Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first project, the Rotherhithe shaft in the Grade II* listed Thames Tunnel; is set to be transformed into London’s latest performance space, 190 years after construction began – and 150 years after it was formally closed to the public.
Central to the plan is a new freestanding cantilevered staircase designed by architects Tate Harmer, which grants the public access to this enduring slice of engineering history for the first time, as part of the Brunel Museum’s plans to bring wider public access to the built legacy of Brunel and our industrial heritage.
The former entrance shaft to the historic Thames Tunnel will become a newly accessible underground space and a key exhibit for the museum, hosting events and performances and breathing new life into this important fragment of Brunel’s first project. Tate Harmer have also proposed a new public entrance into the shaft, to ensure this space is fully accessible.
Brunel’s father Marc began the project, before handing it on to his teenage son, Isambard. It is the only project that father and son worked on together, and Isambard’s first project. The Thames Tunnel opened in 1843 and is the first underwater tunnel in the world – and the birthplace of the modern metro system.
The Rotherhithe (or ‘sinking’) shaft was built using a revolutionary construction method developed by Marc Brunel and was the original access point to the tunnel and also provided ventilation for the steam trains below. When construction finished in 1843, the humble shaft was transformed into the Grand Entrance Hall, which saw millions of visitors descend dramatic staircases – long since removed – to visit one of the great wonders of the Victorian age.
Now sealed with a concrete floor, following the construction of the East London Line and London Overground, the shaft is approximately 50ft in diameter and approximately 65ft deep – with smoke-blackened brick walls from steam trains, providing a raw but atmospheric backdrop.
Tate Harmer’s ingenious ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ design limits construction access solely to the newly created public entrance, with the staircase cleverly designed to be completely independent of the important historic fabric of the structure. Visitors will use this new access point as a means to descend into a rarely glimpsed portion of our industrial heritage, and intriguing underground space.
Jerry Tate, director of Tate Harmer said: “We’re so pleased that this project is to become a reality, it’s a rare honour to work in such an important historical setting. We had to respect and protect Brunel’s legacy while providing people the opportunity to enjoy the space in new and exciting ways ”.
Robert Hulse, Director of the Brunel Museum said: “We are delighted to be able to forge ahead with our plans to grant a new lease of life to this important piece of engineering history. Brunel was a showman as well as an engineer, and I’m sure he would have approved of holding performances in this new underground gallery. This will be one of the first exciting steps in the Brunel Museum’s ongoing plans to preserve Brunel’s first project and his enduring legacy for the enjoyment of the public ”.
The Brunel Museum is located close to the south bank of the River Thames in Rotherhithe, immediately west of Brunel’s Rotherhithe sinking shaft in the tunnel’s Engine House, which is a scheduled ancient monument. The museum exhibits and educates the public about the construction and working of both Marc and Isambard Kingdon Brunel.
The Thames Tunnel once provided a pedestrian crossing of the River Thames nearly two miles downstream of London Bridge. At the time of construction, it was the lowest crossing point of the river.
For more press information on Tate Harmer LLP please contact:
Estelle Jarvis and Rob Fiehn at Caro Communications
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