Seek high and low, in tunnels and along elevated walkways, and you’ll find that there are fascinating stories in every city. Here we take a look at some of our favourite tales from around the globe, originally brought to you by the team behind Monocle 24’s ‘The Urbanist’.
Built in: 1911
This was the continent’s first river tunnel, built to provide a more direct route for dock workers to the southern banks of the Elbe River.
Strolling down Hamburg’s waterfront is a pleasant affair. A walk through the Saint Pauli district greets you with the idyllic sight of ferries and cargo ships cruising the Elbe River. Turn your attention from the water and you’ll see, tucked away by one of the piers, a small structure with a green dome and heavy bronze doors. This is the entrance to the old Elbe tunnel.
Also known as the St Pauli Elbe tunnel, it opened in 1911 to connect dockworkers in the city to the river’s south bank. It was a fantastic feat of engineering and the first of its kind on the continent. The most striking feature of the above-ground entrance is the giant art deco lamp hanging from the ceiling. Here, right next to those heavy bronze doors, you’ll find a commemorative plaque marking the date the tunnel opened.
Take one of the lifts down – the 24-metre descent is quick – and before you know it you’re inside the tunnel. Look up and take in the magnificent steel structure that is holding it all together. It’s here that pedestrians and cyclists begin to make their way to the other side of the river. The arched tunnel’s interior is covered in white tiles and small rectangular lamps, providing a warm light throughout. The journey across takes about 20 minutes.
The tunnel is more than just a passageway though: it’s used as an exhibition space for artwork and a venue for a marathon. It’s also been used as the set for films and TV series, including the 1960s Italian spy comedy Matchless.
The old Elbe tunnel is a window into a different time. It’s also a reminder that good engineering and great design will always keep you connected.
Built in: 1970
Few visually impaired people are completely blind so this building uses bright colours as guides throughout the interior.
When the William Pereira & Associates practice was commissioned to build the headquarters of the Braille Institute of America in the late 1970s, the brief asked the architecture firm to imagine a building designed for those who would never fully see it. The result is a squat complex of brown poured concrete with a large angular cap of a second storey that also forms the building’s roof. The way in which the building’s second storey overhangs the first floor represents a cloak of darkness, evoking the loss of sight for those who are visually impaired. This, however, is pocked by slender windows, suggesting – as the institute’s founder advocated – that the loss of sight shouldn’t equate to living life completely in the dark.
Established by J Robert Atkinson, who was blinded in an accident in 1912, the institute’s philosophy is that the blind should be challenged by their environments in order to equip them for the realities of daily life. Spaces that were easier to traverse, Atkinson believed, wouldn’t serve people once they were out in the world.
So the architects designed a space that was meant to challenge as much as instruct; for example, staircases were built at a slightly steeper angle than normal. Still serving as the headquarters for the Braille Institute, this brutalist landmark remains true to the promise that in the dark there can still be light.
Built in: 2017
This project references the long history of the London site, from the Romans to postwar modernism.
On a sunny morning I cycled into the City of London to see a scheme that reimagines the elevated walkway – and a lot more besides. London Wall Place is an office development inserted into a plot that also includes the remains of the medieval St Alphage Church and a section of the original Roman London wall. In the endless cycle of redevelopment in the City of London, there’s nothing intrinsically exciting about any of these facts.
But go visit: there are lots of impressive benchmarking details, not least that the scheme literally works on so many levels. In numerous postwar architecture projects the elevated walkway, or pedway, was the go-to solution for cities that imagined the street would become the domain of the car. In places such as London, however, they were often poorly maintained, rain-swept, badly lit and soon associated with all sorts of nefarious activities. People certainly didn’t like using them at night.
But at London Wall Place, by architecture practice Make, they have a surprisingly beautiful new reincarnation. Linking the site with neighbours, such as the brutalist Barbican Centre that has plenty of walkways of its own, they are made from rust-red steel and have smooth wooden handrails you’ll want to touch. There are walkways that cling to the side of buildings, others that weave with a snakey sinuous confidence.
And when you get up there? Well, it’s pleasing. You walk above the traffic, above the ruins. The planting is glorious too. There is greenery spilling over handrails, banks of quivering grasses and sunken spots to sit and think – or, at least, have a Pret sandwich. But it’s the pedways that charm and allure. It’s the fresh angle you view the city from. It’s reviving.
Built in: 1967
The architect was given carte blanche for this beguiling design.
When Timo Penttilä was given the task of designing a new theatre for Helsinki, the project seemed like every architect’s dream. It was the 1960s and though the city had an active drama scene, it lacked a landmark theatre. Penttilä created a flat edifice that blends into the surrounding park and hills, hugging the topography around the building. The theatre halls are partly underground, carved into the bedrock of the area so when approaching the building from behind it appears only a few metres tall. This is in stark contrast to the large foyer that dominates the main seaside façade; inside, slabs of white marble intersect with wood and brass in a space that is filled with natural light.
There is a monumentalism present in the theatre’s design that was not typical of the modernist buildings of the time. Buildings, Penttilä believed, are monuments that shape the identity of a city and the Helsinki City Theatre has stood the test of time. Recently renovated, it can host the most technologically advanced plays and musicals – yet stepping into the building is like stepping back in time.
For more tales from urban life, tune into ‘The Urbanist’ at monocle.com/radio