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Deep Stratigraphies, Deeper Memories, Deepest Fears: How Underpasses Permeate The Netherworld, And The Mind

“The further downward you travel, the closer you come to the power”

(Ackroyd 2012, 3)

Underpasses are to be found within many towns and cities. They also appear within rural landscapes, often manifesting as tunnels and flyovers. Spaces of transportation; by foot, pedal, automotive, other…

Movement equals transition, not only within the physical, but also the metaphysical. The abstract enmeshed within the tangible.

Underpasses bear witness to ritual activities and rites of passage; drinking, drug taking, communal gatherings, both large and small, acts of sexual congress. For many, the realm of the underpass is the zone in which they take their first faltering steps into adulthood. The inaugural intoxicated encounter, whether chemical, and/or alcoholic; the first erotic fumblings. For some, these rites are undertaken in order to forget. For others, to remember. There are those who wish to disappear, both physically and transcendentally, to ascend to something beyond. Initiating euphoria to achieve higher states of consciousness, of connection, with themselves, with those who are, those who have been, those who have yet to manifest. A clarion call to both inner and outer space.

“Dreams and speculations are woven around the vistas of underground realms. They are regions of limitless possibility” (Ackroyd 2012, 176).

We approach underpasses with trepidation, whether instinctively, or not. Yet, we know that we must walk their path in order to reach the ‘other side’. Upon entering, I am physically removed from the world above, the world of natural light, the world of the living. I am underground, but I am not. I am moving through and within different spheres. By crossing the threshold of the underpass am I heading into the underworld? Upon exiting and returning to the light, the land of the living, will I be the same person? Would I have undergone a rite of passage, however small?

Once within these spaces the everyday is challenged. The underpass is a place where new identities and agendas can be forged. Where all acts are significant, but also where interactions with forces, both benevolent, and malevolent, take place. Allure and dread interweave. The underpass can protect, enable one to dissipate, to flee from threat. Yet, within these shadowy sanctuaries, monsters can often be found lurking within the tenebrosity. The underpass can be seen as a suspension of disbelief. It is a link between the routine every-day, and the more than human world. One must approach these spaces with caution.

We accept that underpasses are an essential element for traversing the landscape, especially within cities and towns, but most people do not enjoy moving within them. The majority do not tend to stroll leisurely through an underpass; they are not the realm of the flâneur. Generally, they are navigated as quickly as possible, “they are still replete with our fears and anxieties about venturing below the surface” (Dobraszczyk 2019, E-Book, Chapter 5). Their modern concrete frames are incapable of subduing the powerful pulses that continue to emanate from these semi, and fully subterranean interzones. Spaces emitting signals that are still detectable, if only subconsciously. The Hum continuing to exert a potent hold on the imagination. 

“I had a sense of being propelled into the future while at the same time reversed into the prehistoric past. A past which held an animistic idea of the world, in which rocks and trees could speak” (Leckey, in Wallis & Coustou 2019,16).

Underground spaces are full of dark and invisible recesses, they harbour the potential for subversion. Places where illicit assignations can be negotiated and conducted; “the pressure of the old earth lending more fervour to the scene” (Ackroyd 2012, 141).  Within underpasses it is dark and often poorly lit. A restricted space, it can often feel claustrophobic, scary, unnerving, but can this also be considered slower, calmer, safer? Can “the very invisibility of underground spaces, their disconnectedness from the world above, lend them an aura of impregnability and security?” (Dobraszczyk 2019, E-Book, Chapter 5). For millennia people have sought refuge within the permeable, concealed places of the world. From the Palaeolithic, through to the Second World War, and beyond. Withdrawing to caves, underground stations, bunkers, underpasses, can be considered as something resembling the prebirth state. The warmth and darkness radiating from the ‘down-below’ reigniting long buried remembrances of residing within the womb. Deep stratigraphies stimulating deep memories.

As architectural infrastructures began to expand subsurface, ways were sought to entice people, commuters in particular, underground. Could the inclusion of art and curvaceous lines distract sufficiently to erase inherent fears?

“The gateways to the underworld have been embellished with striking images” (Ackroyd 2012, 136).

Aesthetics have been incorporated into sublevel architectural designs as a means of distracting people from the reality of stepping away from the surface, from safety, and heading into the dark. Opulence, sinuous lines, and voluptuous colours creating drama and grand spectacle. Sparking wonder and excitement for what lies below. Even though our psyche tries to hold us back from these places of darkness and potential danger, seductive aesthetics enchant, drawing individuals into the depths, like moths to flames

Underground station design aims to alleviate customer anxiety as much as possible. Baker Street station resembles something akin to a sitting room. Homely settings making travellers feel more comfortable, metaphorically removing people from the subterranean and the latent fear that it projects (Dobraszczyk January 2021).

The stations at Westminster and Canary Wharf, although inviting and enticing, are polar opposites to Baker Street. Theatre made manifest through steel, glass, and neon light. Enthralling those who pass by, beckoning them to pass through their portals. Architecture as modern Pied Piper, substituting penny whistle for chrome and illumination. Luring the beguiled down into the underworld.

Once drawn into the labyrinth, travellers continue to be mesmerised through visual art, commercial icons, and posters. Bold lines and colours jockey alongside corporate golden arches in a concerted effort to distract and tempt. Literary characters and historical events seek to showcase London’s deep history to those who are travelling deep underground. Past, present, and future congealed.

The subterranean realm has captivated peoples’ imagination for millennia. A place of mystery; the domain of deities, spirits, monsters… A place of refuge; from war, the elements, pestilence, authority…The underworld is, for many, a fearful place. Somewhere that should be avoided at all costs, lest those who dwell below are disturbed. The latent fear of what lies below bubbles beneath the surface of human façades. People are enticed to venture into the stygian darkness, to follow the White Rabbit, who manifests as bright lights, seductive advertising, tantalising aesthetics. Distractions to assuage the subliminal trepidations that silently gnaw upon peoples’ apprehensions.

Underpasses are integral. They ease physical travel but are incapable of easing the mind. Upon entering these spaces people understand, whether consciously or not, that they are penetrating a permeable place. That they are no longer fully in the land of the living, nor entirely within the realm of the dead, but somewhere other, an interzone. The path must be trod in order to reach the ‘other side’, no matter how physically, or supernaturally, perilous.

Deep stratigraphies, deeper memories, deepest fears. Movement enables transition.

Underpasses Are Liminal Places!


Ackroyd, P., 2012. London Under. London: Vintage

Dobraszczyk, P., 2019. Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination. E-Book ed. London: Reaktion Books.

Dobraszczyk, P., January 2021. London’s Sewers – Public Lecture.

Wallis, C. & Coustou, E., 2019. Mark Leckey: O’ Magic Power Of Bleakness. London: Tate Publishing.