From the pavement at Pimlico: metropolitan streets and what lies beneath
November 3, 2013 4 Comments
“They are the real Dasein.
Streets, buildings, airports, boats, tents, fireplaces, quartz quarries…
they are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar
…they appear where we expect them to be
…[they] are all within reach.”
So, I’m preparing for a trip to Pimlico; to speak at a summit about public safety in abandoned quarries and a colleague quips, “that’s ironic, ‘cos there are no quarries in London”. He has a point, but it sets a deeper thought running.
Last time I went to Pimlico, I was there to visit Tate Britain. The treasures inside were all very well, but I was equally transfixed by the vast white elevation of building’s exterior – that Portland stone and its shrapnel marks, a testimony to a nearby instance of the Blitz: the smoothness of that surface ruptured by pock marks, revealing the granularity of the exposed quartz grains within, glistening in the low summer sun that day.
Perhaps it’s trite to say that a city is made of stuff – yet, as Bjornar Olsen reminds us so evocatively in his book In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects (2010):
“societies and cultures…are put together … [with] real building materials – …concrete and steel, rebar and pillars [are crucially] involved in their construction…we should pay far more attention to the material components that constitute the very condition of possibility for those features we associate with social order, structural durability, and power.”
So, as distraction from packing for my trip – and as a modest contribution towards Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we must “search for the missing masses” and challenge the “oblivion of things” (Olsen) in social theory and research informed by it, I started to sew together some thoughts about the fate of stone within Pimlico, and specifically its pavements.
As Raphael Samuels shows, urban growth in the nineteenth century sucked ever greater quantities of quarried stone into the burgeoning towns and cities. That material speaks to us today in the form of statement buildings (in London that could be the grandeur of ‘mercantile’ and/or ‘imperial’ hew). As a stunning illustration of the metropolitan appetite for stone, and also of the wide geographical ‘net’ thrown by that demand, Samuels exhibits the “promiscuous variety of stone” comprising the frontage of the new (in 1878) Oxford Street premises of silk mercers Marshall and Snelgrove:
“The facade…is carried out in yellow malms and Corsham Down stone [Wiltshire], all the cornices, string-courses, and weatherings being Portland Stone [Dorset]. The lower portion is divided into bays of pilasters of Portland stone, below which are Sharp [Westmorland] granite pillars on grey Aberdeen moulded bases, the Shap and Portland being finished at their bases with ornamental bronze bands.” (both 1977: 14)
But whilst building stone may – by these component names (Portland; Corsham; Aberdeen Granite) – be vaguely familiar to us, they give a misleading impression. For the bulk of stone summoned into city was actually consumed in its highways and pavements as sub-base, setts, kerbs and gutters.
As a case study in the fate of its road stone, Samuels shows how Aberdeenshire’s first paving contract with the City of London was made in 1766 and by the 1830s London was already a major outlet for the district’s quarries. Yet of the 36,352 tons of stone sent down to London in 1831 only 143 tons was for use as building stone: 3,137 tons were for pavements and kerbs, and 33,072 tons for ‘carriage way’, these stones (setts) being supplied in six size grades.
Key London thoroughfares were prominently laid with Aberdeen setts in the 1840s, including London Bridge, Cheapside and Moorgate, before the harder Mountsorrel stone (from Leicestershire) first trialled at Euston in 1843 came progressively to dominate as the carriage way road stone of choice for the increasingly trafficked inner city (before, in time, Mountsorrel was itself eclipsed (or at least overlain) by the less elegant but more repairable tarmacadam method, and its voracious and indiscriminate appetite for crushed stone for its oil- meets-rock matrix).
And so the city grew and grew. It also adapted. The roads and pavements accommodating to sewer laying, distribution networks for electricity, gas, telecoms, the arrival of tram tracks, the removal of tram tracks, the expansion of networks, the renewal of networks, fibre optics and broadband, traffic control technology. With each iteration the roads and pavements were cut into and patched up – space ebbing and flowing, made in the conduits beneath: a proliferation of colours, angles, agencies and layers of churned and re-compacted subsoil, stone, metal, power, water, waste: the life blood and bile of the city.
Picture throbbing capillaries pulsing liquid, heat and information instant by instant beneath the busy street and its Aberdeen granite jigsaw.
Then – on 25 April 2013 – at the corner of Pimlico Road, outside an antiques shop, brooding and miscontent beneath the pavement – a power cable explodes, a flash forcing up pavers and ungirded power into the day: unchained energy violently seeking out earth through sky, and escaping from the thrall of 1,867 denied users.
This strange incident then proliferates (a meme spreading through the networks, coursing through the city’s ventricles), a multitude of iterations of this video and a new found anxious regard for the safety of pavements and all that normally silent stuff that lies beneath. And subsequent reports tell us that such eruptions are not as uncommon as we might expect: 8 in 2011, 29 in 2012 and 12 in the first 6 months of 2013 according to the Health & Safety Executive (LBC).
In this eruption – like Heidegger’s thumb-striking hammer – the normally ‘in place’ nature of pavement assemblages is destabilised, for [to return to the opening quote from Olsen and to invert it by way of closing]:
“… they [normally] are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar
…they [normally] appear where we expect them to be
…[they] are all [normally] within reach.
[But not always entirely
BBC (2013) ‘Pimlico pavement explodes, narrowly missing passerby’ BBC News London www.bbc.co.uk/news
ITV (2013) ‘Pavement Power Explosion’ www.itv.com/news/London
LBC (2013) ‘New Threat to Londoners: Exploding Pavements’ www.lbc.co.uk, LBC 97.3FM.
Olsen, B. (2010) In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects, Alta Mira Press: Plymouth.
Samuels, A, (1977) ‘Mineral Workers’ in Raphael Samuels (ed.) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, London: Routledge & Kogan Paul Ltd
Video of explosion – filmed by local resident Charlie Brook and uploaded to Youtube.
Hole in the pavement: www.itv.com