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Tate Harmer Turns Brunel’s Shaft into Underground Venue

Jack Hobhouse

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s legacy in London continues as his first ever project opens as the capital’s latest cultural attraction. Ever the showman, Brunel organised underground fairs and banquets inside the Thames Tunnel – once described as the Eighth Wonder of the World – in the mid-nineteenth century. He would approve of the transformation of his Grade II* listed shaft into the Grand Entrance Hall; a performance space, 190 years after construction began.

The Grand Entrance Hall (or ‘sinking’) shaft is now accessible to the public as a new freestanding, cantilevered staircase has been completed, designed by architects Tate Harmer.


The former entrance shaft to the historic Thames Tunnel will become a newly accessible underground space and a key exhibit for the museum, hosting events and performances and breathing new life into this important fragment of Brunel’s first project. Brunel’s father Marc began the tunnel with his teenage son, Isambard, who later became resident engineer. It is the only project that father and son worked on together, and Isambard’s first. The Thames Tunnel opened in 1843 and is the first underwater tunnel in the world – and the birthplace of the modern metro system.


The shaft is approximately 50ft in diameter and 50ft deep – with smoke-blackened brick walls from steam trains, providing a raw but atmospheric backdrop. Tate Harmer’s ingenious ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ design means that the staircase, constructed by Cobalt Green Construction, is completely independent of the important historic fabric of the structure. Visitors will use this new access point as a means to descend into a rarely glimpsed portion of our industrial heritage, and intriguing underground space.


“It was vital that the staircase and new entrance to the Rotherhithe shaft did not impact on its historical significance. We wanted to celebrate the raw nature of the Victorian industrial heritage while providing the public proper access for tours and performances,” explains Jerry Tate, partner of Tate Harmer.

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all images © Jack Hobhouse