Thursday, 6 October 2011

Seeing red: an act of vandalism

This week's gallery is 'colour'. Again I'm late to the party, and I'd like to think this is a grand entrance...but may be not! It gives me the chance to show my favourite artist...Anish Kapoor...I discovered him when I was in Madrid a million years ago, and have been an avid fan ever since. He used a deep blue pigment that was just compelling...if you stood close enough you lost all sense of where you were, seemingly disappearing into the work itself...unsettling and invigorating at the same time.

It gave me enormous pleasure, therefore, when he was chosen as the artistic director of the Brighton Festival in 2009. Here are some of his works in an abandoned building revived for the festival. That red is astounding.

"The Rotherhithe Tunnel is a road tunnel crossing beneath the River Thames in East London. which was formally opened in 1908 by George Prince of Wales (later King George V), and Richard Robinson, Chairman of the London County Council. It was originally designed to serve foot and horse-drawn traffic passing between the docks on either side of the river. Its route includes sharp, nearly right-angled bends at the points where the tunnel goes under the river bed. These served two purposes: avoiding the local docks on each side of the river, and preventing horses from seeing daylight at the end of the tunnel too early which might make them bolt for the exit.

It consists of a single bore, 1,481 m long, carrying a two-lane carriageway 14.5 m below the high-water level of the Thames, with a maximum depth of 23 m below the surface. Four shafts were sunk alongside the tunnel to aid construction and to serve later as ventilation and entrance shafts. The two riverside shafts, built in red brick with stone dressings, were fitted with beautiful wrought-iron spiral staircases to serve as pedestrian entrances. They are now closed to the public." (shortened from the entry in Wikipedia)

Every time I cycle to work, I cycle down and through it...along the pavement to avoid holding up the traffic which otherwise would not be able to overtake me. I've not yet run over a pedestrian, but I'm prepared to open a book on that one. It is with immense satisfaction I can report that since I got my road bike, I now go through the tunnel faster than the cars...especially as the average speed cameras restrict them to 20mph. It is known (by me at least) as the graveyard of wing mirrors - the road being so narrow that passing cars and vans are like jousting knights, and the entire length of the tunnel is littered with broken mirrors.

The wrought iron staircases are beautiful and mysterious, disappearing up into the darkness of the shafts. I'd love to ascend into that darkness.

Apart from the sharp bends, the one other feature of the tunnel are the white tiles which line the walls. They are functional, effective and I believe have been up since the building of the tunnel. In addition, they are everything else. Not surprising given the number of smelly cars and vans that go through the tunnel everyday. I've often thought it wouldn't be too difficult to wash them all clean...the shape of the tunnel means a giant loo brush with water sprayed through it would do the trick.

And this leads me to the vandalism. Over the last few weeks, the night time maintenance workers have been systematically removing the tiles. I guess about half the tiles are gone now, and the rest will disappear over the coming nights and weeks. I don't know what they're going to be replaced with...I've not been able to find out, but I suspect it will be the large panels omnipresent on most modern tunnels. It's a shame. It's an architectural tragedy. It's the sort of thing that happened all over Britain in the post modern world. Yet another piece of our architectural heritage taken away from our children. Another element of character that gives us our historical perspective gone.