At first glance, it could be easy to assume that Subterranean London is a coffee table book for ruin porn enthusiasts. The cover image shows a man in silhouette, with a light adorning his forehead like a ruby Cyclops eye. Shrouded in darkness, he looks like the not-so-benevolent guardian of the dreary transit tunnel in which he's standing. But hey, you know what they say about assuming.
Crack open the spine of this book and those expectations collapse pretty quickly. In fewer than 200 pages, Bradley Garrett, a geography researcher with the University of Oxford (whom you might remember from that time he climbed the Shard), deftly leads the reader through a tour of London's literal underbelly. From Joseph Bazalgette's sewer system to the modern construction sites of the Crossrail, the photographs that Garrett has compiled from a dozen different urban explorers show a little-seen, but nevertheless vital side of the U.K. capital.
There are abandoned Tube stations and dated trains. There are grimy utility tunnels lined with colorful communications cables. There’s the Cold War-era Kingsway Telephone Exchange and its accompanying employee bar, the deepest bar in the United Kingdom. There's also the World War II bunker that's now a secure file storage unit.
It's all a little disorienting. We're not often familiar with the parts of our cities that hide under our feet.
"The goal of the book, in that context," writes Garrett in his introduction, "is not to 'reconquer' these places or take them back from those forces that seek to keep them hidden, but to make transparent the emotional equalities of the underground that have caused such a contested, riven and complicated relationship to transpire."
None of the photos in Subterranean London were taken with permission, which isn't to say permission isn't available. In fact, for some projects like Crossrail, the city holds Open House days when visitors are invited to take a tour of the facilities. But permission often comes with a layer of constraints and middle men. Sometimes, it comes with a huge price tag.
"I love Open House weekend, it’s totally amazing," Garrett recently told me. "But it's a very different experience going in at 2 a.m. and having a look yourself, with no guides, no interpreters. You don't actually know what you're doing or where you're going. It's slightly dangerous, potentially, but also you're able to experience that place on your own terms."
Who is responsible if that explorer gets injured? To Garrett, that's not the point.
"Obviously, there's going to be an acknowledgment that if I'm trespassing into that space without permission, that's not the responsibility of the property owners," he says. "I think that's important because we increasingly are living in an age where we are not allowed to take responsibility for our actions anymore."
So what is the point? It certainly isn't political, Garrett says. "We were operating on the basis of common sense," he told me. "These places are built and maintained with taxpayer money. We're going to go and have a look at them."
Rather, Garrett and his colleagues thought of their explorations and photographs as a form of public service. "We were going to take photographs of parts of the city that people don't normally see and share them with the public."
The British Transport Police saw the situation differently.
When Garrett and I spoke last week, it was his first time back in his hometown of Los Angeles in two years. In August 2012, upon returning to England from Cambodia, Garrett's plane was stopped on the runway at Heathrow. British Transport Police boarded, handcuffed him, and escorted him off the plane. He was taken through passport control, where officials seized his passport and then placed him in custody for 24 hours.
Elsewhere, police took a battering ram to the front door of his London home and confiscated his property, including his phone and the entire contents of his filing cabinet, research notes and all. Authorities also raided the homes of ten other people, identified from reading Garrett's ethnographic Ph.D. thesis on urban exploration.
Over the next two years, the defendants could not leave the country. Relationships fizzled out. Job contracts were cut short. Garrett didn't see his family and was denied permission to attend the funeral of a friend, journalist Matthew Power, who passed away in Uganda in March.
When the case finally came to court this year, it collapsed within two weeks. As The Guardian reported, Garrett pleaded guilty to five counts of criminal damage to railway property and avoided jail.
"To treat someone this way is such an incredible breach of human rights," Garrett says now. "Basically, it all came down to us taking photographs of places they didn’t want photographed. That’s why they’ve done this to us. It’s sickening."
Subterranean London, a book that contains many of those photographs, has already been published in the United Kingdom and comes out next month in the United States. Garrett worries that the authorities will use the book as pretext to re-arrest him. In fact, Transport for London tried to censor the publication of his previous book, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, because it contained, as they charged, "illegally obtained information."
When Garrett flew to Vienna earlier this week, he had a pit stop in London that was auspiciously uneventful. So far, so good.
Despite his ordeal, Garrett still believes in the impulse that launched his initial interest in urban exploration. "It's up to us to hack the system," he says. "You can sit around all day complaining that it's not working and cities aren't being built right, but it's up to us to actually go into the shopping mall and cause a disturbance."