Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first ever project, the Rotherhithe shaft is set to be transformed into an underground performance space in London by Tate Harmer
190 years after construction first began on the Grade II listed Thames Tunnel, and 150 years after it was closed to the public, the Rotherhithe shaft will be resurrected as an underground ‘cavern’ theatre by Tate Harmer.
A stunning freestanding, cantilevered staircase will be central to the design, allowing visitors to experience a bit of engineering history, as part of the Brunel Museum’s plans to bring wider public access to Brunel’s works.
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 Brunel’s first project. Tate Harmer has also proposed a new public entrance into the shaft, to ensure the space is fully accessible.
The story goes that Brunel’s father began the project and then handed it over to his son who was only a teenager at the time. It was the only project that the two worked on together. The Thames Tunnel became the first underwater tunnel in the world, and the prototype for the modern metro system.
The Rotherhithe shaft was built using a construction method that was revolutionary at the time, developed by Brunel’s father. It was the original access point to the tunnel and also provided ventilation for the steam trains that chugged through it. When construction was 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.
The soot-blackened shaft, which is approximately 50 ft in diameter and 65 ft deep, provides a raw but atmospheric backdrop for performances.
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 this intriguing hidden 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 on-going plans to preserve Brunel’s first project and his enduring legacy for the enjoyment of the public.”