The heart of the city: under Senate House

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What is the ‘heart’ of a city: a large public plaza and grand civic buildings; a skyline of corporate skyscrapers; a transport hub, such as a railway station or shipping terminal? Of course, a big city like London has many ‘hearts’ – multiple centres whereby the city is summed up in a single mental image, usually centred on an iconic building – think St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, or the Houses of Parliament – or a larger feature or site – the River Thames, Piccadilly Circus, for example. For some, London is the Tube – the Underground map standing in for a complete image of the city; yet, can the Tube ever be conceived as the heart of London – perhaps it is too diffuse, too uncentred, and too hidden? Of course, what powers our imagination of a ‘heart’ of any city are our own bodies, centred as they are on this blood-pumping organ. Yet, the heart is not really the centre of our bodies, just the most important element of a circulatory system that fills us from end to end.

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A few weeks ago, I attended and spoke at the Senate House Revealed event in London (titled Talking Underground), part of the wider UK-wide Being Human festival of the humanities. The event was designed to open up normally hidden parts of this iconic building – namely, its subterranean infrastructure – to view to the public, culminating in an event on 13 November which included six short talks on what it might mean to explore hidden spaces in the city. The talks were held in the former boiler room of Senate House, the enormous cylindrical boilers themselves lined up in serried ranks next to the audience and speakers. Until a few years ago, these subterranean boilers used to provide heating and hot water for an entire complex of buildings that comprise part of the University of London. For me, being in this normally hidden underground space raised questions about how we think about centres in relation to buildings and cities and how we project the workings of our own bodies onto things that are inanimate; in other words, how we imagine life in what is inert.

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Under Senate House are two levels of rooms and passageways built to contain the infrastructure of not only this gargantuan building, but several others nearby: ranks of switchboards and dials that exude an atmosphere of the Cold War; low tunnels lined with cables gathered into great bundles of colour; outsized – and now defunct – orange boilers that stand as if ready to power an enormous ocean liner; and the current boilers and pipes lagged with aluminum-coated insulation that hum and vibrate with their constant inner circulations of hot water. It was as if all the energy required to give life to a city – to make it inhabitable – was gathered in these subterranean spaces; the visible heart of the city in a very literal sense.

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We might regard such spaces as merely functional – hidden underground because otherwise they would interrupt the ‘real’ life of the building above; yet, if we’re being truly anthropomorphic, these are the spaces in the city that correspond most directly with our own hearts and, as such, should possess significant symbolic charge. Why, then, is their imaginative potential so often sidelined in favour of other imagined urban hearts, above ground? Perhaps these more visible sites sit easier with our minds that like to order and organise, minds that conceptualise the city rather than directly experience it. Seeing the city’s true heart – its beating, material, yet hidden, heart – invites a very different kind of linking of mind and matter. For, just as the heart once used to be (and arguably is still widely thought as) both the material and symbolic centre of the human body – the seat of emotions – so the heart of the city is always more than just a mental image, but a fusion – a meld – of real and imagined space.

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5 thoughts on “The heart of the city: under Senate House

  1. Like the idea of all the energy required to give life to a city gathered in these subterranean spaces. These spaces are also need to take away the waste. Sounds like a fascinating festival. Great photos!

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  2. Pingback: Bubbling Under | things magazine

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