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Great Excavations

Will Wiles

Will Wiles goes underground

‘The people – where will they go?’ Ebenezer Howard asked in Garden Cities of To-Morrow. His question was accompanied by a now-famous diagram with magnets pulling three ways: to the town (yuck!), to the country (bo-o-oring!), and to the town-country of the garden cities. It was a question that had an answer built in. But the diagram should really have had a spectral fourth arrow, the arrow of Victorian fears and nightmares. It would point down, into the earth.

As the 19th century wore on, with its mines and cuttings and excavations and tubed railways and general mighty delvings, fears grew that the people – working people in particular – might end up living permanently underground, either by force or, worse, because they preferred it. This is a fear that finds repeated expression in the fantastical literature of the time, most notably in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, in which the subterranean, vicious Morlocks run the machinery that supports the idle, decadent Eloi on the surface of a far-future earth. Much the same fear can be seen in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis: toiling subterranean proles, buried engines, periodic eruptions of savagery.

Everyone – the Victorians, the Edwardians, the proto-modernists – assumed that the rich would seek the health-giving light and air available at the heights, and the social hierarchy would descend with the lifts, to reach the masses in the basement. And it’s true that a penthouse fetches more than a first-floor flat. But otherwise, under the distorting pressures of the property market, something like the opposite has come true. Surveys, often tendentious, tell us that a stigma of deprivation attaches to high-rise living, and that given a choice people prefer ground level.

We’re left with a startling realisation: the housing crisis in London is so severe that even the richest people in the world are inadequately accommodated

Meanwhile, in London at least, it’s the rich who are burrowing downwards. Last month a £3.5 million mansion in Barnes, London, spectacularly collapsed, apparently the result of deep basement excavations. These ‘super-basements’ are a distinctive feature of the post-2008 oligarch-directed redesign of the capital, which is curious given their alleged invisibility. They’re like the city centre in general: seemingly interminable disruption and upheaval while rebuilding work takes place, and once it’s done the place looks much the same, only slightly smarter, hollowed out and empty apart from occasional visits by billionaires.

Or maybe we could look at the ‘iceberg home’ – in which most of the structure is hidden below the surface – as an example of form following (fantasy) finance. After spending a hedge fund manager’s ransom on the extreme status symbol that is a Zone One house, what does one get? Some stucco, some yellow brick, and perhaps so few bedrooms they can be counted on one hand. This must cause a degree of dissatisfaction. So why not dig down into the footprint, and get that wine room, home cinema, second garage, party room, swimming pool, private Tube platform etcetera? (Only kidding about that last one. You won’t find these people using the Tube.) What we’re left with is a startling realisation: the housing crisis in London is so severe that even the richest people in the world are inadequately accommodated.

So while Victorian novelists liked the idea of the poor disappearing underground, subterranean living has something of catnip to the imagination – Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit and Wind in the Willows all enjoy the trope, that’s just the Timeless Classics. More recently Iain Sinclair was one of the writers to be fascinated by William Lyttle, the so-called Mole Man of Hackney, who illicitly dug a network of tunnels under his home. When I decided to make super-basements part of my third novel, I emitted the kind of thin cackle novelists emit when they think they’ve stumbled on something no one else has done. I was unaware that two others, at least, were cackling too: Rachel Johnson and Jonathan Coe both have them in their latest books. O tempora, o moles.

Will Wiles is a journalist and author. Read him online every other month.

One exception to the holes-for-proles literature alluded to above is EM Forster, who imagined underground living as luxurious and leisurely in his 1909 story The Machine Stops. He also cannily predicts electronic music and social networking, imagining comfortable subterranean chambers that few have any desire to leave as they are continually distracted by amusements and in easy remote communication with all their friends. However, civilisation has become decadent and stagnant, utterly reliant on the all-providing Machine. As the amusing, distracting online headlines say, You Won’t Believe What Happens Next.