In the mid-19th century, miasma theory held that cholera was contracted through breathing in contaminated air. In 1854, John Snow mapped outbreaks in Soho that led him to propose people were becoming ill by drinking water from a public pump. The removal of the pump handle and subsequent end of the outbreak would support Snow’s counter theory (later supported by research that showed the well stood next to a cesspit). It would however be more than a decade after his own death before this became widely accepted.
Therefore, the Great Stink of 1858, which proved to be the catalyst for modernising London’s sewers, occurred within the context that ‘bad air’ was the problem. Undeniably it was problematic; two months of overpowering smells emanating from the Thames during hot weather, and the disruption of parliament, was the specific problem to which Joseph Bazalgette responded with a pioneering design for a combined sewer system.
The project introduced a sophisticated network of tunnels that buried all sewage underground – along with Wren’s Venetian vision for canals and London’s other rivers, such as the Fleet, Westbourne and Effra, which would become lost. Clues to the lost rivers remain in the topography – roads that wind like water – and the names: think Kilburn, Westbourne Grove. With sewage carried out of central London, the cholera outbreaks dissipated, and many lives were saved. Bazalgette’s scheme proved to be a masterful solution to a misunderstood problem.
Part of Bazalgette’s ingenuity was to futureproof capacity for a population of four million, double that of the day. However, with a current population that is more than double that again, and growing, the system is bursting at the seams. Raw sewage once again enters the Thames on a regular basis through overflow outfalls. Tideway is the company set up to deliver the solution, a 25km tunnel to increase resilience with a multibillion-pound investment in wastewater infrastructure that has brought with it a unique opportunity to reimagine the experience of the river once more through the creation of a necklace of new public spaces.
Hawkins\Brown is leading on the architecture and landscape for the eight central sites of Thames Tideway Tunnel, five of which are located on the river foreshore above new civil engineering works. Our starting point on the project more than three years ago was to carry out urban analysis with a holistic eye to understand the unique context of each site individually and their collective character. It was important to capture the momentum of the project at cityscale, in the spirt of Bazalgette, while building on existing character and stories. The study led us to identify the Thames as central London’s largest open space, comprising an area greater than Regents Park, and arguably the most distinctive open space in London when viewed from an aerial perspective: blue public space to which the public has a right with potential to inspire and space to breathe...
“At Chelsea Embankment, an organic design with intertidal planting and floodable walkway plays to the restorative and green character of the local area, which is home to the Royal Hospital and Battersea Park. By contrast, at Albert Embankment, sitting in front of the emblematic Vauxhall Cross building, two distinct public spaces take inspiration from the urban beach setting and lost river Effra respectively.”
Esme Fieldhouse, Hawkins\Brown