Habitable infrastructure: The railway arch\

Come out of Southwark underground station, walk a short distance down Union Street and you will find the Union Theatre. Just down the road from the prestigious Old Vic and trendy Young Vic theatres, the Union is a fringe theatre offering something different, not least because it is housed in a former paper warehouse in a railway arch.

Round the corner, a budget gym chain has taken over a cavernous series of vaults below a railway junction. Further along, an NCP car park with the most curious entrance – so curious it was used as the alternative secret location for MI5 in the Bond film Skyfall. A narrow lane flanks the viaduct with a view of the Shard at its end. On one side are the shabby rear sides of various brick buildings. On the other, a boxing club, a pool hall, a dance studio, a pop-up food court offering authentic Thai, American, and Middle Eastern cuisine, offices, in addition to lock up stores and light industrial units.

Whilst swathes of Borough and Bankside are making way for developments like the Shard and other polished office buildings and apartment blocks, the railway arches offer unique opportunities for such small businesses and organisations mentioned above.

As one follows the railway line south towards Elephant and Castle, the architects’ offices, showrooms and more gyms begin to give way to parking spaces, mechanics’ workshops, and storage units. This is the type of function normally associated with supposedly dark, damp railway arches. Transport for London’s (TFL) website even advertises railway arches available for ‘storage and light industrial use’, not really publicising the potential of these units. Clearly, they are a special part of the urban fabric – twofold.

Storage and light industrial uses, form part of the arches urban fabric

In the first instance, railway arches are here to stay. By the 1890s most of Britain’s railway lines were completed, with hardly any passenger routes falling into disuse. The near-permanence of these structures means an ample supply of ‘old’ buildings, even in parts of the city experiencing a boom. The late urbanist Jane Jacobs dedicated a whole chapter in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” to the importance of a mixture in building ages, and the reason is simple. Owners of new buildings need to make enough returns to cover the costs of construction and will therefore charge higher leases. Old buildings have already gone through this process and can afford to charge less, providing space for small and new businesses and thus contributing to the diversity of a neighbourhood. Railway arches are a byproduct of transport infrastructure – their lease can help make transport projects viable and their eventual age can offer precious opportunities especially during boom times.

As well as being old and noble, railway arches are surprisingly flexible. Their robust shell forms can be connected up or subdivided, left with high ceilings or implanted with mezzanine floors, lined and polished or left in rustic brick. This malleability makes them fit for a wide variety of purposes, as described earlier, and can adapt to changing markets and trends. Their abstract form is reminiscent of the gridiron plan of cities which Leslie Martin praised as a ‘generator,’ able to continuously afford future adaptations and appropriations.

Within London, there are two main landlords for virtually all railway aches – TFL and Network Rail – and all the units are operated on a lease basis. New mayor Sadiq Khan’s policy is to boost TFL’s income by developing the land it owns, so it would be interesting to see how this unlocks more of the potential of railway arches whilst still maintaining the vibrancy created by successful small businesses.

Further to this, what of future infrastructure projects? With rail travel being as popular as it ever has been, both within and between cities, there are plans for future expansion of the networks. The Elizabeth Line is nearing completion, whilst Crossrail 2 and HS2 are looking increasingly inevitable. There is ample precedent for infrastructure and development working hand-in-hand including in London, where this normally took place in and around stations. Unfortunately, the trend throughout Twentieth Century viaduct construction has been a move towards reinforced concrete post-and-beam construction, with large spans leaving dead, windswept, uninhabitable non-spaces below. The Hammersmith flyover and the DLR viaducts are good examples – creating spaces that are both difficult to use and undesirable when vacant.

There have been attempts to use such spaces. Non-profit organisation Assemble created a temporary canal-side public space underneath a flyover including a cafe and theatre. The project was so successful that funding was secured from Hackney to create a more permanent space there.

Although this was a unique project, it shows that some of these spaces do have potential — perhaps not as forthcoming as railway arches. So it appears that it is a mixture of both management and design constraints that have limited the usability of space beneath concrete viaducts, a schism between engineered infrastructure, and usability and architecture. When those two disciplines coincide in harmony, great things can happen. The hope is that future projects may at least give a nod to the potential contribution of their spatial byproducts.

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