Remnants as ruins: the Irk culvert, Manchester

8 05 2014
The Irk culvert under Victoria Station, Manchester

The Irk culvert under Victoria Station, Manchester

At the corner of Hunt’s Bank and Victoria Street near Victoria Station in Manchester is a stone wall (2) that betrays the otherwise invisible presence of one of the city’s principal rivers – the Irk. For here, the obvious visual signs of subsidence – sunken blocks of stone – were brought into being by what lies beneath the ground: namely, a massive culverted section of the river Irk than runs nearly a kilometre from the railway viaduct that emerges northwards from Victoria Station to the point where the Irk empties itself into the Irwell, just a few yards east of this sunken wall. This peculiar half-ruined wall makes visible a presence of absence, an immediate visual reminder of something hidden; perhaps even, like most ruins, a gentle admonition to those who would forget what has been lost. Yet, this ruin also tells us, uncontrovertibly, that the river is not lost; indeed, in its very ruin, it betrays the river’s continuing presence and influence on the city.

Subsidence in the wall flanking Hunt's Bank and Victoria Street

2. Subsidence in the wall flanking Hunt’s Bank and Victoria Street

3. Entrance to the Irk culvert under the railway viaduct north of Victoria Station

3. Entrance to the Irk culvert under the railway viaduct north of Victoria Station

Like many urban river culverts, that of the Irk is deliberately hostile to would-be explorers. It’s entrance – seen from the steps that descend into Manchester’s new Green Quarter from Cheetham Hill Road – is a forbidding black hole into which rushes the fast-flowing river over a 2-metre high weir (3). As documented by Manchester’s urban explorer community, getting into that black hole is difficult even at the driest of times: it involves wading in chest-high murky water before descending the slippery weir into complete darkness. Flanking the river before it disappears are the shiny new skyscrapers of the Green Quarter – a characteristic (if extreme) juxtaposition of high technology and ‘low’ nature in the post-industrial city.

4. Extract from the first Ordnance Survey map of Manchester (1849) showing the open course of the Irk

4. Extract from the first Ordnance Survey map of Manchester (1849) showing the open course of the Irk

5. Plan of the same area in 1908 showing the disappearance of the Irk

5. Plan of the same area in 1908 showing the disappearance of the Irk

The now hidden section of the river Irk was culverted in several stages from the late-1840s to the 1910s (4 & 5). As famously described by Frederich Engels in 1844, the Irk was once one of the foulest watercourses in Manchester, a river that was polluted with the wastes of the tanneries, bone mills, gasworks and the privies of innumerable half-ruined medieval houses that originally lined its banks where the culvert now runs. In 1844, standing on Ducie Bridge, Engels described the open river as a ‘coal-black, foul-smelling stream’ that was filled with horrible slime and refuse and whose waters produced bubbles of ‘miasmatic’ gas that ‘gave forth a stench unendurable’ even high up on the bridge. As documented in successive maps of this part of Manchester (4 & 5), this noxious waterway was unsurprisingly removed from sight (and smell): firstly, in 1849, when the section flanking Chetham’s School was bricked over and then, around 1902, when a longer section was culverted after Victoria Station was extended southwards. The small remaining section of open river – to the east of what is now Victoria Station Approach was built over sometime in the early 20th century, only reappearing ‘symbolically’ in a recreation of part of the river in a fountain sculpture in what is now Cathedral Gardens, redeveloped after the IRA bomb in 1996.

6. The immense brick-lined walls of the Irk culvert

6. The immense brick-lined walls of the Irk culvert

What of the space of the culvert itself – the source of that invisible presence which continues to make itself felt in the city above? Once inside the culvert, the space seems to grow – the 20-foot span arch seen at the entrance now supported on immense high brick walls; while the noise of the rushing water is magnified by the cavernous space (6). The sights and sounds recorded by Engels may have (thankfully) disappeared, but the river still has a fearsome quality to it: a smell that makes one light-headed (dangerous, as all urban explorers know); a furious velocity; and, as if testifying to the latter, a channel lined with tree branches, shopping trolleys, car tyres and other forms of urban detritus. Such accumulated ruin is counterbalanced by what has been preserved – a bricked-up arched space in one of the walls that was once used as a shute for depositing dead cattle onto boats (7) and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, a wooden bridge  suspended between the walls of the culvert (8). This bridge – now bricked up and used as a utility tunnel – used to carry cattle from the fields on the north side of the Irk to the markets in Shudehill and it probably dates, at least in part, to around 1650, when Manchester was little more than a village.

7. Former shute for depositing dead cattle into boats

7. Former shute for depositing dead cattle into boats

8. Former cattle bridge spanning the Irk culvert, now used as a utility tunnel

8. Former cattle bridge spanning the Irk, now used as a utility tunnel

For this bridge to have survived so long after its pre-industrial function had been extinguished is testament to its power as a petrified ruin. It is paradoxically the ruin of the river (and its subsequent banishment) that has preserved this ancient relic intact; out of sight (and mind) it has been allowed to escape the relentless modernisation that has characterised Manchester from the eighteenth century onwards. If urban modernity requires the city to develop by a process of ‘creative destruction’ – or deliberate ruination/rebuilding – then this preserved ruin directly challenges that process. Its continuing existence speaks of the residues of modernity, or the ruins that do not yield to modernity because they continue to serve it in some unforseen way. It’s as if, from that bridge, the rushing river below described by Engels somehow refuses to be expunged from Manchester’s urban memory. Perhaps the name given to this culvert by urban explorers – Optimus Prime – is more than a rather infantile pseudonym; for has the culvert truly not transformed the river into something mythic?





Red river shore: exploring the Medlock culvert

7 03 2014

IMG_6708

In common with many other urban watercourses across the world, Manchester’s smaller rivers are today all but buried beneath the city centre. As Manchester rapidly expanded and industrialised in the nineteenth century, its once salubrious watercourses – the Irk, Tib and Medlock – became notorious as appalling foul-smelling and polluted streams (or, rather, open sewers). Unsurprisingly, by the turn of the twentieth century, the courses of these rivers were largely canalised or hidden beneath brick and stone culverts. So, today, the Irk disappears beneath Victoria Station in a giant 1km culvert before joining the Irwell, the Tib has long since become a sewer, while the Medlock snakes almost shamefaced through the city centre in a series of culverts before emptying into the Irwell at Castlefield. Even in suburban areas, the Medlock was long ago forced underground, most notably in a 600m culvert under what is now the car park of the Manchester City football stadium straddling Miles Platting and Clayton.

1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

1. 1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

When Joseph Adshead made his extraordinarily detailed maps of Manchester in 1851, the Medlock was depicted meandering across open fields in Miles Platting; while the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 showed the river still open but straightened in its course (1). Culverting of this section of the Medlock began in 1905 and was complete by 1909. At the same time, a whole section of the river upstream in Philips Park was canalised with millions of red Accrington bricks, forming a walled bank, the fast-flowing water carried in an artificial channel. Today, Manchester’s ‘red’ river is being restored to its ‘natural’ state, the bricks being slowly removed in an attempt to rehabilitate the watercourse in Philips Park.

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

3. Inside the Medlock Culvert

3. Inside the Medlock culvert

It remains to be seen whether the tunnelled section of the river Medlock will remain in place – for it is here that one gets the strongest sense of a shackled watercourse, banished underground. Despite being relatively easy to access (a hop over a fence and a short wade through the water), the culvert is nevertheless a forbidding place: walking into pitch darkness goes against all natural instincts and the sound of running water is magnified by the cavernous brick tunnel (2 & 3). The Medlock’s waters may be technically ‘clean’, but, over the years and together with many smaller overflows that line the tunnel, they have created a fantastic array of shapes and colours on the brickwork, a petrified miasma that is at once beautiful and repellent (4).

4. View inside a side drain in the Medlock culvert

4. View inside a small side drain emptying into the Medlock culvert

5. Inspection chamber, the Medlock culvert

5. Looking up the inspection chamber flanking the Medlock culvert

There are other wonders here too: an inspection chamber that rises 30 ft to the surface in a series of concrete platforms that resemble the startling modernist geometries of Brutalism (5); and, further down, a resolutely Victorian series of steps down which tumble water from the Ashton Canal, which lies above the culvert (6). More unsettling are the remains of tombstones within the Medlock’s waters: flushed downstream in a calamitous flood of 1872 when the river burst its banks and inundated the cemetery next to Philips Park, carrying off dozens of corpses and headstones.

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal to the Medlock culvert

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal into the Medlock culvert

The strange coming together of the ultra modern, Victorian gothic and the downright morbid in the Medlock culvert characterises many urban underground spaces and is no doubt why they are so appealing to urban explorers. Indeed, the rich interweaving of contradictory elements witnessed in the Medlock culvert is exactly what is missing from the rhetoric that surrounds the current project to restore the river to its ‘natural’ state, which seems to speak of the river in a way that divorces it from the (industrial) history of the city. Perhaps the real imaginative force of the Medlock (and all urban rivers) lies at the point where it meets human attempts to control its power – producing in structures like the Medlock culvert a fecund melding of human and non-human forces.





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





108 arches to Ardwick: the view from below

22 02 2013
Arches under the viaduct near Piccadilly station.

Arches under the viaduct near Piccadilly station.

Trundling into Manchester Piccadilly on the train from Stockport is my normal way into the city: a mundane ride along the top of one of Manchester’s many Victorian viaducts. From this view from above, the city is distanced: readable, if strangely dislocated; not quite providing the sense of exaltation of seeing the city from the top of a high building, but nevertheless reassuring you that this city – of run-down factories, container storage areas, mean housing and distant hills – is understandable because seen from a secure, elevated viewpoint. Down below is another matter. Walking this route – tracing that same railway line from below – is exhilarating for different reasons – it feels transgressive, a bit dangerous perhaps, certainly mucky and murky: this is the 108 arches to Ardwick.

1. Arches fronting Temperance Street.

1. Arches fronting Temperance Street.

Ardwick – the area immediately south-east of Piccadilly station – was, until the mid-19th century, a pleasant Manchester suburb, with 18th-century houses and villas clustered around Ardwick Green (some of which, along with the Green, still survive). As the city spread its industry and cheap housing over the area in the mid-19th century, it became much like any other inner-Manchester suburb: a dense conglomreration of brick-built factories, terraced housing and warehouses. The railway arrived in the 1840s, cutting a vast swathe through the area on an elevated viaduct northwards to its destination at Piccadilly. From Ardwick station, that viaduct expands and is joined by others, gaining in height as its sweeps in a graceful curve towards its terminus – ordered into a disciplined cavalcade of arches, each numbered like a series of identical shops or houses (1).

2. Blind Lane

2. Blind Lane

3. Pittbrook Street

3. Pittbrook Street

4. Chapelfield Road

4. Chapelfield Road

5. The second viaduct over Temperance Street.

5. The second viaduct over Temperance Street.

Here, down below, are streets that are forgotten: Blind Lane (2) leads only to a mechanic’s workshop; Pittbrook Street (3) stands empty under the first arch, perhaps better known by its former name; Chapelfield Road (4) further down the viaduct cuts a cavernous and threatening route through it. Alongside the viaduct all the way to Piccadilly is Temperance Street – an immediately Victorian name that conjures up images of discipline, order and brow-beating sermonising. But what a name for this street! Lined on both sides by the tremendous brick walls of two parallel viaducts, you certainly feel cowered into submission, tiny in the face of such overwhelming forces (5). On the walls either side, trails of water leave a rich patina of moss, saturated brick, rust and sprouting Buddleia (6), while overhead is the base of another viaduct that slices through the main one at a seemingly impossible angle, its giant metal structure emphasising its savage symmetry (7). It all reaches a visual climax in the last hundred yards before Piccadilly, as the viaduct widens and passes over a busy road, creating a tunnel of vast proportions, rent in two by the viaduct above (8) and entered at one end through an expressionist portal of concrete ribs (9).

6. Patina on Chapelfield Road.

6. Patina on the viaduct walls fronting Chapelfield Road.
7. Underneath the second viaduct spanning Temperance Street.

7. Underneath the second viaduct spanning Temperance Street.

8. The split viaduct over Ashton Road.

8. The split viaduct over Ashton Road.

9. Expressionist concrete entrance to the Ashton Road tunnel.

9. Expressionist concrete entrance to the Ashton Road tunnel.

After this, entering the civilised chaos of Piccadilly station is like walking back into another world – reassuring – yes – but also somehow mysteriously changed. What riches there are in this short walk that is all but invisible from the train above!





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.





Cryptic space

17 08 2012

Entrance to the crypt under Canterbury cathedral

‘The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls …walls that have the entire earth behind them’

-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Underneath the apse of Canterbury cathedral (and in common with most large Christian churches) is the crypt, the oldest part of the building, constructed in the 11th century. In an almost exact reversal of the gem-like Gothic space above ground, the crypt is dark and severe. In one corner, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, constructed at the beginning of the 12th century, is an extraordinary testament to the power of cryptic space. Here, the column capitals are carved into a variety of grotesque forms, some devil-like, others more like mutated animals, as if the unconscious mind has here been given free reign; while above are the remains of a fabulous wall painting of Christ in glory, surrounded by beatific saints and angels. It’s as if two contradictory modes of the imagination – the utopian and dystopian – have been allowed to come together in this space, both being freely expressed but confined to the secretive world of the crypt.

Capital, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, Canterbury cathedral crypt

Wall painting in Saint Gabriel’s chapel

The English words Crypt and cryptic come almost uncorrupted from the Latin world crypta meaning concealed or private; and it’s this sense of the word that holds the key to understanding the potential richness of cryptic space. According to Gaston Bachelard, in his famous meditation The Poetics of Space (1958), domestic underground space (the cellar or vault) is first and foremost the ‘dark entity’ of the house, one that ‘partakes of subterranean forces’. For Bachelard, the underground is the one space the can never be rationalised: because it’s always in the dark, it’s a space that becomes a repository for the unconscious, a force that ‘cannot be civilised’ no matter how much we’d like it to be. Moreover, the unconscious itself is usually imagined in cryptic spatial terms – it’s the secret, concealed part of us, the bearer of hidden meanings.

The crypt under Oxford Castle, together with a re-enactment of the founding of the university

Restaurant in the crypt of St John’s church, Smith Square, London

Cryptic spaces have always been subject to attempts to rationalise their darkness. Crypts are often described as foundational spaces. Indeed, Canterbury’s crypt is said to be the foundation on which the present cathedral was built, while that under the Oxford castle is now quite literally cast as the space in which its world-famous university was founded, with monks offering the first clandestine teaching there over 900 years ago. Visualising the crypt as a ‘foundation’ fixes its otherwise obtuse meaning and transforms it into a mythic space, but one that is nevertheless rooted in its rationalisation. In present-day equivalents, many of London’s church crypts have now been converted into restaurants – St Martin in the Fields, St Mary le Bow, St John’s in Smith Square, to name but a few. Here, the potent mystery of the crypt is reduced to simply a novel spatial experience – a new background to an everyday activity – but perhaps with the element of secrecy still drawing the illicit in the form of hushed, private conversations.

‘Sound II’ in the crypt of Winchester cathedral

Yet, despite the increasing rationalisation of cryptic spaces, they nevertheless have a stubborn hold on the imagination that resists this process. Oxford castle’s crypt is widely perceived as the most haunted space in the city, with regular ghost-hunting tours promising to reveal its occult presences that lie far beyond the rational and reasonable world above ground; while the crypt under Winchester cathedral contains another ghostly presence – not an apparition but Antony Gormley’s striking sculpture Sound II, a life-size cast of the artist’s body contemplating a bowl held in its hands. When the crypt floods, as it often does, the sculpture appears as if hovering over the deep, the figure longing for the bowl to be filled by the rising flood. It’s a simultaneously gentle and disturbing symbolic representation of the imaginative potency of the crypt that, even as it evades comprehension, nevertheless haunts the mind for a long time after it’s seen.





The intestine of Leviathan: visiting the Paris sewers

20 07 2012

Light and darkness in the Paris sewers

The contemporary historian David Pike has drawn attention to nineteenth-century ideas about underground space, in particular the ways in which these articulated the urban underground as a symbolic space – that is, as a metaphor of society as a whole. In relation to Paris, we find this expressed most directly in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables. Society, for Hugo, is compared to geological strata with ‘upper and lower galleries’; at the bottom of society are located its most seditious elements – the ‘fearsome’ workers and the revolutionaries. The direct association of sewers and filth provided a powerful metaphor for these lowest levels of society; these spaces were more or less directly associated in the public mind with the moral filth of the city – places where, according to Hugo, ‘monsters may be born’.

1. ‘The sewers of Paris’, Illustrated London News, 29 January 1870, p. 128

However, in Les Misérables, Hugo also makes a clear distinction between the old sewers, seen as fearsome places – ‘the intestine of Leviathan’ – and the new sewers built from the 1850s onwards, which he describes as ‘clean, cold, straight and correct … [where] the filth is well-behaved’. According to Hugo, the transformation of the Paris sewers divested them of their older symbolic power. In 1867, a section of the Paris sewerage system was opened up to the public; visitors – both men and women – who descended into this transformed underworld admired the cleanliness of the spaces, the lack of smell, and the brilliant lighting (1). These visits challenged public understanding of sewers as fearsome places with a new mode of conception – that propagated by the engineer, who plans and builds sewers according to rational and scientific principles.

2. Stuffed rats in the Paris sewers

3. The history of Paris’s sewers as described in the Musée des Egouts

4. Jean Valjean’s escape through the Paris sewers as pictured in the Musée des Egouts

On the surface, today’s Musée des Egouts is a rather less exciting and more sanitised space than its nineteenth-century forebear. Guided by arrowed signs, visitors inspect the sewers without actually riding in the excrement, the cleaning machines are displayed as relics of the past, while stuffed rats in a glass case suggest that the sewers have been thoroughly cleansed of organic life (2). Meanwhile, the history of Paris’s underworld is described through unappealing exhibition panels inserted into the cavernous spaces of the sewers (3), while Jean Valjean’s heroics are visualised as they might be in an amateur dramatics production of Les Misérables (4). Yet, all the while, the great tide of Parisian excrement flows beneath your feet – overpoweringly smelt, heard and seen. The enormous water and gas pipes, suspended from the ceilings of the sewers, drip in the humidity while the enclosed spaces magnify sounds and create strange echoes. It is as if the spaces themselves constantly threaten to overshadow the rationalised understanding being presented to us. Indeed, looking past what is presented suggests an illimitable world beyond, at once terrifying and enchanting – passages disappear in all directions, up and down (5); tunnels recede into pitch black (6); unimaginable torrents can be heard in the far distance; shadows loom in unexpected places (7).

5. Looking up a passageway

6. Looking down a side drain

7. Shadows and light

The Paris sewers, like those in any other modern city, might have been called to order in the nineteenth century; yet, like all sewer spaces, no matter how rationalised in conception, they stubbornly resist to be perceived in this way. In providing an opportunity to experience these spaces, no matter how ‘guided’ this experience may be, the Musée des Egouts opens up a world in which the city can be re-enchanted, experienced as truly ‘other’ and offering fertile ground for the liberation of the imagination.








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