perhaps; on the other, the exposure of the building’s insides during demolition produce revelatory views of architecture – that is, glimpses of the otherwise invisible ‘soft’ interiors (perhaps most powerfully represented in Rachel Whiteread’s spectral sculpture House (1993)).

Rachel Whiteread, 'House' (1993)

Rachel Whiteread, ‘House’ (1993)

'Demolition of Hungerford Market', Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

‘Demolition of Hungerford Market’, Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

Demolition also suggests new kinds of urban aesthetics, given widespread expression in nineteenth-century London when modernisation produced unprecedented scenes of urban ruination. So, when the Hungerford Market near the Strand was demolished in 1862 to make way for the Charing Cross Railway Station (1864), the Illustrated London News found in the resulting scene of destruction a powerful new aesthetic of modernity: a vast, dark absence flanked by houses on the brink of destruction, and the shadow lines of staircases, ceilings and floors imprinted, like Whiteread’s House, on their remaining walls. For the Illustrated London News such destruction produced a great deal of visual interest, in effect a new form of urban picturesque; yet in representing such a scene at all, the newspaper also exposed the urbicide that is common to all forms of modernisation. Yet, as Lynda Nead has argued, the illustration is also a permanent representation of the archaeology of modernity, revealing that the latter is always haunted by the spectral presence of the past, no matter how quickly it tries to obliterate it with the promise of the new.





Rest in distinction: the allure of catacombs

2 05 2013
Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

In an earlier post, I explored the origins of London’s catacombs and one group in particular: those at Kensal Green Cemetery. In November last year, as a favour for a talk I gave at West Norwood, I was guided around the catacombs in this South London Cemetery. Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: those at West Norwood being installed in 1840.

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

The word ‘catacomb’ literally means ‘among the tombs’ and the latter clearly expresses why these spaces are so different from conventional burial sites. In a catacomb the dead are directly accessible: at West Norwood, coffins line the recesses along the brick tunnels (1), many now in an advanced state of decay. In former times, relatives of the deceased would visit these spaces and commune with their loved ones with a sense of intimacy not possible with a conventional grave. Catacombs are spaces where one can literally be among the dead, temporarily sealed off from the life above ground in a private and exclusive space. Yet, as with all cemeteries, there is also a community of the dead here; unless one is important enough to have an isolated mausoleum, places of rest are invariably shared. Certainly, catacombs are no place to be alone; when my guide took me into a tiny, pitch-dark recess filled with the tiny coffins of children, I felt a powerful sense of horror at being almost consumed by the dead, shuddering at the thought of such overwhelming losses.

3. Former grave-digger's spade, West Norwood catacombs

3. Former grave-digger’s spade, West Norwood catacombs

4. Catacombs under St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

4. Catacombs under St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Despite their communality, the catacombs at West Norwood, just like their counterparts in other London cemeteries, nevertheless express the desire for continued social distinction after death. Purchasing a catacomb was a sign of high social (and financial) standing, the signs of which are most clearly expressed in the plaques that mark the individual spaces (2), a forlorn grave-digger’s spade the only reminder of the social ‘other’ that always haunts such a desire for exclusivity (3). In even more exclusive catacombs, like those beneath St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (4), this desire for social distinction generated both horror and absurdity. Once the burial site of nobles, in the eighteenth century these spaces became the general catacomb for all of Vienna’s residents. During the time of the Habsburg Empire, the catacombs were once again transformed into an exclusive space – a pristine stone-arched vault – while the rest of the bones were moved to an ignominious pit. Today, in these catacombs, the pickled organs of the former Habsburg rulers are preserved in copper urns, their mummified bodies preserved in two other sites in Vienna. It is as if this level of social distinction has literally torn apart the bodies, one burial site being inadequate to preserve the idea of an eternal kingdom.

5. Chambers in the St Paul's Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

5. Chambers in the St Paul’s Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

7. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul's Catacombs, Malta

6. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul’s Catacombs, Malta

Yet, in their early incarnations, catacombs were once spaces of inclusivity. The island of Malta is riddled with ancient underground spaces, including the St. Paul’s catacombs, outside the former Greek city of Melite (now Mdina). In a series of deep rectangular shafts flanked by chambers (5), one can still see the evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials. Originating in pre-Roman Phoenician culture, these spaces were taken over by the successive religious groups that lived side-by-side in Malta over the centuries. In these catacombs, Jewish mourners might perform ritualised acts of memorialisation next to Pagan rites of sacrifice, while a faded Christian wall painting displays the same act embodied in another form (6). Walking and crouching in these spaces, their womb-like enclosures and soft, warmly-lit walls (7) seem to speak of the possibility of social unity rather than heightened division, where together we can face the inevitable erasure of distinction that will come to us all.

7. St Paul's Catacombs

7. St Paul’s Catacombs





Imperial exotic: early iron buildings for export

18 01 2013

In Victorian Britain, iron buildings were being exported all over the world, from South America to Australia, demonstrating (and actualising on the ground) the country’s expanding imperial ambitions. The very first buildings for export were made from timber, an early example being a portable hospital sent to a penal colony in Australia in 1790. As the constructive potential of cast and wrought iron began to be developed in structures such as bridges, mills and warehouses, so timber was gradually substituted for iron in many buildings for export. By mid-century, the manufacture of prefabricated iron buildings for the colonies had become a commercial enterprise, with houses, churches, hospitals, warehouses and factories exported in large numbers by specialised iron founders like Samuel Hemming, Edward T. Bellhouse, Richard Walker, John Porter and Charles D. Young.

1. 'Iron palace of King Eyambo', Illustrated London News, 1843

1. ‘Iron palace of King Eyambo’, Illustrated London News, 1843

The majority of these early prefabricated iron buildings were utilitarian in design, such as William Laycock’s iron palace for King Eyambo in British West Africa (1), which was erected in 1843 and opened for public exhibition in Liverpool before being exported. Widely reported in both local and national newspapers, this building exemplified a utilitarian ‘rational style’ in iron, although its metal plates and panels of were here mounted over a wooden skeleton. The Illustrated London News celebrated the iron palace as a rare example of the principles of construction dictating style, the reverse being the ‘prevailing view‘ in most early Victorian buildings.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

However, this appreciation of unadorned utilitarianism in iron construction was short-lived, particularly after the construction of the so-called ‘Brompton Boilers’ in 1856 (2), which were actually temporary buildings for the South Kensington Museum, designed and manufactured in Scotland by Charles D. Young. Consisting of a long rectangular iron covered by three elliptical roofs clad in corrugated iron, the building was vilified in the building press. In a reversal of the earlier celebratory imperial rhetoric connected with iron buildings like this, The Builder argued that ‘no New Zealander savage would erect such a structure so utterly and indefensibly ugly’. The central problem for The Builder and others was the context of this building: despite being intended as a temporary structure, it was nevertheless expected, as a public building, to symbolise, through ornament, the architectural values of high culture (particularly as it would house a national collection of ornamental art). Thus, its blank walls were ‘offensive’ to The Builder because they symbolised nothing, its arched roofs breaking the rules of architectural decorum by resembling ‘three huge boilers placed side by side’ rather than any recognisable civic building. As if responding to the harsh criticism of his handiwork, the manufacturer Charles D. Young explained in the introduction to his 1856 catalogue that founders like himself were now seeking input from architects in the design of prefabricated buildings to provide ‘greater scope for the display of architectural effect’.

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

One of the first publicly exhibited prefabricated buildings to demonstrate this shift was a bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt (3), designed by the engineer Robert Stephenson and manufactured by the London founder Henry D. Grissell, and erected on the Isle of Dogs in the summer 1858 (but still there in early 1860, its eventual fate unknown). Consisting of a series of ‘comforts and luxuries peculiar to Imperial Oriental life, including baths and divans’, the structure was based on a Greek cross plan with a lofty central dome surrounded by four smaller domes, the whole structure standing on a vast circular platform 120-feet in diameter that was supported over the water by a grid of 60 cast-iron columns. Its ornamentation was described as both ‘Oriental’ and ‘Saracenic’, the exterior elements made up of cast-iron filigree panels picked out with colour, the interior comprising painted glass in the domes, encaustic tiles in the walls and a ‘richly-ornamented chain’ from which the baths were suspended. As The Building News recognised, the kiosk was an effective advertisement for both designer and founder, its cast-iron ornament being ‘amongst the best samples we have seen’. In addition, its Saracenic style articulated what was perceived to be an enlightened imperial relationship between Britain and Egypt. If the kiosk demonstrated ‘the enlightened liberality and cultivated taste’ of the Viceroy of Egypt, it was also, for a time at least, an exotic vision of the orient in the heart of London. As described by The Illustrated London News, ‘if we conceive the brilliancy of an Eastern sun, and the clearness of an Eastern atmosphere, we may imagine the effect of this kiosk glittering with its reflection in the waters of the most classical river in the world’.

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

In the autumn of 1866 another ornamental cast-iron kiosk was erected and displayed in London, this time on the site of the former International Exhibition in South Kensington, in preparation for export to Bombay (4 & 5). Just like its Egyptian predecessor, this kiosk failed to reach its destination, remaining in London until at least until the summer of 1869, apparently a victim of the 1866 international financial crisis. A result of the collaboration between the architect Owen Jones, the engineers Roland Mason Ordish and William Henry Le Feuvre, and the ironfounder Andrew Handyside, the kiosk consisted of an open cast-iron structure with a 10-foot grid of columns joined by ogee-shaped arches and surmounted by a diagonal lattice roof comprised of dozens of arabesque panels. The ornamentation was created by an all-encompassing structural approach only possible with cast iron, with the more utilitarian elements (the bolts in the roof structure and wrought-iron structural girders) ingeniously hidden so as not to compromise the ‘light appearance of the structure’. This subjugation of structure to ornament demonstrates just how much the design of prefabricated iron buildings had changed since the 1840s, this particular example not only being ‘one of the most elaborate examples of ornamental iron work ever seen’ but also serving as an effective advertisement for Handyside’s work and the company’s aesthetic ambitions. Yet, as the illustration in The Builder showed (5), this kind of elaborate orientalist ornamentation was also tailored to its intended geographic and climactic context – an imagined exotic, tropical site in India – and used by an equally exotic Indian aristocracy indulging in luxurious leisure. In this way, this kiosk was not only exporting an exemplar piece of English structural and ornamental ironwork, but a vision of how England imagined the exotic otherworld that it laid claim to.





Dream spaces: railway stations and the beyond

1 11 2012

The curving roof of York station’s train shed

From their beginning, railway stations were often perceived as having a dream-like quality. For some – particularly early travellers – the station was like a nightmare, particularly when seen at night, when the sight of steam locomotives seemed to emblematize the destructive or apocalyptic energies the railway seemed to have unleashed. Margaret Oliphant’s novel The House on the Moor (1861) was probably the first to actually use the word ‘phantasmagoria’ in relation to the railways, which she applied in describing the shifting spectacle created by a steam locomotive rushing through a country station at night. In later years, large iron train sheds became phantasmagoric for a number of reasons: for The Builder, ‘London Bridge recalls a nightmare or troublesome dream’ because of the ‘menacing girders’ of its enormous viaduct, ‘its impossible approaches, tortuous bridges, fearsome alley-ways, and cavernous entries'; while, for Filson Young, the light-filled train shed at Liverpool Street was counterbalanced by its ‘dark catacombs’ – hidden spaces that were full of the discarded remnants of hurried travel – ‘strange shadows, gigantic and discarded toys’ – where ‘you feel you have wandered into another age’.

Tunnel under the viaduct at London Bridge station

These nightmarish transformations of railway stations were generated by a long-standing anxiety about the loss of individual consciousness in the face of the railways, which transformed previously autonomous individuals into ‘atoms, pulsing, coalescing and dispersing across the network’, or ‘living parcels’ as John Ruskin had originally put it in 1848. In addition, Walter Benjamin has argued that the prevalence of dream imagery in relation to iron structures like railway stations was not merely a metaphorical transposition, but a material one, where collective dream imagery was actually inscribed in the spaces themselves.In this sense, the perception of iron train sheds as nightmarish temples, their wrought-iron arches as the vaults of caves, or their girders as menacing objects, transformed their presumed ‘solid’ materiality into one that dissolved the boundaries between the real and the imagined, creating new ornamental configurations of material, structure and atmosphere.

Caverns near Liverpool Street station

If some found the obliteration of individual consciousness perceived in railway stations as nightmarish, others embraced it as a stimulating dreams of a different sort that hinged on the individual’s linking with, what Henry James termed, a ‘larger way of looking at life’. Here, nighttime views of railway stations produced not nightmares but an ecstatic connection to a greater whole. So, George A. Wade, in his 1900 article on ‘famous railway stations’, described the ‘brilliant illumination’ of York’s train shed at night, which he viewed from the medieval walls of the city, watching ‘the grand curve of the rails through the station, with the northern expresses dashing towards Scotland’; while Paddington’s train shed became magical for The English Illustrated Magazine when seen at night, where the ‘innumerable coloured lights’ blurred the hard outlines of the iron structure, everything dissolving ‘in motion [and] rush, swish, and darkness’.

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (1862)

St Pancras Station, The Builder, 1916

Finally, when The Builder published its account of London’s railway stations in 1916, it also included a lithograph showing an up-to-date view of St Pancras’s vast train shed. If the article drew attention to the softening of the ‘utilitarian … ugliness‘ of London’s termini by ‘the machinations of soot, fog, gas coal, and company’, the illustration pictured something of this softening in its rendering of the vast iron-and-glass roof, one that does indeed make it appear to be dematerialised by the clouds of steam rising from the engines below. Updating William Powell Frith’s mid-Victorian panorama of Paddington station (1862), this lithograph simultaneously magnifies the train shed, which here fills almost the entire image, and softens its utilitarian aesthetic so that it appears to dissolve into the sky beyond the vast pointed arch. And unlike Frith’s carefully differentiated crowd, the travellers in this image are truly a ‘mass’ – that is, the crowd that had become synonymous of urban modernity, and rendered here as an almost solid undifferentiated block of black ink. In short, this image creates a new aesthetic out of St Pancras’s utilitarian iron, in effect a dematerialized ‘mass’ ornament that emerges out of the dissolution of conventional perceptions of iron’s material solidity.





Paddington station: function & fantasy

21 09 2012

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’, 1862 (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paddington station (1852-54) became an iconic symbol of the Victorian railway largely on account of its prominent place in William Powell Frith’s vast canvas The Railway Station (1862), which became one of the most popular paintings of its time when exhibited in 1862. Alongside Frith’s representation of a crowd of passengers waiting to board a train is Paddington’s train shed itself, elevated from an ugly product of industrialization to occupy centre stage in high art, filling almost the entire upper half of the canvas. The oblique viewpoint chosen by Frith, looking diagonally across the train shed, serves to open up the space of the station and to reveal its architectural detail – the painting still probably being the best record of Paddington’s appearance when newly built. Frith himself didn’t paint this part of the canvas, employing another artist, William Scott (1840-1903) – a specialist in architectural subjects – to painstakingly render Paddington’s iron-and-glass interior.

This division of labour gives the painting a curiously disjointed appearance, the mass of figures in the bottom half seemingly severed from the upper half by the hard line of Paddington’s longitudinal iron girders, which, due to the oblique perspective, seem to bisect the canvas. In addition, the repetitive ironwork of the train shed, in effect a mass of identical units, contrasts sharply with Frith’s careful composition of the crowd beneath it, which, although at first sight seem to be an undifferentiated mass, is nevertheless ordered in discrete compositional groups and balanced by a strong sense of order. Perhaps, in juxtaposing Paddington’s ironwork with the human drama of the crowd, Frith was attempting to humanize the station’s mass-produced ironwork and its association with mechanical uniformity and the railway’s brutal reordering of the natural rhythms of human life.

Wrought-iron arabesques in Paddington’s glazed end-screens.

Indeed, it may have been the reassuring effect of Frith’s painting that led to Paddington’s elevated status in the expanding pantheon of metropolitan termini. Barely commented on in the building press when first opened in 1854, The Building News, in an 1868 article on London’s terminal stations, thought that the arrangement of Paddington’s interior ‘gives it intricacy and picturesqueness, and conveys an idea of something approaching comfort.’ This acceptance of Paddington’s radical new aesthetic may have also been a product of the station’s having become, in the intervening years since its opening, an accepted part of everyday urban experience. Indeed, writing only a month after the station opened on 29 May 1854, The Leisure Hour already regarded it, along with London’s other new termini, ‘as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea’. Yet, in the same article it also pointed to an entirely different kind of perception of the station. Imagining ‘a respectable mandarin of Peking’ (still using pre-industrial methods of transport) suddenly being dropped down into Paddington’s interior, the newspaper wondered at the phantasmagoric effect it would have on him: ‘How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights, at the glittering roof, with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden appearance of the monster engine, with its goggle eyes of fire, would bewilder the brains of the chinaman!’ If, for this first-time visitor, Paddington was ‘a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium’, even for the natives who had got used to it the foreigner’s experience was still a mirror of their own when they had first encountered the railways, which after all represented ‘a dream once, and that not very long ago’.

Cast-iron tracery on Paddington’s arched wrought-iron roof ribs.

Moreover, as The Leisure Hour went onto state, no matter how much a part of everyday experience, railway stations like Paddington still had the capacity to invoke a dream-like state if viewed in the right way. By breaking from the rush of travel and stopping to contemplate, one might notice ‘the pleasant sunlight shimmering softly through the arching roof … and the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective’. Just as in Frith’s painting the eye is led out from right to left across the canvas and out of the station to the limitless country beyond, so any onlooker in Paddington’s train shed, in the right frame of mind, might once again experience the original dream of the railway.

Looking down the central span of Paddington’s train shed in 2011.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,672 other followers

%d bloggers like this: