In the 19th century, engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the first underground tunnel in the world under the River Thames. The Thames Tunnel, which connects Rotherhithe to Wapping, opened in 1843 and was considered to an incredible feat of Victorian engineering, prompting the press to label it as the eighth wonder of the world. It was the first project by Brunel and included a staircase leading to an iron ‘sinking’ shaft known as The Grand Entrance Hall. Nearly 200 years after its initial construction began, the space has been transformed into a subterranean performance space by architect firm Tate Harmer, who created a new access into the building by removing the old staircase and replacing it with a cantilevered one.
A project of such logistical magnitude meant cooperation between many stakeholders. Funding came courtesy of the Association of Independent Museums (AIM), the National Heritage Landmarks Partnership plus donations from the London Borough of Southwark and operational support from Transport for London. Following the transformation of the Thames Tunnel for the construction of the East London Line and London Overground, the shaft was sealed with a concrete floor.
“The whole new staircase had to be built through the opening, which is about 1.5 metres wide by 2.2 high so that’s quite a constraint when you have to get all of the staircase through that hole,” explains project architect Laurence Pinn. The structure, made by Cobalt Green Construction, is nearly all powder-coated steel except for the handrail, which is nylon coated. “We’ve continued the same colour for the handrail outside the walkway so when you arrive, it leads you down and starts you on your journey before you go in to the space.” The stair treads, meanwhile, are composed of unfinished oak.
The staircase is completely independent of the historic fabric of the structure. “It’s a venue but also an extension of the museum. What it brings is not only physical access, but also all of the lighting and electricals that are needed for it function.” Visitors descend this new access point to gain a rarely glimpsed part of Britain’s industrial heritage and a pretty atmospheric one at that. Continues Pinn, “We’ve matched the colour of the paint of the staircase to the soot on the walls, so that it blended in as much as possible.”
Tate Harmer have also inserted a new flood door into the shaft, not something on your average architectural specification list. “We had to go to a company that makes doors for the Ministry of Defence as it was a full height door. “The staircase brings everything into the space that the space needs to operate.”
The architecture practice has added a new subterranean staircase to a Brunel-designed tunnel in Rotherhithe to provide a contemporary performance space