The Vertical

London is a city that exists on many levels.

The statement is true both in the metaphorical, and the literal sense. Take a walk around the City of London and great glass office blocks sweep up into the sky, transparent walls sculpted into perspective-defying planes on a scale which defies comprehension. Here and there flagship buildings like the Gherkin or the Razor draw the eye; and outside London Bridge station the Shard pierces the sky, a 300-metre lance of brutal modernism.

Storm clouds over London

London skyline (author: Garry Knight)

The skyscrapers are a constant reminder of our desire to seek out new spaces, to ‘colonise the sky’, as the inimitable JG Ballard wrote in his dark satire of vertical living. Skyscrapers are a symbol of a society that is booming, striving, tumescing: a Freudian burst of glory. But what of the opposite tendency: to shun the dizzying heights, and explore the depths of the earth itself? Whilst the sentinels of London’s future surge into the sky, the seeds of a quieter revolution are sprouting beneath our feet. A handful of artists, entrepreneurs and developers are tapping into the potential of underground space, and little by little we are seeing more bars, restaurants, clubs, galleries and miscellaneous spaces of leisure and performance take advantage of repurposed vaults and subterranean chambers.

The Vanguard

There are a few notable names in this vanguard of underground entrepreneurs, those who have made forays into unique spaces beneath the streets of London and opened them up for the enjoyment of the public at large.

Shunt vaults alcove

Shunt vaults (source: wikimedia commons)

One such place, sadly now defunct, went by the name of ‘Shunt.’ Behind the abrupt moniker lay a music, art and performance space that occupied the vaults beneath London Bridge from 2004 to 2010. Founded by a collective of artists, for six years it played host to all manner of weird and wonderful performances: theatre and dance, art installations, film screenings, bands and DJs, all tied together with an undercurrent of wild abandon. Along with providing a unique location in which to showcase performance of all kinds, something in the nature of the venue fed into the hedonistic tendency: it was as if the visiting crowds, descending into a space that existed physically outside the confines of everyday life, felt themselves exempted from its rules.

Shunt, alas, is now defunct. The London Bridge tunnels were vacated to make way for the foundations of their near antithesis, the above-mentioned Shard. It was an ironic twist, like an instance of architectural dialectics: a yin-yang battle between the sub- and the super-terrestrial. But although Shunt was forced to close, other venues have since picked up the baton.

Among these, honourable mention should go to the Old Vic Tunnels at Waterloo, the pet project of one Kevin Spacey. Originally a TfL-owned property, the Tunnels were revamped into one of the edgiest venues to see new acting talent in the Big Smoke – a quality that owes not a little to their atmospheric location.

Old Vic Tunnels

The Old Vic Tunnels (author: Mimi Jenkinson)

After first traversing the technicolour murals which adorn the walls of the surrounding railways arches (the Old Vic maintains an official graffiti artist amongst other residencies), then crossing the threshold of the industrial entrance doors, one emerges into a hangar-like space through which troupes of actors, dancers, or opera singers perambulate, taking advantage of the unusual interior structure to create immersive performances into which the viewer is drawn, surrounded and interpolated by the cast. The unusual spatial dynamics aid in the suspension of disbelief: concrete walls and corrugated iron ceilings create a sort of post-industrial blank canvas, onto which any fantasy can be projected.

By all accounts the reinvention of the tunnels has been a roaring success. These and other similar ventures prove that the people of London are acquiring a taste for unique experiences in unusual locations. The time is ripe for development, and there is now a significant new player in town, building on the blueprint that these existing spaces have helped create to set out a vision for a development that will span the breadth, and depth, of the city.

The Vision

Ajit Chambers. Image Courtesy of The Old London Underground Company

Like so many good ideas, the project has a near obvious quality to it once explained. Over the century and a half since the first section of underground railway was laid in London, 26 stations have fallen into disuse, cut out of the loop as the disparate lines, which once operated independently of one another, were gradually incorporated into a single municipal transport system. The Old London Underground Company is a new enterprise with a mission to resurrect and re-imagine these ‘ghost stations’ as a range of leisure and retail facilities – cafes, bars, nightclubs, gyms, and others besides.

The plan is audacious to say the least. With estimated renovation costs for each station ranging up from a benchmark of £17 million, some sources put the total value of the project at £1 billion. The scale is large enough to have solicited interest not only from the Mayor of London, but all the way up to the Prime Ministerial office. However, with Boris Johnson adamant that the development can go ahead “provided it does not cost a penny of the taxpayer’s money”, all of the capital required must be raised from private investors.

The task may be daunting, but Ajit Chambers, CEO of TOLUC and the driving force behind the project, is a man who is nothing if not ambitious. Since leaving his job as an executive with financial firm JP Morgan Chase, over the past 3 years he has been slowly laying the foundations of the scheme, putting in the groundwork for what he hopes will one day grow to be a modest empire. Clearly his faith in the riches to be struck below the London soil is solid, but to tap into them will also require cutting through the red tape of planning permission and safety legislation, amongst other hurdles surely not yet anticipated.

Given the arcane associations that have always been attached to the world beneath our feet, it is somewhat fitting that the idea was born out of a chance encounter. Visiting an old bookshop not far from Westminster, a picture caught Chambers’ eye. It showed a map of the London Underground, hanging on the wall in such a way that it revealed a glimpse of another picture beneath it. Moving closer to investigate, he saw on the reverse a map of old London, with original tube routes marked on – and it was this realisation of the discrepancy between old and new, with its implications for the abandoned stations along the way, that sowed the seeds from which the idea was to germinate.

Today, Chambers makes no bones about the scale of his vision:

“We’re past the point where we’re just one of the players in the field, amongst others. Sixty-five MPs are about to come on site visit, we’ve had calls from no.10 and the treasury…. We are now the core point of the underground space portfolio, and we’re quite forward about that.”

And it seems the evidence is there to support his claim. Recently, an early day motion was filed in parliament supporting the venture in no uncertain terms. With the first venue set to open in time for the Olympics, it’s more than possible that the idea of eating, drinking or dancing in an old tube station will become a fixture of the London scene before much longer.