Eloise Hawser: Walking with people over Waterloo Bridge

Guest blog by artist Eloise Hawser

Artist Eloise Hawser explores infrastructure from the inside, researching the histories of a particular site and the people who have shaped them. Drawing upon her ongoing interest in the Thames, its hidden rivers and London’s sewerage system, Illuminated River invited Eloise to respond to the iconic site of Waterloo Bridge.

In a series, Eloise interviews passerby – Londoners, commuters, tourists – on Waterloo Bridge. The audios are paired with 3D visualisations that depict the bridge from the vantage point of a boat passing underneath, taken from HR Wallingford's ship simulator. Eloise investigates Waterloo bridge from the inside out, examining the structure from a civil engineering perspective as well as considering how it used by and thought of by Londoners today.

Eloise Hawser is a mixed media artist, living and working in London and is currently an artist-in-residence at Somerset House Studios. Her first UK solo institutional exhibition, Lives on Wire, was presented at the ICA in 2015, with a major exhibition at Somerset House, by the deep, by the mark, shown three years later. Eloise’s group shows include History of Nothing (White Cube, 2016), Weight of Data (Tate Britain, 2015), and Surround Audience (New Museum, New York, 2015).

Port of London Authority’s 1943 Survey of the Thames. Click the icons on the map to discover Eloise Hawser’s responses to Waterloo Bridge.

They would build Waterloo Bridge deeper next time, six metres below the riverbed, to be precise. The foundations of the last bridge – ‘old’ Waterloo Bridge – were undermined by a process known as ‘scouring’; small eddies that whirl around the piers, lifting the silt in which they were meant to be submerged. By the 1920s, the Thames had lifted so much silt from around the old bridge’s piers, it was starting to sink. A ‘new’ Waterloo Bridge was constructed, opening in 1945, complete with jacks to keep it level in case of further sinkage.

A 1920s postcard: “Owing to the subsiding of a portion of the bridge, the temporary iron structure was erected for vehicles travelling south, to relieve the strain during renovation.”

What do we talk about when we talk about Waterloo Bridge? The majority of us – poets and song lyricists included – tend to say less about the structure itself and more about the view. Tourists comment on the former as “drab and uninteresting”, while describing the “spectacular”, “awesome”, and “beautiful” views to be had from the bridge; on the structure, but looking elsewhere.

A pathway to the other side

The vicissitudes of the bridge’s construction during the Second World War were considerable. It was designed architect by Giles Gilbert Scott, the same man who designed London’s famous telephone boxes. His design, incorporating arched beams, concrete reinforcement and transverse slabs, seemed almost impossible to implement. Indeed, speaking at its official opening in 1945, Lord Lambeth lauded the impressive efforts of, and intense collaboration between, engineers, architects and labourers, which the bridge’s realisation had required: “To the hundreds of workers in stone, in steel, in timber, in concrete, the new bridge is a monument to their skill and craftsmanship.” Notably, he forgot to mention the predominantly female workforce who in fact did the construction work, owing to a war-induced male labour shortage. It was this women-dominated labour force that conferred its moniker: ‘the ladies’ bridge’.

By the 1980s, the bridge had gained a certain notoriety. Nestled in an enormous roundabout, its southernmost point was described as a ‘cardboard city’ of London’s homeless. The settlement was eventually razed in 1999 and a cylindrical cinema – the BFI IMAX – constructed in its place. Circled by traffic, the cinema and its breathless roundabout make for a fitting gateway to a bridge which is an essential vehicular passage, with no less than eighteen bus routes crossing it daily.

Fathers on the bridge

I often make work that explores infrastructure from the inside, researching the people and processes behind the design and production of a site. Technical drawings are, by necessity, also temporal proposals, tasked with working in the present while also imagining how a structure will work in and through time. Today, computer models can calculate precisely how the rhythms of life will occupy the sites they depict, estimating everything from pedestrian footfall to the weather. In some way then, the technical drawing can become a kind of complex environment – helpful, for example, when determining the multiple factors that erode our riverbeds or cause bridges to collapse.

One such environment is the Thames ship simulator that HR Wallingford has been developing since the 1970s. Acting as a parallel reality, whenever there are new works done on the Thames or its bridges, so too is the model updated. Rob Body – who has been working on the model for fifteen years – has explained to me how he’ll regularly take a boat along the Thames to photograph new developments. I’ve visited the simulator, tried my hand at its controls, and marvelled at the various algebraic equations through which life is represented in a virtual reality.

Comedown Bridge

All of my work on infrastructure has made me very aware of the active – if often unseen – designing of our world. However, this project was also an attempt to turn the tables, and to focus more on the daily users of Waterloo bridge. I positioned myself at the bridge’s northern end, just by my studio at Somerset House in the old coal vaults. I stopped tourists, commuters, joggers, residents out walking and friends making the most of the last days before lockdown and asked them if they would speak with me. I was surprised by how easy conversations were to strike up. If they showed any hesitation, by the time we reached the end of the bridge they were eager to tell me more about their lives, where they are coming from and going to, their own relationships with Waterloo Bridge. It was a rewarding experience. My own relationship to the bridge has changed because of it. What was, for me, an impersonal and infrastructural site, is now a space where one’s anonymity or indifference to others can easily dissolve. It is now a potential site for multiple and unexpected emotional interactions; meaningful, if also transitory.

Can’t get to the sea

Thanks to Aral Barsakcioglu for his work mastering the sound tracks.