Sewers Reveal Deep Topography Below

Event: Building Over the Past: The Hidden Layers of the City
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.27.09
Speaker: Steve Duncan — Urban Historian and photographer
Organizer: AIANY International Committee

Steve Duncan inside the Old Croton Aqueduct, which supplied NYC’s drinking water from 1842 until the late 19th century.

Steve Duncan

When most of us think of spending a nice day at a museum, we might think of hitting MoMA or the Met. But guerrilla historian Steve Duncan is more inclined to don a headlamp and explore a local NYC sewer, instead. The old subterranean infrastructure of cities is “one of the best ‘museums’ of old America that I’ve found,” he explained in a recent talk and slideshow. After all, underground spots tend to be protected from the elements and well preserved, so they provide a glimpse of architectural and cultural layers of times past.

Duncan’s obsession began in 1996, when he began exploring Columbia University’s subterranean tunnels while he was an undergrad there. These days, he travels around the world to practice “urban archaeology.” His slideshow gave the audience a whirlwind tour of Paris, London, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and other locales where he has snapped photos in spots both high above and far below the streets, in his never-ending quest to discover new angles on built environments.

Some of the underground images he showed have a strange beauty, such as the sculpted forms of sandstone tunnels forming the sewers of Minneapolis-St. Paul. His photos of NYC sewers and underground streams often showed a mélange of brick and concrete construction, much like the buildings above, though with occasional stalagmites or stalactites, as one might find in natural caves.

NYC’s underground watercourses bear testament to the city’s past incarnations, Duncan observed. Of course, NYC’s many waterways were one of the original draws for settlers. As the city, the sewer system developed along with it (rather chaotically), in multiple phases and methods of construction. The distinction between sewers and underground streams has often become blurred, Duncan added, because many streams became sewers once they were built over.

Though most of the city’s waterways are now hidden belowground, their memory lives on. Near the Center for Architecture, Minetta Street and Minetta Lane were named for Minetta Brook. The area’s underground waterways also make their continued presence known when local buildings such as the New School on West 13th Street occasionally flood, according to Duncan.

People in New York and beyond are searching for better ways to make underground watercourses more-well known and accessible. “Here are all these underground streams, these ancient watercourses, aqueducts, and I think it’s up to architects and builders and urban planners to try to celebrate that or open them up and reveal them,” Duncan said. But in NYC, the fact that the original watercourses are so intertwined with a labyrinthine sewer system makes such a task difficult. Some people advocate daylighting certain streams (though Duncan is too much of a fan of tunnels for that). Other efforts involve creating parks to celebrate the urban waterways, he said. Bounded by Canal, Varick, and Laight Streets, one park that’s under construction will feature a canal-like fountain (complete with a system of locks) inspired by the canal that once ran nearby. However, the project will use some water pumped in from the city’s water supply, instead of the nearby groundwater, Duncan said, challenging the architects in the audience to come up with better ideas about how best to celebrate and integrate the city’s groundwater in future projects.