Graffitied service cover, Surry Hills, Sydney, April 2010
I sometimes like to think of the pavement as a roof – the roof of the busy underground world that supports our day-to-day living. And if the pavement is a roof, then manholes (correct term: maintenance holes) are skylights, and service covers are the shutters on those skylights. I wrote earlier about how I tried to peer down a chink in one of these ‘shutters’ to see the Paris sewer system below. How gauche can a tourist get?
Geoff Manaugh makes a good suggestion on his BLDGBLG site: how about installing ‘upside-down periscopes’? In vertically dense cities, he proposes, these would allow everyone to peer down into subterranean infrastructure, exploring subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers, buried rivers and streams. They would be a kind of archaeological ‘truth window’.
It must be one of the most quoted graffiti slogans from the mai 68 student protests in France: Sous les pavés la plage (Beneath the cobblestones the beach). Naturally, when I visited Paris I thought I should find some road works to photograph so that I could make a witty comment about what really lies beneath the cobblestones. But the CPCU (La Compagnie Parisienne de Chauffage Urbain) beat me to it. Notices at worksites and even on their website read: Sous les pavés la plage le chauffage!
CPCU is a public utility that distributes heat (le chauffage) through an underground network for space heating and hot water in Paris. The notices in the street explain that it is currently upgrading the system to make it more environmentally friendly, with apologies for the inconvenience caused by having to take up the road surface.
(And I apologise for the smudges on my photographs caused by a temporarily malfunctioning lens cover)
Rue de la Verrerie, Paris
Manhole cover in Avenue Bosquet
I have a certain fondness for manhole covers. They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.
Readers of this blog will know that earlier this year I was lucky enough to do a tour of the underground Tank Stream in Sydney, and to photograph several manhole covers from below. But now I have gone one better – I have toured the sewers of Paris, or at least a small section of them. Parisians are justifiably proud of their sewer network, their ‘city beneath the city’, designed and built in the mid-1800s. So proud that they have a museum – Le Musée des Égouts – where, descending beneath the street of Quai d’Orsay, you can walk through tunnels with drinkable and non-drinkable water flowing through pipes beside you, and a river of sewage running along canals beneath you. In the photograph below on the left you can see the tunnel lights reflected in this river.
Bruneseau Gallery of the Paris Sewer Museum
I tried to find a manhole cover that I could photograph from below but the best I could do was the iron stairway leading up to one. I could not stretch my arm far enough beyond the museum barrier to photograph the cover itself.
Afterwards, when I returned to the fresh air of the street, I walked along Avenue Bosquet and, assuming that I paced the distance out correctly, found the manhole cover I had nearly photographed in the chamber below.
Steps beneath manhole in Avenue Bosquet
I’ve looked at manholes from both sides now, from down and up, and still somehow…
On 18 April I was lucky enough go on an underground tour of the Tank Stream. The Historic Houses Trust runs these tours twice a year in conjunction with Sydney Water and they are so popular that you have to enter a ballot to get a ticket. You don’t go far – just 50 metres upstream from the ladder where you descend into the underground tunnel. The Tank Stream was the original source of fresh water that determined the location of Sydney Town, but during the two centuries since then it has evolved from stream to open sewer, to closed-in sewer, and currently it is a stormwater drain.
Harrington Lane, near Hunter Street, Sydney
Sloshing along in borrowed gumboots, instead of looking down, as I usually do when I’m spotting pavement graffiti, this time I was looking up to see what manhole covers look like on the underside. Afterwards a Sydney Water worker helped me identify which covers we had walked beneath.
Cavendish Street, Enmore
Admiration of manhole covers became a popular pastime in the 1990s. Mimi and Robert Melnick’s 1974 Manhole covers of Los Angeles has become a collectors item, but their 1994 book Manhole covers and Jacopo Pavesi and Roberta Pietrobelli’s 2001 book Street covers brought cast-iron style to the coffee table. The minor mania for manhole covers has culminated in book titles ranging from Designs underfoot: the art of manhole covers in New York City to Quilting with manhole covers: a treasure trove of unique designs from the streets of Japan.
In picture books the manhole covers are brushed up for the camera, but like Japanese artist Genpei, I prefer the look of them in their natural state, with cigarettes and Smarties and tsubo gardens of moss, grass or weeds nestling in their grooves.
Road resurfaced, Cleveland Street, Chippendale
My very favourites are the pretend manhole covers that mark the place of the real thing when a road is being resurfaced.
I also love the website Misplaced Manhole Covers.
Bourke Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Survey marks on the paving are like an irruption from beneath, disfiguring the surface with a disturbing reminder of what is going on below. The city’s skin blemishes are spreading.
Bourke Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Today’s guest spotter is Richard Blair, a local history fossicker.
Recently uncovered by Marrickville Council during street plumbing activity under two Camphor Laurel trees on the eastern side of upper Metropolitan Road, Enmore, Sydney, are what appear to be sandstone cobblestones.
One expert opinion suggests these stones may have been part of a carriageway as they are in such a deliberate order. That would mean they may be linked with Enmore House which formerly stood on this site until demolition in the 1880s. However, one might expect a cobblestone carriageway to have been made from a stone more durable than sandstone, such as granite or bluestone.
Other views suggest the sandstone course may have been associated either with some early civil works project or may have been laid in conjunction with the arrangement of street tree planting.
These photos were taken in September 2009. The sandstone courses were still uncovered in November, but by December 2009 they had been (presumably) covered over with soil.