Thursday, March 20, 2014

Piranesi and the London Underground

click photo to enlarge
London's "Tube", more properly known as the Underground, is an interesting place for the photographer because it is a metro system that has developed over such a long period of time and therefore offers subjects old and new. In fact, it includes the world's first underground line that was developed by the Metropolitan Railway and opened as long ago as 1863. The Underground is a system that, despite having 270 stations and 250 miles of track, is still being extended and consequently has a number of sleek, modern stations to contrast with the older structures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The other week I used a couple of these recent stations - Canada Water and Canary Wharf - both examples of what I call the "stainless steel" stations. I think of them in those terms because they feature large quantities of stainless steel alongside the inevitable concrete. However, modern and gleaming though they undoubtedly are, I also cannot help but think of them as "Piranesian". That word is an adjective especially familiar to students of the history of art and architecture. It derives from the name of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), an Italian etcher and engraver born near Venice. He started out as an illustrator of contemporary views, moving on to studies of the remains of ancient Rome that he drew with an obvious delight in old stonework and the contrast of Mediterranean light and shade.

However, it a series of sixteen drawings from his imagination for which posterity remembers Piranesi, works that fired the imagination of the Romantic movement and inspired a number of architects. These showed the interiors of imaginary prisons, "Carceri d'Invenzione". In high contrast he depicted gigantic stone vaults, stairs, machines, ladders, chains and ropes and crawling about these fantastic, cavernous interiors, tiny people, dwarfed by their surroundings. Looking at today's black and white photograph of the exit hall and escalators at Canary Wharf underground station you can perhaps understand how Foster + Partners' work conjures up in my mind this inspirational draughtsman's imaginings.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Sony RX100
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 10.4mm (28mm - 35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/80 sec
ISO: 125
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On