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Portals from underground

Visitors to London may think they are seeing the city when taking a selfie in front of Buckingham Palace or sitting on the steps of the fountain at Piccadilly Circus. Their time would be better spent with a copy of “Inventive vents” and, given how interesting it is, this guide makes essential reading for resident Londoners as well.


Blackfriars Station

Sean Sheehan


Underground London brings to mind train journeys on the Tube, road tunnels and sewer and other utility pipes but there is a lot more going beneath the surface: boiler rooms, bunkers, car parks, air-raid shelters, electrical plants and substations, steam boilers… (Let’s not think about the animal life).

What all of these have in common is the need for ventilation and the surprising variety of forms these air shafts take as they emerge from underground to the city’s surface fully justify the guidebook’s title.

Their portals, as Oliver Wainwright puts it in the forward, appear “clothed in the elaborate costumes of classical temples, triumphal arches, monumental Aztec-style gateways, and some looking like futuristic UFOs”.

“Inventive vents” is a gazetteer with 45 entries and includes stinkpipes, often mistaken for lampposts but built to allow the discharge of gases and foul odours from sewer channels to high above ground. The only remaining ‘sewer gas destructor lamp’, down the side of the Cole House pub on the Strand, also earns its place.

Optic Cloak

It was created in case the sewerage that ran between two luxury hotels caused disquiet to the refined noses of upper-class guests.

Stand on the street opposite Blackfriars Station and the top of a large blue cylinder can be spotted projecting from the building’s roof.

It is easy not to notice or connect it with the shiny column of blue glass with stainless steel fixings in the north ticket office.

This is the top half of a shaft that disappears underground as it descends through the floor of the ticket hall, providing ventilation for the station platforms.

One of London’s most artistically designed vents stands at Millennium Way at Greenwich Peninsula, providing air for a low carbon energy centre that provides heat and power for the entire development.

Named the Optic Cloak, it stands almost 50 m high, it’s an architectural event in the way its appearance varies with changing light, made possible, in the words of the gazetteer,  by countless “perforated aluminium triangles hanging on the underlying galvanized steel structure”.

Bunhill 2 Energy Centre

Back in North London, on City Road, the Bunhill 2 Energy Centre is another sustainability project, one that vitally depends on its flues. It provides low-carbon energy by capturing heat from the Northern Line and turning it into a power source for heating homes and businesses in the neighbourhood.

The Underground’s hot air is extracted by a fan in the shaft which is reversed in the summer to send cool air into the Tube.

“Inventive vents” is an invaluable, wonderfully informative guide to portals from and to London’s subterranean life.

“Inventive vents: A gazetteer of London’s ventilation shafts”, by Lucy Lavers, Judy Ovens and Suzanna Prizeman, is available from Our Hut.

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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