For decades, we have reached for the skies with bricks and mortar, steel and glass and have literally built places in the clouds. But the only way is not up: a few adventurers are airing out the dark corners and infusing contemporary culture and a new lease of life into forgotten underground spaces
Every space erased from human memory, boarded and bricked up, and consigned to oblivion by us, hears the resounding echoes of Wim Wender's words: "In a million years when no one will be around anymore to even remember us faintly, some of these places will. Places have memories. They remember everything. It's engraved in stone…"
Yet a few souls remember the abandoned, the forgotten, and the buried residuals that contemporary architecture inevitably creates. These visionaries see the potential and beauty - and gradually, such spaces are infused with a new lease of life.
Sleeping under Delancey Street in the Lower East Side New York City, is the former Williamsburg Trolley Terminal constructed in 1903 for Brooklyn trolley cars to cross over the East River. In 1948, the service was terminated, and the trolley tracks across the bridge were replaced with auto lanes, assisting in the gradual demise of the underground terminal's whereabouts. Until Dan Barasch (Vice Pres of PopTech) and James Ramsey (Founder of RAAD Studio) formed Delancey Underground and decided to give this 6.070 square meters train-mausoleum a new vision in the form of a subterranean public park: The Lowline.
No doubt you've seen or read of the High Line, a park renovation of an abandoned elevated railway on the West Side. In response, the Lowline, relying on innovative fiber optic technology, will collect sunlight from above ground and channel the light down underground with the capacity for plants, trees, and grasses to thrive indoors. This park is then to be programmed with yearly activities including farmers' markets, educational series, and art exhibits.
Across the Atlantic, another residual that's recently surfaced is now London's hottest venue: The Old Vic Tunnels. This network of vaults have been quietly growing for roughly 150 years and slumbering for the past 25 years beneath the pounding commuter footsteps of Waterloo Station. Until a small but significant incident at Banksy's Cans Festival held in 2008, which was attended by Kevin Spacey and his Executive Assistant Hamish Jenkinson. On the search for the restroom, Jenkinson accidentally stumbled into an unlocked door et voila, 25,000 square metres of abandoned vaults were released from Hades.
Today the Old Vic Tunnels is a centre for theatre, music, dance, and art to meet and collaborate. Just recently in October of 2011, this subterranean space was host to PRET A DINER (Germany's famous temporal Dining Experience) during Frieze and London Restaurant Festival, a first for this city. The event transformed the Old Vic Tunnels into a cultural space featuring a labyrinth gallery – The Minotaur – for artwork and film, a Michelin Star pop-up restaurant, and a lounge/bar.
The most daring project yet, however, is proposed by The Old London Underground Company headed by Ajit Chambers, a former executive at JPMorgan Chase. Chambers plans to open all possible underground spaces in London, starting with 26 London tube stations. It sounds like a thrilling endeavour but two years and eleven months ago, Chambers says there was only derisive laughter. Yet after many battles and with the support of London Mayor Boris Johnson and several multibillionaire investors, Chambers has now created a company with a worldwide scope and a "full-fledged operational team ready to open ANY underground space anywhere in the world." From day one, this ambitious explorer has had his sights set beyond London's subterranean (see a 3D video of an upcoming project here).
For the time being, the focus is on the much-anticipated Brompton Road tube station on the Piccadilly Line. In operation from 1906 to the 1950s, this hot house of history was command centre for the Royal Artillery's Anti-Aircraft Operation Room during WWII. Now in the process of receiving a facelift by the Old London Underground Company, Brompton Road will feature a Fire Brigade Museum and a posh rooftop restaurant from which a lucky few will be able to win Adventure Tours into the tube tunnels below. This triage of revenue-creating businesses is a financial model to be implemented across the board, the initial one creating enough revenue for the following two to build upon. But that is not all.
Because one of London's perhaps sorest points against other international metropolises is that London DOES sleep, with nightlife ending somewhere between 2 am and 4 am. The Old London Underground Company aims to change that, turning the city into a 24/7 affair. Some of the deep drop shafts will even accommodate German-fabricated climbing walls for all those who dream of scaling through London's underground. All of this is poised to "double London's tourism market" predicts Chambers. He says the company will soon be rebranded as Under London and after conquering London, each city location thereafter will be branded as Under -“your city”.
But how could we end without including Berlin, legendary for all spaces and culture sub terra, hardly relegated to the past. Local creative minds will recognise MUMA (MUsic and MAchines), the disused East Berlin power station built in the first half of the 60s. Now gutted, the deafening sounds of spinning turbines have been replaced by the bone-shaking reverberations of Tresors's techno beats rumbling out of the basement of this monstrous concrete cavern. (Aaah, NOW you Berliners know this building, though only seen in the leaky morning light!). What the partiers obliviously slip past, are the upper levels, today providing energy – of the inspiration kind – to forward thinkers and interdisciplinary collaborators; Over 20,000 square metres is appropriated to exhibition and meeting spaces for artistic and cultural events.
Doubtlessly there's a plethora of unseen lairs awaiting conversion for underground creative outfits. And there could be much more to this concept than extending nightlife and cultural spaces. The sobering reality is that just in Beijing alone, some one million migrant workers – the living spine of the city’s service industry – are unable to pay exorbitant rent prices and are dwelling in – an extensive – subterranean world. Living in sunless basements, parking lots, and air-raid shelters out of necessity. And as space premiums increase, such situations will surely not be Beijing’s alone.
Whether we look at spaces for cultural experience or actual living quarters – the answer is clearly not limited to building up, but examining down. Though decades and centuries may have past, these places once felt the touch of human hands and they remember. Who knows what breath-taking spatial solutions await us beneath the surfaces of our quotidian treads.
More about the London Underground projects: