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.





The Vienna sewers

22 05 2011

1. The river Wien, Vienna

The prevailing image of Vienna is of a city of pleasure: the opera, waltzes, refined luxury etc. Yet, like all modern cities, it has an underside – real underground spaces that allow the city to function: from its bland yet smoothly efficient underground railway to its invisible system of sewers built at the end of the nineteenth century.

2. Scene from The Third Man (1949)

Vienna’s sewers transcend their everyday domain largely thanks to one defining representation: Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, made in 1949 and written by Graham Greene. Like all of Greene’s work, The Third Man explores human depths – unconscious motives, hidden political and personal treachery, and death – which are symbolised by, and return through, the ultra-rationalised spaces of the Vienna sewers just after the Second World War. It is here, in a celebrated sequence that the black marketer Harry Lime is cornered and finally shot by his one-time friend, Holly Martins (2). Throughout the film, the Vienna we know today is barely recognisable – here the city is battle-worn, barely more than a collection of ruins controlled by a disparate group of foreign occupiers.

3. Scenes from The Third Man projected on the sewer walls

Today, with the help of Vienna’s sewer authority, the Third Man tourist agency have cashed in on the film’s reputation and opened up – for paying visitors – the section of the city’s sewers that was actually used in the film. Descending the lotus-like manhole used by Harry Lime in his attempted escape, you enter the same murky world he inhabited. Here, montage from the film is literally projected onto the walls of the sewers (3), sounds from the film appear from unexpected crevices, and strategic lighting gives added drama to the spaces. It’s a themed excursion into the underworld that could be accused of hollowing out the originality of both film and sewer space.

4. Foul water meets clean water

5. Passages between the sewers

Yet, in reality, the raw brutalities of the sewers win out, with their grotesque stench, hostile spaces and foul rushing flows. In one space, chocolate-coloured water merges before one’s eyes into clean water in a mesmerising display of slowly-shifting eddies and whirlpools (4); in another, labyrinthine passages confuse in their topographical strangeness (5) (as they do so powerfully in the film); while, in the submerged river Wien – used by Lime to move swiftly and unnoticed between the city’s four occupied zones – is revealed as an astonishing, vaulted cavern, receding seemingly infinitely into the darkness (1 & 6). Here, with spectacularly appropriate lighting and ominous sounds, patches of graffiti can be made out along the walls of the tunnel: signs of the present-day successors of Harry Lime – those who yearn for freedom of movement and a brief respite from the oppressive rationality of the world above.

6. The river Wien under Vienna





Cathedral of sewage: the Abbey Mills pumping station

18 12 2010

The Abbey Mills pumping station from the Greenway

The Abbey Mills Pumping Station (1865-68) was the last to be constructed in the first phase of London’s main drainage project in the 1860s, masterminded by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette. It was also architecturally the most extravagant and has come to be known as the ‘cathedral of sewage’. The style of the building has been variously described as Byzantine, Italian Medieval, Russian, Ruskinian Gothic and Moorish. The Builder commented in 1868 that the building ‘seemed to be an elegant structure in a swamp [which] might be taken for a mosque or Chinese temple’. The original twin ventilation chimneys (2), richly ornamented and standing 212 feet high, gave this building a prominence that has consistently attracted public attention, and today it still provides a focus for introducing the public to Bazalgette’s system.

2 Abbey Mills in 1868

The stylistic and decorative elements of Abbey Mills ‘dress up’ the engineering function and present it in symbolic terms: the underground spaces of the building are claustrophobic, dark and disorientating (3) while the second-storey gallery level is light, airy and filled with naturalistic decoration (4); the cruciform plan, cathedral-like doors and internal octagon suggest religious associations normally restricted to churches. Such design elements were employed in many contemporaneous Victorian industrial buildings, most notably markets, which were often built to a cruciform plan and with similar decorative central octagonal pavilions. The symbolic associations of these design features indicate that the architectural embellishment seen at both Crossness and Abbey Mills has a very different function from mere technological expediency.

3 Underground spaces at Abbey Mills

4 Interior ironwork from the upper gallery

The architect of Abbey Mills was Charles Driver, a specialist in the use of iron, and it is in the ornamental iron at Abbey Mills that we sense his desire to elevate the value of iron above its strictly utilitarian character. This was an attitude that went against the grain of architectural practise and theory in the 1860s, which, under the influence of the influential architectural critic John Ruskin, strove for truth to nature in architecture, rejecting the use of cast iron because it was a synthetic, artificial material. Iron was seen by Ruskin as not fit to express the noblest architectural ideas. Indeed, Ruskin viewed the use of cast iron as excluding a building from being true architecture; likewise, cast-iron ornament is condemned as ‘cold, clumsy, and vulgar’. But in the interior of Abbey Mills we see no such reservations; rather a reversal of Ruskin’s views: the profuse decorative cast-iron motifs, including roses, lilies and acanthus leaves (5) imitate nature so convincingly that iron here effectively appropriates the function of a natural and ‘noble’ material such as stone.

5 Cast-iron lilies in the upper gallery

Such ‘dressing up’ of iron, seen by most architectural historians as a kind of structural deceit, at Abbey Mills provides a symbolic embellishment of the building’s engineering function. For the Victorians, morality and architecture were inseparable and the morality of architecture was expressed through style and decoration. To Victorian architectural critics like Ruskin, the engineering function of this building would have possessed no moral meaning in itself precisely because it was divested of all such symbolism. Therefore, the moral value of Abbey Mills is communicated through its decorative and symbolic elements: the cruciform plan and cathedral-like doors use religious symbolism to elevate its meaning above mere utility; the exterior façades include features alluding to Gothic Venice – the apotheosis of nobility in architecture, according to Ruskin – while the interior use of decorative ironwork represents an attempt to both elevate iron as a noble constructive material and to give further symbolic meaning to the functional aspects of the building.

The spaces of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, as the visible part and symbolic representation of a largely invisible system, are ones where old and new conceptions of sewer space collide: Bazalgette’s new rational understanding of sewers conflates with the architectural embellishments which use an older symbolic language to suggest the nobility of both sewers and the constructive material associated with them, namely iron. It remains a point of contention whether these new ideas really did successfully displace and transform the old conceptions of the wider public.

6 Visitors at Abbey Mills in 1868

On 30 July 1868, many of London’s dignitaries did see Abbey Mills when a sumptuous banquet was held at the site to mark the official opening of the entire sewer system north of the Thames (6). Visitors, who were each supplied with a copy of Bazalgette’s description of the building, marvelled at the lack of smell, the lightness of construction and the rich floral ornamentation, all of which suggested a true ennoblement of the sewer and its function.But such a sense of nobility depended on the effective concealment of the underground parts of the building where the sewage was pumped. In the almost identical ceremony that took place at Crossness on 4 April 1865, visitors also admired the beauty of the ornament and the ‘poetical’ qualities of the religious symbolism, but many also descended into the crypt-like space of part of the vast subterranean sewage reservoir (7). Despite the temporary exclusion of the sewage and the dazzling lighting, some visitors felt distinct unease at the thought of being in such close proximity to ‘the filthiest mess in Europe’ ready to ‘leap out like a black panther’ after the guests had left. It was in these underground spaces, close to the ‘ignoble’ sewage, that older associations were stimulated. The complete invisibility of these spaces at Abbey Mills perhaps closed down opportunities for such associations to emerge. However, such concealment by no means marks the demise of these older conceptions: rather, it has been contended that: ‘in mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost … everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances’.

7 Visiting Crossness's underground sewage reservoir in 1865





Into the belly of the beast

4 10 2010

Peepshow of a Victorian sewer, Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Sewers remain a powerful site for mixed ideas about the city. They are both signifiers of a truly modern city, efficiently disposing of its wastes, but also places of imaginative horror: the literal as well as metaphorical bowels of the city; everyday yet alien spaces. Their imaginative power is enhanced by their very invisibility. In London, most people travel underground every day on the hundreds of miles of tube; London’s sewers cover thousands of miles and are all but unknown to the city’s populace because their acceptability depends on their invisibility. But even if we don’t see them, sewers are perhaps the only type of underground space that connects everyone to each other: in the ceaseless flows in the sewers we can’t escape the fact that excrement has no social distinction.

Perhaps because they are invisible, sewers invite illicit or secret journeys motivated by personal curiosity. In relation to London’s sewers, the most famous early modern explorer was Ben Johnson, whose mock-epic poem describing a tour of the Fleet river in 1610 describes all the strange horrors of what was even then a pre-modern sewer. In the Victorian period, perhaps the most obsessive engagement with London’s sewers occurred in the 1860s, with the journalist John Hollingshead’s book Underground London, published in 1862. These series of essays derive from the author’s self-confessed ‘appetite for the wonderful in connection with sewers’. Hollingshead’s collection of essays is remarkable for the sheer variety of viewpoints represented. Indeed, he sums up these multiple conceptions of sewers in his introductory chapter:

‘There are more ways than one of looking at sewers, especially old London sewers. There is a highly romantic point of view from which they are regarded as accessible, pleasant, and convivial hiding-places for criminals flying from justice, but black and dangerous labyrinths for the innocent stranger … [and] there is the scientific or half-scientific way, which is not always wanting in the imaginative element.’

Capturing all of these views in a wonderful moment during one of the sewer journeys described in his book, Hollingshead is told by his guide that he is now walking beneath Buckingham Palace, where he promptly sings the national anthem, whilst up to his knees in what was, presumably, royal excrement.

Hollingshead’s intrepid journeys are mirrored today in the practice of draining, an increasingly popular branch of urban exploration. For urban explorers, illicit sites – industrial ruins, abandoned buildings and underground spaces – are the hidden nexus of the city, places where the rules of progress and order are directly challenged. Visiting sewers presents an opportunity to discover a secret world under the city, one that might challenge existing certainties and provide liberating alternatives. Usually under the cover of night, sewer explorers descend into these spaces and explore them at will. This usually involves a degree of danger, which is part of the attraction: mobile phone networks cease to operate; the space is pitch black and slippery underfoot; and you quickly become highly disorientated.

Sewer under Brockwell Park, Brixton

My single exploration of this kind happened in a storm drain beneath Brockwell Park in Brixton earlier this year. With a more experienced guide, I descended an iron ladder into a large sewer. Using headlamps, we walked several hundred yards and then explored a unknown smaller side drain, down which we walked, or rather stooped, until we forced open a manhole with the help of a passer-by on the street above.

Entering the unknown sewer

What was striking about the experience was how extreme it was: my other senses were so engaged that actually thinking about things and talking was very difficult and very demanding. In this, it was quite different again from other types of urban space from which we are physically shut out from. Indeed, the whole spatial experience was very far removed from anything above ground: with these apparently infinitely receding spaces, you can never tell where you are. Because the sewers are designed in a grid-like network, they are easily comprehensible on a map of the city, but not so underground. In fact, in these spaces, the very things that are supposed to contribute to being able to understand things are working against you, because you’re not supposed to be there. It’s something that’s inherent in the London sewers, in their design – they’re not designed for people to be there, because originally they were supposed to be self-cleansing and no walkways or other helpful features were incorporated into their design.

The Third Man

In fact, this experience and the feelings associated with it relate more closely with imaginative uses of sewers in film and literature. One of the first, and most famous, Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man, explores human depths – unconscious motives, hidden political and personal treachery, and death – which are symbolised by, and return through, the ultra-rationalised spaces of the Vienna sewers just after the Second World War. In a different vein, the smell of London’s sewers summons up childhood memories for the female protagonist of Margaret Drabble’s 1980 novel The Middle Ground: stooping to take a sniff at a grating to one of Bazalgette’s sewers, she cannot resist this ‘powerful odour of London’ that invites her to ‘escape the prison of the present into the past, where dark spirits swam in the fast-moving flood’.

Creep

Things that bubble up from the unconscious might be altogether more unpleasant and, in the world of film, sewers have provided popular locations for nightmarish monsters:  from giant ants in the storm drains of Los Angeles in the cold-war thriller Them! (1954); mutant alligators in the sewers of New York in Alligator (1980); to more recent incarnations such as human-like cockroaches in Guillermo Del Toro’s 1997 film Mimic. Throughout the post-War period the imaginative connotations of London’s sewers have tended to be displaced by those of other cities, in particular New York; yet recently they have resurfaced in both literature and film. In the final moments of Peter Carey’s 1997 novel Jack Maggs the eponymous hero witnesses the construction of the city’s Victorian sewers. Here, the ‘vertiginous unease’ induced by the sight of a deep trench being dug in the street mirrored the general anxiety Jack Magg’s felt about his own life and summoned up an apocalyptic vision of his own demise. Likewise Clare Clark’s 2005 novel The Great Stink sets most of its narrative in the London sewers, exploiting their dark associations to mirror the repressed yearnings of her central character, which are played out in the hidden spaces of the sewers before dramatically entering the life of the world above. More visceral still is the brutally feral monster inhabiting a self-made netherworld in Christopher Smith’s 2004 film Creep, who returns from the sewers through the tunnels of the Underground to enact vicious killings at night. Although crass and exploitative, the horrors in Creep seem to prefigure the much more tangible unease now associated with the city’s substructure since 7 July 2005. Engineers of the past and present might build sewers as rational spaces that bring wastes to order, but it seems they will always be open to other subversive interpretations and uses; clearly we are still fearful of what terrors might return to confront us from the darkness of the world below.








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