Subterranean Saxophony

[Image: Photo by Steve Stills, courtesy of the Guardian].

Over in London later today, the Guardian explains, composer Iain Chambers will premiere a new piece of music written for an unusual urban venue: “the caverns that contain the counterweights of [London’s Tower Bridge] when it’s raised.”

The space itself has “the acoustics of a small cathedral,” Sinclair told the newspaper, citing John Cage as an influence and urging readers “to listen to environmental sounds and treat them as music,” whether it’s the rumble of a bridge being raised or the sounds of boats on the river.

In fact, Chambers will be performing one of Cage’s pieces during the show tonight—but, alas, I suspect it is not this one:

It is rumored that the final, dying words of composer John Cage were: “Make sure they play my London piece… You have to hear my London piece…” He was referring, many now believe, to a piece written for the subterranean saxophony of London’s sewers.

Read much more at the Guardian—or, even better, stop by tonight for a live performance.

(Spotted via @nicolatwilley).

The Conqueror Worm

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

A group of friends, their faces rigorously hidden from public view, find a huge borehole leading down into some tunnels beneath the city.

Not content to just lie there, straining to see more than 260 feet into the deep and merely wondering what might be down there, they do what any enterprising team of explorers would do.

They don mountaineering gear and descend into the pit.

[Images: Photos by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

It’s like scaling Mt. Everest in reverse—“descending black ropes,” in their words—swinging ever closer to the entrance to the tunnels, their headlamps and cameras at the ready.

Plus, some weird new myths have been circulating around town: that there’s a monolithic machine down there, something massive and temporarily abandoned beneath the city. It is “the toughest of all the machines. A dormant juggernaut that lies underground.”

They want to find it, to see if the rumors are true—and, who knows, to discover if the machine might still be operational. Imagine what you could do with a discarded tunneling machine seemingly forgotten in the deepest basement of the metropolis. Imagine if you could bring it back to life.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

Thus begins the next phase of their subterranean quest to find the so-called “Worm Maiden,” this conquering machine-animal lying dormant in its lair somewhere under the streets.

“Hitting our helmets and our backpacks on almost everything we found on the way,” they inched forward on foot.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

They soon drop their ropes and progress through a series of excavated tunnels and industrial caves, as if puzzling some new route into a pharaoh’s tomb—an Egyptology of urban infrastructure with its own secret chambers and traps.

And, incredibly, they actually do it: they actually find the machine, realizing that the rumors were both true and strangely inaccurate.

That is, the machine is even larger and more extraordinary than they’d been led to believe. It is a sprawling and tentacular presence that blocks the tunnel with the dark bulk of its old valves and pipework, like some ancient engine that wanted to hide itself in a cocoon of its own making.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

“Walking through the sleeping beauty, through her corridors amongst rust and spiderwebs,” we read, “she looked much bigger than we could have imagined. She didn’t seem to have an end. Eventually we reached a point where we couldn’t go any further, it was full of pipes and unknown mechanisms but the end was intuited.”

The machine was so complex, in other words, that they couldn’t find the other end of it, having to negotiate their way through all its internal doors and control panels.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

It could be the ultimate joyride—Grand Theft TBM—driving a stolen machine literally through the foundations of the city, carving your own maze through bedrock.

But a way forward was eventually found, and the Kubrickian monolith of this now-stationary drill head was revealed up ahead like some Mayan sculpture in the darkness. Abandoned for now and just lying there: a machine-ruin rusting away in the underground world it had made for itself. The conqueror worm.

[Image: Photo by & courtesy of Trackrunners, used with permission].

“It was much better than I had imagined,” we read. The text is like an archaeological report made possible by climbing gear and GoPros. “A twelve meter diameter of pure love just in front of us, was bestial. I couldn’t stop staring at HER. I could see the strain on her, the hard work she had done. The dirt in every part of the face. Pure beauty. All the space around her was filled by a foot of dirty water. A mixture of sand, dirt, water and oil. This mantle of fluids that covered everything was perfect, the vapors fogged my camera lens but the effect was delightfully dramatic. Go and use a filter to look like this. I can see the new Instagram filter now… TBM vapors effect!”

But that’s literally only half the journey. They’ve mountaineered into the planet, like reverse-Alpinists of the inferno—and they go so far as to discover an artificial lake beneath the city, a brackish reservoir that “shone under the light of our torches”—but now they have to get back out, which is not nearly as easy as it had seemed.

There are dozens of other photographs over at Trackrunners, and a much longer version of how everything happened that day; go check it out (and don’t miss their other stories, such as the disused stations beneath Barcelona).

(Thanks to Charles Bronson for the tip.)

Drains of Canada: An Interview with Michael Cook

[Image: The Toronto Power Company Tailrace at Niagara; this and all other photos in this post by Michael Cook].

Michael Cook is a writer, photographer, and urban explorer based in Toronto, where he also runs a website called Vanishing Point.
Despite its subject matter, however, Vanishing Point is more than just another website about urban exploration. Cook’s accounts of his journeys into the subterranean civic infrastructure of Canada and northern New York State – and into those regions’ warehouses, factories, and crumbling hospitals – often include plans, elevations, and the odd historical photograph showing the sites under construction.
For instance, his fascinating, inside-out look at the Ontario Generating Station comes with far more than just cool pictures of an abandoned hydroelectric complex behind the water at Niagara Falls, and the detailed narratives he’s produced about the drains of Hamilton and Toronto are well worth reading in full.
As the present interview makes clear, Cook’s interests extend beyond the field of urban exploration to include the ecological consequences of city drainage systems, the literal nature of public space, and the implications of industrial decay for future archaeology – among many other things we barely had time to discuss.
Or, perhaps more accurately phrased, Cook shows that urban exploration has always been about more than just taking pictures of monumentally abstract architectural spaces embedded somewhere in the darkness.

[Image: The Memorial Park Storage Chambers in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain; this is architecture as dreamed of by Adolf Loos: shaved of all ornament, exquisitely smooth, functional – while architecture schools were busy teaching Mies van der Rohe, civil engineers were perfecting the Modern movement beneath their feet].

As he writes on Vanishing Point:

The built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality, with borderlands cutting across its heart and reaching into its sky. We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive, each pregnant with riches and wonders and time.

This is a website about exploring some of those spaces, about immersing oneself in stormwater sewers and utility tunnels and abandoned industry, about tapping into the worlds that are embedded in our urban environment yet are decidedly removed from the collective experience of civilized life. This is a website about spaces that exist at the boundaries of modern control, as concessions to the landscape, as the debris left by economic transition, as evidence of the transient nature of our place upon this earth.

In the following conversation with BLDGBLOG, Cook discusses how and where these drains are found; what they sound like; the injuries and infections associated with such explorations; myths of secret systems in other cities; and even a few brief tips for getting inside these hyper-functionalist examples of urban infrastructure. We talk about ecology, hydrology, and industrial archaeology; and we come back more than once to the actual architecture of these spaces.

[Image: “Stairs” by Michael Cook, from the Westview Greenbelt Drain].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: Is there any place in particular that you’re exploring right now?

Michael Cook: I am trying to piece together entrance to a drain here in Toronto. It’s part of a larger system. As part of their efforts to improve Toronto’s water quality on the lake front, the city built this big storage tunnel called the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel. It intercepts and stores overflow from a number of combined sewers, as well as from several storm sewers along the western lake front. I guess this was finished in 2001, but they had various technical issues, with the mechanics of it, so it was only operational this past summer.

But there are three storm sewers, I guess, that are part of this system. One of them is on my site already – Pilgrimage – and then there’s a second one that’s large and possibly worth getting into. It’s just not something I’ve investigated thoroughly, so… I’ll probably go down and look for that.

[Images: (top) “Transition to CMP,” from Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain; (middle) “Junction with small sidepipe (falling in on the right)” inside Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain; (bottom) “Backwards junction” in Toronto’s Sisters of Mercy drain].

BLDGBLOG: How do you know that the system fits together – that all these storm sewers actually connect up with one another? Are there maps?

Michael Cook: In this case, I have an outfall list that was prepared in the late 80s for portions of Toronto – so I know, from this list, what the size of this storm sewer was at its outfall, before it was intercepted by the new system.

There was also a fair bit of media coverage when the system was being built, because it was a huge expenditure on the part of the city. So we know which combined sewers are part of the system, and I do know where a particular storm sewer is when they intersect – I just don’t necessarily know which residential streets it runs under.

Basically, I have a starting point – and the way I’m going to do this is just go down there on foot and walk around the various residential streets, starting at the lake and moving north. I’ll see if I can find any viable manhole entrances – which involves being by the side of the road or in the sidewalk, where it will be possible to enter and exit safely.

[Image: “Emerging in Wilson Heights,” out of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain].

BLDGBLOG: What do you actually bring with you? Do you have some kind of underground exploration kit? Full of Band-Aids and Advil?

Michael Cook: I have a pair of boots or waders, depending on the circumstances. I’ll also bring one or more headlamps, and a spotlamp, and various other lighting gear – plus a camera and a tripod. That basically sums it up.

I also have a manhole key – that’s basically just a loop of aircraft cable tied onto a bolt at one end and run through a piece of aluminum pipe that serves as a crude handle. Most of the manhole lids around here have between two and twenty square holes in them about an inch wide, and they’re reasonably light. Assuming the lid hasn’t been welded or bolted into the collar of the manhole, it’s relatively quick and painless to use this tool to pull the lid out. It’s only useful for light-weight lids, though. In Montreal, for instance, most of the covers are awkward, heavy affairs that sometimes need two people, each with their own crowbar, to dislodge safely. Real utilities workers use pickaxes – but those aren’t so easily carried in the pocket of a backpack.

[Image: The outfall of Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever run into other people down there?

Michael Cook: That’s never happened to me, actually. It’s just not that popular a pursuit, outside of certain hotspots.

People can accept going into an abandoned building: you might run into someone you don’t want to run into there, or you might find that part of the building’s unstable – but it’s still just a building.

Even people I know who self-identify as urban explorers aren’t at all that interested in undergrounding – especially not in storm drains. A lot of them just don’t see the actual interest. It’s not a detail-rich environment. You can walk six kilometers underground through nearly featureless pipe – and there’s not something to see and photograph every five feet.

[Image: An “A-shaped conduit” in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain].

BLDGBLOG: Yet a lot – possibly most – of these drains are already named. Who names them, and how do the names get passed around and agreed on by everyone else?

Michael Cook: With people who drain, one of the first things you pick up is a respect for existing names – and the first person to explore a drain has naming rights over it. People generally respect that. Sometimes we’ll make exceptions – I know I’ve made exceptions a few times – but, ultimately, we depend on other people respecting our names.

It’s at once a completely pointless exercise; but, at the same time, it’s fairly meaningful in terms of having a way of discussing this with other people.

So that’s how it comes up. You then use that name, both offline and online. In Australia, they have a kind of master location list, that they keep within Cave Clan, but here we don’t have that level of organization, or that size of a community. It’s just a matter of publishing stuff on our websites.

That said, sometimes we’ll adopt the official name. This usually happens when we’ve been using that name for awhile before we find a way to actually get inside the system, and this usually comes about with something really big or historically significant. We’ll never rename the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, for instance, though we call it the “Webster,” colloquially. When I find a way into Toronto’s storied Garrison Creek Sewer, the buried remains of our fabled “lost” creek, it won’t be the subject of renaming either. Those are the exceptions though; most of the time naming is one of the things we do to capture and communicate something of the magic of wading for three hours through a watery, feature-poor concrete tunnel underground.

[Image: (top) “Outfall structure in the West Don Valley,” part of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain; (bottom) The outfall of Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain].

BLDGBLOG: A lot of these places look like surreal, concrete versions of all the streams and rivers that used to flow through the city. The drains are like a manmade replacement, or prosthetic landscape, that’s been installed inside the old one. Does the relationship between these tunnels and the natural waterways that they’ve replaced interest you at all?

Michael Cook: Oh, definitely – ever since I got into this through exploring creeks.

At their root, most drains are just an abstract version of the watershed that existed before the city. It’s sort of this alternate dimension that you pass into, when you step from the aboveground creek, through the inlet, into the drain – especially once you walk out of the reach of daylight.

Even sanitary sewers often follow the paths of existing or former watersheds, because the grade of the land is already ideal for water flow – fast enough, but not so fast that it erodes the pipe prematurely – and because the floodplains are often unsuitable for other uses.

[Image: “Outfall in winter” at Toronto’s Gargantua drain].

BLDGBLOG: How does that affect your attitude toward this, though? Do you find yourself wishing that all these drains could be dismantled, letting the natural landscape return – or, because these sites are so interesting to explore, do you actually wish that there were more of them?

Michael Cook: It’s an awful toll that we’ve taken on the landscape – I’m not one to celebrate all this concrete. If it were conceivable to set it all right, I’d be the first one in line to support that. And the marginal progress being made in terms of environmental engineering – building storm water management alternatives to burial and to large, expensive pipes – is a great step forward; unfortunately, its success so far has been limited.

Ultimately, you just can’t change the fact that we’ve urbanized, and we continue to do so. That comes with a cost that can be managed – but it can’t be eliminated completely.

[Image: Looking out of a spillway at the Ontario Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: So do you actually have an environmental goal with these photographs? Your explorations are really a form of environmental advocacy?

Michael Cook: Well, I want to find something that goes a bit further than just presenting these photos for their aesthetic value – but, at the same time, turning this into some sort of environmental advocacy platform doesn’t really come to mind, either.

I’m very interested in urban ecology and in the environmental politics that take place in the city – and I’ve done some academic work in that regard – but I’m not really prepared to distill the photography and these adventures into an activist exercise.

[Image: The “spectacular, formerly natural waterfall that the [Chedoke Falls Drain] now feeds,” in Hamilton, Ontario].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you’ve ever been injured, or even gotten sick, down there. All that old, stagnant air – and the dust, and the germs – can’t be very good for you!

Michael Cook: I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten sick from it. Sometimes, the day after, you can feel almost hung-over – but I don’t know what that is. It could be dust, or it could be from the amount of moisture you breathe in. But it passes. It may even be an allergy I have.

I haven’t really done any exploration of sanitary sewers – that would be a different story. In Minneapolis/St. Paul they actually have a name for the sickness they sometimes come down with after a particularly intense sewer exploration: Rinker’s Revenge. It’s named after the engineer who designed the systems there. And a colleague caught a bout of giardia recently, which he believes he acquired exploring a section of combined sewer in Montreal.

So, obviously, there are disease risks in doing this, though they’re not as extensive as one might want to imagine.

The only serious situation I’ve ever been in, with a high potential for injury – and I was pretty lucky – was while exploring in Niagara. The surge spillways for the Ontario Generating Station used to carry overflow water from the surge tanks, and those were fed by the intake pipes. So the water would overflow from the intake pipes into the surge tanks, and then drain out through these helical spillways that spiral downwards to the bottom of the gorge. They then outfall in front of the plant into the river.

So we made an attempt to ascend both of these spillways, and we were successful in the first one; but the second one, we found, was more difficult toward the latter stages of the climb. We had to turn back just before reaching the surge tanks. On the way back down I lost my footing – I lost all grip on the surface, it was so steep and so slippery, and it was covered in very fine grit – and I ended up sliding all the way down to the bottom, nearly 200 vertical feet. And I was going at a very high speed by the time I reached the bottom.

I was very lucky to come away from that with just a few friction burns and a sprained thumb.

[Images: A “short drop” in Toronto’s beautifully torqued and ovoid Viceroy Drain].

BLDGBLOG: As far as the actual tunnels go, how connected is all this stuff? Is it like a big, underground labyrinth sometimes – or just a bunch of little tunnels that look connected only because of the way that they’ve been photographed?

Michael Cook: Well, most of the drainage systems I’ve been in are pretty linear. You have a main trunk conduit, and then sometimes you’ll get significant side pipes that are worth exploring. But as far as actual maze-quality features go, it’s pretty rare to find systems like that – at least in Ontario and most places in Canada. It requires a very specific geography and a sort of time line of development for the drains.

You might end up with a lot of side overflows and other things, which makes the system more complicated, if the drain has several different places where it overflows into a surface body of water – or if there’s a structure that allows one pipe to flow into another at excess capacity. That sort of thing allows for more complicated systems – but most of the time it doesn’t happen.

You can still spend hours in some of these drains, though, because of how long they are. And sometimes that makes for a fairly uninteresting experience: drains can be pretty featureless for most of their length.

[Images: Four glimpses of the vaulted topologies installed inside the Earth at Niagara’s William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace].

BLDGBLOG: Are the drains up there mostly poured concrete, or are they made of brick?

Michael Cook: We have recently opened up our first significant brick sewer in Toronto – The Skin of a Lion – which is built from yellow brick and would probably date to around the turn of the last century. So there are a few locations where you can find brick, but most are concrete.

[Images: (top) Leaving the William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace, Niagara Falls; (bottom) Tailrace outlet, William B. Rankine Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: Does that affect what the drains sound like, as far as echoes and reverb go? What sort of noises do you hear?

Michael Cook: I’d say that every drain is acoustically unique. Each has its own resonance points – and even different sections of the drain will resonate differently, based on where the next curve is, or the next room. It all shifts. I often explore that aspect a bit – probably to the annoyance of some of my colleagues. I’ll make noises, or hum. Even sing.

As far as environmental noises, the biggest thing is that, if there’s a rail line nearby, or a public transit line, you often get that noise coming back through the drain to wherever you are. It’s very frightening when you first hear it, till you figure out what it is – this rushing noise. It’s not a wall of water. [laughs]

But the most common recurring noise is the sound of cars driving over manhole covers – which gives you an idea of which covers you don’t want to exit through. It also helps you keep track of the distance, and where you are – that sort of thing.

[Image: “Transitions” inside the Duncan’s Got Wood sewer, Toronto].

BLDGBLOG: What kind of legal issues are involved here – like trespassing, or even loitering? Do you have to go out at 2am, dressed like an official city worker, or wear a hood or anything like that?

Michael Cook: For draining, the legal issues are pretty grey. After all, you’re on public property the entire time – so the risk of a serious trespassing fine is a lot lower. There’s no private security company looking out for you, and there’s no private property owner who’s going to be irate if you’re found inside his building. It’s a municipal waterway – it just happens to run underground. A lot of times the outfalls aren’t even posted with notices telling you to stay out.

Now, some people have been given fines for trespassing – for having been inside drains in Ontario – but these have been for pretty minor sums of money. It’s not something that I’ve ever had a problem with – and definitely not something that requires me to go in the middle of the night.

The only thing that really dictates what time you can go is traffic conditions. If you have to use a street-side manhole, you generally don’t want to be doing that doing the day.

[Image: “Deep inside the century-old wheelpit that is the beginning of the Rankine Generating Station Tailrace” (view bigger)].

BLDGBLOG: Within Toronto itself, are you still finding new drains, or is the city pretty much exhausted by now?

Michael Cook: We are still finding new tunnels beneath Toronto, and we’re on the trail of others that we know about but just haven’t discovered access to yet. There are also still a few underground gems in Hamilton that haven’t been seen by anyone except municipal workers and a handful of journalists. These days though, Montreal and Vancouver are emerging hotbeds for new sewer and drainage finds in Canada, thanks to explorers in those cities.

When Siologen came over here he found a whole bunch of new drain systems in Toronto – systems nobody else knew about. He had the time and the inclination to go and scout out a whole lot of stuff that I’d never gotten around to doing.

BLDGBLOG: How’d he do that?

Michael Cook: Basically by riding all the buses. That, and looking at a lot of little creek systems, and searching around for manholes – all of that.

But there are people who happen to read in the paper about some new tunnel project, or whatever, and so they pass that on to people who do this sort of thing. Outside of that, I don’t really know what to say. I guess some people have even found stuff after it’s been featured in skateboarding magazines.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Michael Cook: Some of the largest pipe in the world is used as spillways for hydroelectric projects – big dams and that sort of thing – and usually the first people who find out about this stuff are skateboarders. Usually they try to keep the locations pretty quiet – just as we do. But I’m sure that, at least once or twice, some tunnel explorer has found out about a system through the skateboarding community.

[Image: Ottawa’s Governor General’s Drain].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if there’s some huge, mythic system out there that you’ve heard about but haven’t visited yet, or even just an urban legend about some tunnels that may not actually be real – secret government bunkers in London, for instance.

Michael Cook: I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

You know, these legends are really… there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.

[Image: “Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace“].

BLDGBLOG: Is there some system – a real system – that you’re really dying to explore?

Michael Cook: If I had unlimited funds, I’d really like to make a trip to South America and see some of the underground workings beneath Rio and São Paulo and Montevideo; and I want to go to Africa for a lot reasons but, obviously, it would also be really neat to see what’s built under some of the larger cities in Africa. It’s a place of real cleavages between modern development and the complete impossibility of expanding that development to the entire population. So great sums of money have been wasted on huge highway projects and huge downtown core projects that were completely unnecessary for anything other than creating the semblance of a modern city – but, undoubtedly, there’s subterranean infrastructure connected to all of it.

BLDGBLOG: As well as abandoned pieces of infrastructure just sitting up there on the surface – unused highway overpasses and derelict stadiums and things like that.

Michael Cook: Definitely. And huge mine workings, as well, in certain parts of Africa, that have been shut down.

[Image: Inside a distributor tunnel at the Ontario Generating Station drain; meanwhile, I can’t help but imagine what it’d be like if architects began building hotel lobbies like this: you check into your boutique hotel in London – and nearly pass out in awe…].

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, urban exploration seems to be getting a lot of media attention these days – this interview included. How do you feel when you see articles in The New York Times about people exploring tunnels and drains?

Michael Cook: The problem I have with general interest reporting is that it almost invariably becomes, you know: look at this, isn’t this weird. Because that’s the easiest way of presenting what we do. It’s not about anything else – it’s entertainment.

So I’ve never really been interested in taking part in articles like that. They happen all the time in various places around the continent. Somewhere, there’s always a reporter who needs to file a story this week, or this month, and so they find an urban exploration site on the internet and they think, hey, that’s a great thing to write about, and then I can fill my quota. It’s not even that what they’re going to write is false or misleading, but it ultimately presents an incomplete and slightly cheapening image of what we do – and, in the end, it doesn’t really accomplish that much.

I think what I’m getting at is that the format of the newspaper article or the television news feature ultimately waters all this down and forces it into a specific block – that, while true of a certain segment of urban exploration, isn’t really representative of the whole. It has the effect of pigeon-holing the whole endeavor in a way.

[Images: Disused hydroelectric machinery: top/bottom].

BLDGBLOG: That implies that there’s a way of looking at all this that you think needs more exposure. What parts of urban exploration should the media actually be covering?

Michael Cook: I think, even among explorers, that we don’t pay enough attention to process. I think every piece of infrastructure – every building – is on a trajectory, and you’re experiencing it at just one moment in its very extended life.

We see things, but we don’t often ask how they came about or where they’re going to go from here – whether there will be structural deterioration, or if living things will colonize the structure. We tend to ignore these things, or to see them in temporal isolation. We also don’t give enough time or consideration to how this infrastructure fits into the broader urban fabric, within the history of a city, and where that city’s going, and whose lives have been affected by it and whatever may happen to it in the future. I think these are all stories that really need to start being told.

Which is something I’m starting on. It’s just not something that necessarily comes naturally. It requires a lot of work, and a lot of thought while you’re on-site – which maybe you’re not really inclined to do, because you’re too busy paying attention to the immediate, sublime nature of the experience.

But the basic linear photo gallery really bores me at this point – especially when you’re seeing basically the same photos, just taken inside different buildings. It has no real, lasting value. A lot of people have fallen into that trap, and a lot of people defend that – saying that they’re making art or whatever, or that it’s just for their own personal interest.

BLDGBLOG: So it’s a matter of paying attention both to the site’s history and to how your own documentation of that site will someday be used as history.

Michael Cook: If you decide to take a purely historical approach to it, though, I think the real question is: are these photos of asylum hallways and drainage tunnels ultimately going to be useful to anyone else at some point in the future? And the answer is probably not. Probably we’re photographing the wrong things for that.

Some architect or materials historian is going to be cursing us for photographing some things and not others, or for not taking a close-up of something – or for not writing down any supplementary information at all to help them identify this stuff.

So that historical angle, to justify some of the stuff we’re doing, falls down on further analysis.

[Image: Abandoned cash registers].

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: What’s that?

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: Yeah, basically. It’s like we’re just digging things up and not paying attention to where they were placed, or what they were next to, or who might have put it there.

Ultimately, we need some sort of framework, and to put more effort into additional information beside just taking a photo. That doesn’t necessarily mean publishing all that information so that everyone can see it – but just telling stories in other ways, and creating narratives about the places and the things that we’re seeing.

Otherwise, these are just postcard shots. We’re taking postcard shots of the sublime.

[Image: Inside The Skin of a Lion, Toronto].

• • •

While we were editing the transcript for publication, Michael wrote:

I got into the storm sewer I mentioned [at the beginning of the interview], shortly after talking to you. It’s now on the site as Sisters of Mercy. Similar to Pilgrimage, it ends in a siphon, rather than a traversable passage into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, which I’m still working on finding. We’ve started exploring combined sewers as well here – so that opens up some other options. In the end, the access I found was directly above where the siphon begins, quite close to the lake.

So the explorations continue.
With a big thanks to Michael Cook for having this conversation – and for maintaining such a great website.

[Image: The “Three Musketeers” standing inside Toronto’s Westview Greenbelt Drain; Michael Cook is the one on the right; one of the other two is Siologen].

For a few more images, meanwhile, check out Vanishing Point – in particular, stop by the Daily Underground).

(More underground worlds and urban exploration on BLDGBLOG: Urban Knot Theory, London Topological, Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city, Beneath the Neon, Valvescape, Subterranean bunker-cities, and Tunnels, mines, and the “upwardly migrating void”).

Urban Knot Theory

[Image: From Blend, where this post first appeared (translated into Dutch)].

Rumor has it that a university outside Manchester teaches courses in mathematics and knot theory not inside comfortable, well-lit classrooms – the university has none – but down in the sewers, drains, valves, and storm tunnels built long ago beneath the city. That subterranean world of old Victorian brickwork is measured, sketched, and catalogued every year by new students; they spend whole weeks at a time mapping the curvature of spillway walls, graphing intersections of unexplored side-channels.
The results are then compared to diagrams of Euclidean geometry.
Manchester’s storm overflow sewers, the rumor goes, are actually topological models. They are knot theory in built form.
Other rumors claim that a former student of that program is now Chief Engineer for the city of Brisbane, Australia, where he leads the construction of new civic infrastructure; every sewer and spillway built there is designed by him alone. As a result, each time you flush a toilet in Brisbane, a bewildering and exhaustively contorted world of concrete knots and brick culverts comes to life, engineered to faultless precision, washing everyone’s waste out to sea.
Manifolds, loops, toroids, even prime number sequences: the entire history of Western mathematics can be derived from the sewers of Brisbane, monuments of urban plumbing.

[Image: An artificial waterfall below the surface of the earth, photographed by Siologen].

Perhaps even as you read this, meanwhile, two extraordinary photographers – under the names Siologen and Dsankt – are busy documenting these topologically complex systems built beneath cities throughout the UK, Australia, Canada, greater Europe, and beyond.
Siologen ranks tunnels according to their “connectivity, variation and age,” he explained in an email, and he travels literally around the world to explore new systems, collecting tetanus shots along the way…
Some drains, he claims, resemble subterranean car parts, as if glimpsing, from within, huge engines attached to the underside of the city, resonating with the echoes of unseen pumps. For instance, Sidedraught Induction, Siologen writes, referring to a system in Manchester, “reminds me of a Stromberg carburetor.”

[Image: Tower of ladders and platforms, photographed by Siologen].

The drains, then, are even named – “the person who finds them, names them,” Siologen says – ranging from The Motherload to the ROTOR Bunker, to systems called Supercharger, Maze, Processor, Zardox, and The Works. Post that name, with photographs, onto enough websites, and eventually the label sticks. The sewers are a known geography.
Dsankt, meanwhile, actually boats his way into the underworld, boarding small skiffs in the rivers of outer Brisbane and following tides up intake valves, ducking beneath dangling scraps of sewage. His visits to the subcity are therefore carefully timed: should the waters rise faster than expected, both he and his boat will be crushed – shipwrecked in a world of abstract concrete rooms, slowly flooding.

[Image: Black and white topology of intake valves, photographed by Dsankt].

Apparently, Australian drains sound different than drains in the UK. In Sydney, for instance, there are “weird acoustics due to the jagged facets of rock in the walls,” Siologen explains, whereas London’s tunnels “sound wet” – and smell like shit. “Mostly it’s the sound of rushing water, with the clank of cars running over loose manhole lids and, of course, the splashing of people walking through.”

[Images: The human encounter with geometry by torchlight, photographed by Siologen].

Unreliable sources suggest that the earliest Victorian sewer engineers were also trained to make musical instruments: thus many storm drains beneath London are designed like saxophones, tubas, and flutes. Distant changes in air pressure cause the whole system to shudder, whistling subliminally on the edges of the wind, a soundtrack for the city so beautiful it’s often hypnotic. If you wait long enough in certain alleys in Soho, you’ll hear it, droning beneath the rustle of crisp bags and trash.
It is rumored that the final, dying words of composer John Cage were: “Make sure they play my London piece… You have to hear my London piece…” He was referring, many now believe, to a piece written for the subterranean saxophony of London’s sewers.

[Image: Instrumental curvature, photographed by Siologen].

In any case, it is worth wondering what these tunnels will look like in five hundred years’ time. Will future archaeologists correctly conclude that all these drains, carved beneath the cities of the world, from Cairo to Shenzhen, were indeed textbooks in advanced knot theory? Or will those labyrinthine tunnels and networks of spillways simply appear to be some kind of prehistoric earthwork sculpture – Giza, Stonehenge, Easter Island, Heathrow – abandoned in the subsiding clay?
Perhaps the entire archaeological profession will be revolutionized by the discovery that alignments exist between the sewers of central Paris and the rising summer sun – lines of solstice and equinox that fill whole drains with light. Anthropologists will speculate that vast mirrors once stood at the junctions of empty corridors, illuminating the underworld bright as day. Post-graduate researchers will apply for funding to re-construct that subterranean maze of mirrors: reflections hitting reflections… hitting reflections.
Finally, on a summer solstice five hundred years from now, the archaeologists will stand, cameras in hand, as every sewer system in Europe begins to shine, light escaping from manhole covers, the surface of the earth faintly glowing.

[Image: Shining tunnelwork of the future, photographed by Siologen].

[Note: Thanks to Dsankt for putting me in touch with Siologen – and to Siologen for answering my questions and supplying the images for print. For more urban exploration, meanwhile, see London Topological; and under no circumstances miss the DIY Supervillain Hideout on Dsankt’s own Sleepy City. Finally, the image captions, above, are my own descriptions, not the actual titles of the photographs – which is why they’re so pretentious].

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.

London Topological

[Image: Embankment, London, ©urban75].

As something of a sequel to BLDGBLOG’s earlier post, Britain of Drains, we re-enter the sub-Britannic topology of interlinked tunnels, drains, sewers, Tubes and bunkers that curve beneath London, Greater London, England and the whole UK, in rhizomic tangles of unmappable, self-intersecting whorls.

[Images: The Bunker Drain, Warrington; and the Motherload Complex, Bristol (River Frome Inlets); brought to you by the steroidally courageous and photographically excellent nutters at International Urban Glow].

Whether worm-eaten by caves, weakened by sink-holes, rattled by the Tube or even sculpted from the inside-out by secret government bunkers – yes, secret government bunkers – the English earth is porous.

“The heart of modern London,” Antony Clayton writes, “contains a vast clandestine underworld of tunnels, telephone exchanges, nuclear bunkers and control centres… [s]ome of which are well documented, but the existence of others can be surmised only from careful scrutiny of government reports and accounts and occassional accidental disclosures reported in the news media.”

[Images: Down Street, London, by the impressively omnipresent Nick Catford, for Subterranea Britannica; I particularly love the multi-directional valve-like side-routes of the fourth photograph].

This unofficially real underground world pops up in some very unlikely places: according to Clayton, there is an electricity sub-station beneath Leicester Square which “is entered by a disguised trap door to the left of the Half Price Ticket Booth, a structure that also doubles as a ventilation shaft.”

This links onward to “a new 1 1/4 mile tunnel that connects it with another substation at Duke Street near Grosvenor Square.”

But that’s not the only disguised ventilation shaft: don’t forget the “dummy houses,” for instance, at 23-24 Leinster Gardens, London. Mere façades, they aren’t buildings at all, but vents for the underworld, disguised as faux-Georgian flats.

(This reminds me, of course, of a scene from Foucault’s Pendulum, where the narrator is told that, “People walk by and they don’t know the truth… That the house is a fake. It’s a façade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”).

[Image: The Motherload Complex, Bristol – again, by International Urban Glow].

There is also a utility subway – I love this one – accessed “through a door in the base of Boudicca’s statue near Westminster Bridge.” (!) The tunnel itself “runs all the way to Blackfriars and then to the Bank of England.”

Et cetera.

[Images: The Works Drain, Manchester; International Urban Glow].

My personal favorite by far, however, is British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell’s December 1980 piece for the New Statesman, now something of a cult classic in Urban Exploration circles.

[Image: Motherload Complex, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

“Entering, without permission, from an access shaft situated on a traffic island in Bethnal Green Road he descended one hundred feet to meet a tunnel, designated L, stretching into the distance and strung with cables and lights.” He had, in other words, discovered a government bunker complex that stretched all the way to Whitehall.

On and on he went, all day, for hours, riding a folding bicycle through this concrete, looking-glass world of alphabetic cyphers and location codes, the subterranean military abstract: “From Tunnel G, Tunnel M leads to Fleet Street and P travels under Leicester Square to the then Post Office Tower, with Tunnel S crossing beneath the river to Waterloo.”

[Image: Like the final scene from a subterranean remake of Jacob’s Ladder (or a deleted scene from Creep [cheers, Timo]), it’s the Barnton Quarry, ROTOR Drain, Edinburgh; International Urban Glow].

Here, giving evidence of Clayton’s “accidental disclosures reported in the news media,” we read that “when the IMAX cinema inside the roundabout outside Waterloo station was being constructed the contractor’s requests to deep-pile the foundations were refused, probably owing to the continued presence of [Tunnel S].”

[Image: Motherload, Bristol; International Urban Glow].

But when your real estate is swiss-cheesed and under-torqued by an unreal world of remnant topologies, the lesson, I suppose, is you have to read between the lines.

A simple building permissions refusal might be something else entirely: “It was reported,” Clayton says, “that in the planning stage of the Jubilee Line Extension official resistance had been encountered, when several projected routes through Westminster were rejected without an explanation, although no potential subterranean obstructions were indicated on the planners’ maps. According to one source, ‘…the rumour is that there is a vast bunker down there, which the government has kept secret, which is the grandaddy of them all.'”

[Image: The Corsham Tunnels; see also BLDGBLOG].

Continuing to read between the lines, Clayton describes how, in 1993, after “close scrutiny of the annual Defence Works Services budget the existence of the so-called Pindar Project was revealed, a plan for a nuclear bomb-proof bunker, that had cost £66 million to excavate.”

All of these places have insane names—Pindar, Cobra, Trawlerman, ICARUS, Kingsway, Paddock—and they are hidden in the most unlikely places. Referring to a government bunker hidden in the ground near Reading: “Inside, they tried another door on what looked like a cupboard. This was also unlocked, and swung open to reveal a steep staircase leading into an underground office complex.”

[Images: The freaky stairs and tunnels, encrusted with plaster stalactites, of King William Street].

Everything leads to everything else; there are doorways everywhere. It’s like a version of London rebuilt to entertain quantum physicists, with a dizzying self-intersection of systems hitting systems as layers of the city collide.

[Image: Belsize Park, from the terrifically useful Underground History of Hywel Williams].

There is always another direction to turn.

[Image: The Shorts Brothers Seaplane Factory and air raid shelter, Kent; photo by Underground Kent].

This really could go on and on; there are flood control complexes, buried archives, lost rivers sealed inside concrete viaducts – and all of this within the confines of Greater London.

[Images: London’s Camden catacombs – “built in the 19th Century as stables for horses… [t]heir route can be traced from the distinctive cast-iron grilles set at regular intervals into the road surface; originally the only source of light for the horses below” – as photographed by Nick Catford of Subterranea Brittanica].

Then there’s Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh, Kent…

[Image: Main Junction, Bunker Drain, Warrington; International Urban Glow].

And for all of that, I haven’t even mentioned the so-called CTRL Project (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link); or Quatermass and the Pit, an old sci-fi film where deep tunnel Tube construction teams unearth a UFO; or the future possibilities such material all but demands.

[Image: Wapping Tunnel Vent, Liverpool, by International Urban Glow; a kind of subterranean Pantheon].

Such as: BLDGBLOG: The Game, produced by LucasArts, set in the cross-linked passages of subterranean London, where it’s you, a torch, some kind of weapon, a shitty map and hordes of bird flu infected zombies coughing their way down the dripping passages – looking for you

Subterranean bunker-cities

[Image: A map of Wiltshire’s Ridge quarry/bunker system; see below].

An article I’ve not only forwarded to several people but planned whole screenplays around, frankly, reveals that there is a sprawling complex of tunnels located beneath Belgrade.
There, a recent police investigation “into the mysterious shooting of two soldiers has revealed the existence beneath the Serbian capital of a secret communist-era network of tunnels and bunkers that could have served as recent hideouts for some of the world’s most-wanted war crimes suspects. The 2-square-mile complex – dubbed a ‘concrete underground city’ by the local media – was built deep inside a rocky hill in a residential area of Belgrade in the 1960s on the orders of communist strongman Josip Broz Tito. Until recently its existence was known only to senior military commanders and politicians.”
So how big is this concrete underground city?
“Tunnels stretching for hundreds of yards link palaces, bunkers and safe houses. Rooms are separated by steel vault doors 10 feet high and a foot thick. The complex has its own power supply and ventilation.”
But hundreds of yards? That’s nothing.

A secret, 240-acre underground bunker-city has recently come onto the UK housing market.

With 60 miles of tunnels, located 120 feet underground, the whole complex is worth about 5 million quid.

The complex was constructed “in a former mine near Corsham in Wiltshire where stone was once excavated… for the fine houses of Bath.”
This subterranean city, as the Times tells us, “was a munitions dump and a factory for military aircraft engines. It was equipped with what was then the second largest telephone exchange in Britain and a BBC studio from where the prime minister could make broadcasts to what remained of the nation.”
Radio broadcasts echoing across a landscape of craters.

And now it’s for sale.

[A note on these images: these are all photographs – by the very talented and highly prolific Nick Catford – of the Ridge Quarry, in Corsham, Wiltshire, which geographically matches with the Times description, above. That said, the description of the Ridge Quarry provided by Subterranea Britannica does not seem to indicate that we are, in fact, looking at the same mine/quarry/bunker system. (There is a discrepancy in the amount of acreage, for instance). Anyone out there with info, thoughts, or other et ceteras, please feel free to comment… Either way, however, they’re cool images, and Subterranea Britannica is always worth a visit now and again].

The Pillars of Tokyo

If Fernando Galli Bibiena, famed scenographer, designer extraordinaire of endless, receding, Baroque pillared symmetries, with trick halls and mirage-like backdrops—

—were cloned next year, raised in Hollywood, and hired to remake Total Recall, he’d probably make something like this:

It’s Tokyo’s massive “G-Cans Project,” a subterranean system of polished concrete viaducts built “for preventing overflow of the major rivers and waterways spidering the city.”

This emergency overflow-sewer is apparently “the largest in the world,” with “five 32m diameter, 65m deep concrete containment silos which are connected by 64 kilometers of tunnel sitting 50 meters beneath the surface. The whole system is powered by 14000 horsepower turbines which can pump 200 tons of water a second.”

The G-Cans Project reveals the quasi-mythic splendor of grandiose civic infrastructure, something the United States is ridding itself of entirely—yet also something Japan is now all but entombed within.

A “construction state”—or doken kokka—has effectively taken over the Japanese economy, according to Gavan McCormack in the New Left Review. The doken kokka, McCormack writes, “is opaque, unaccountable, and therefore hard to reform. Essentially, it enables the country’s powerful bureaucrats to channel the population’s life savings into a wide range of debt-encrusted public bodies—those in charge of highways, bridge-building, dams and development initiatives,” and that means “promising new public-works projects,” thus “concreting the archipelago.”

Under construction right now, in fact, is “a grandiose [national development plan] calling for the construction of new railway lines, express highways, airports, information systems, no less than six new bridges between the islands, large dams and nuclear installations and, last but far from least, a new capital city… to take over many functions from Tokyo.”

The article is pretty amazing, actually, even shocking—though I do have to say that some of the projects it describes would be an engineer’s dream. But it comes with the realization that all this frenzied global construction may be more than just a bubble—see recent analyses of China’s own building boom, for instance—or Dubai—but a kind of hysteria, a building-pathology.

One wonders, in fact, if there might be a disease, something Freud discovered, a neurosis of some kind: suddenly you start building things, and you don’t stop building things. You move beyond talking—building, building, always building—and soon you’re like the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with mashed potatoes all over your hands and there’s a mountain in your living room. That, or you’ve just built the world’s largest sewer.

(See earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Britain of Drains

Here are some absolutely spectacular photographs of sewers, drains and tunnels, taken by urban spelunkers from London, Bristol, Manchester and beyond:

[Images: See this ridiculously great website for loads more photographs – almost every one of which could be uploaded onto BLDGBLOG with open enthusiasm – as well as for relevant bits of info on tunnel locations and all further et ceteras; meanwhile, an upcoming BLDGBLOG entry will pursue more of this, with a London bias, soon].

An entrance to the topological undercity, a parallel world of drains and bricked abstract passages, monolithic concrete feeder chutes re-leading lost rivers through darkness.