Going Underground: Design, Reputation, and Disorder in the Subterranean Infrastructure of the Global City

By Sam Mutter

Modern society, and in particular modern cities, are increasingly dependent upon infrastructural systems of circulation which are buried beneath ground-level, hidden away from critical attention and understanding. This doubles an impenetrability already associated with large, complex infrastructures; those material supports – from transportation to sewerage systems – which are deeply necessary to everyday life, but whose workings are removed from it, relegated to the background, or constrained to the realm of technicians and engineers.

On the 18th of May, 2018, the BISR’s Population, Environment and Resources Group hosted a one-day conference which I organised – together with Dr. Alex Colás and Dr. Antoine Bousquet (Birkbeck) – with a simple task in mind: the task, at the same time literal and metaphorical, of revealing, opening up, or getting to the bottom of subterranean infrastructure. Such a question is necessarily interdisciplinary, and the conference engaged the perspectives of political scientists, geographers, geologists, historians, and artists, among others.

In a wide-ranging and captivating keynote, Steve Graham, Professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University, traced the significance of subterranean space, drawing attention to the role of the vertical dimension in how we think and talk about fundamental categories such as morality, wealth, and power. These associations are deeply-rooted in everyday language, from the notion of a society divided up into ‘lower’, ‘middle’, and ‘upper’ classes, to the labelling of political and cultural rebels as ‘subversives’ or ‘underground movements’.[i] In an urban context, the subterranean realms have long been seen as a receptacle for all kinds of waste, dirt or excess. It is the repressed layer of the city, the depository for forms of matter that it inevitably produces but wishes to deny. It is the undesirable half of the dyadic relation which the late Birkbeck Professor Paul Hirst described (in the title of a 1st year undergraduate course no-less) as ‘shit and civilisation’.

Consequently, the modern popular imagination is pervaded by anxiety concerning that which returns or erupts from below. Increasingly, as the infrastructures upon which we rely grow in complexity, such anxieties are of a technical sort – the risk of system failure, blockage, disconnection – and yet these risks cannot, it seems, be decoupled from more elementary kinds of gremlin. This diversity was reflected across the two panels, whose contributions ranged from discussions of crashes and explosions in the early history of the London Underground (Richard Dennis, UCL), to the roles of subterranean space in the horror films Death Line and Creep (Paul Dobraszczyk), and an exploration of the radical politics of underground London in the fiction and theory of China Miéville (Katie Stone, Birkbeck).

One of the underlying properties of the subterranean uniting otherwise disparate topics was the potentiality and uncertainty of spaces which are relatively unknown; some of the last remaining islands of invisibility and disconnection in an increasingly transparent and interconnected world. As Ben Campkin (UCL) observed, this provides opportunities for freedom or refuge, for example as crucial spaces of expression for London’s LGBT community – what he termed ‘queer basements’. Simultaneously, as Steve Graham and Anna Minton (University of East London) both pointed out, it may enable the wealthy and powerful to expand the volume of their capital beyond, or rather below, the reach of regulations, leading to a growing network of ‘luxified’ undergrounds; an urban ‘iceberg architecture’. In a different vein, Agnès Villette’s photographic project, Beta-Bunker, identified a temporal looping in the utilisation of subterranean space, wherein the Cold War bunker, in her case a Swedish state facility, gains a new existence as the base of operations for a private data-mining company. As such, it continues to benefit from the Swedish underground’s material isolation (its secrecy prevents security breach; its thick granite walls keep temperatures low, preventing the servers from overheating), but in ways that facilitate its integration into global networks of late capitalism. The unknown often creates new forms of knowledge, and a number of contributions focused on critiquing those practices of calculation which seek to render subterranean spaces and systems knowable and securable. My own paper examined the new technologies of calculation being deployed to optimise circulation on the London Underground, in particular by enabling rapid response to disruptions.

As the day progressed, concluding with a roundtable on which Steve Graham and Anna Minton were joined by Melissa Butcher (Birkbeck), Ryan Bishop (University of Southampton), there was a growing awareness that our discussions had been pitched to some extent within the bounds of a basic ontological assumption which conceived the underground as one of a number of vertically arranged layers separated by boundaries which could be pierced or punctured but whose ‘natural’ state was stability, security, and smoothness. This assumption can be questioned by recognising, through both our theories and our methods, the frequency of disruption and transgression. Anthony Powis (University of Westminster) for instance reconceptualised the idea of ground itself through his examination of the position of groundwater as an unruly agent in the construction of the Chennai Metro system. Calculation here is dumbfounded by groundwater’s fundamental leakiness and porosity.

Transposing such a destabilising approach into method, a series of short films from Daryl Meador and Liam Quigley (New York University) showed them cycling the streets of New York, seeking out sites of underground maintenance and asking the workers one simple question: ‘What’s in the Hole?’ As Meador herself pointed out, there was a sense of relief, perhaps even joy for the workers in being engaged in an interaction so different to the air of frustration and ire with which they are usually greeted, seen as representatives of inconvenience, diversion, and inefficiency. With this acceptance comes openness: the workers explained the complex arrangement of pipes and wires to which they were making repairs, on occasion taking hold of the camera themselves to give the viewer a better look.

To insistently ask ‘what’s in the hole?’ is a simple sentiment that can be deployed more broadly for thinking the subterranean – its systems, its calculations, and its interactions with other, more visible spaces. The diversity of approaches demonstrated through this conference provide an intentionally unstable grounding for future explorations and interventions.


[i] An audio recording of Steve Graham’s keynote lecture is available from Backdoor Broadcasting

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