I stumbled on an interesting short article via Environment & Society via Twitter (@env_and_society) on some of the subterranean history of Munich, Germany.  The post “Munich from Below: What Happens Underground?” was developed by Lisa Bauer and Sonja Meinelt as part of the virtual exhibition “Ecopolis München: Environmental Histories of a City“.  The authors paint a common story of growing cities developing new infrastructure to meet demands and deal with growth, but also delve into some interesting concepts as well, ranging from ice, beer, agriculture, mushrooms, and a dead queen.

These stairs are the entrance to Munich’s underworld. They lead down to the masonry canal that was built in 1912. Photo by Lisa Bauer

The development and growth around the Isar River set the stage for disease.  “The city’s inhabitants dumped their garbage on their doorsteps or into the Isar. Only a few meters away, they extracted fresh water from wells. Germs and diseases spread ruthlessly, and epidemics of diseases like cholera and typhus killed thousands.”   The caption to the map below reads: “This map shows the course of Munich’s streams that are west of the Isar. The different colors represent whether a stream is on the surface or underground. The ones mapped in dark blue are below ground. The ones in light blue are above ground. And the ones mapped in purple are abandoned streams.”

As you see, the majority of streams are now underground. While the infrastructure improvements that utilized the underground systems were driven by water pollution, there are some interesting alternative uses for the subterranean landscape of the city, mentioned in the article.  Ice was critical for storage, and “In mild winters, ice for cooling beer cellars was even harvested from the Birnhorn glacier.  

Photo: Deutsches Museum

The ice was a vital ingredient in storage of beer, which along with clean water was critical to taste.  “The cooler the temperature at which the beer was stored, the longer its shelf life. The breweries built deep cellars at the gates of the city, in the sand and gravel pits on the slopes of the Isar. Cooling methods improved steadily. As of 1830, in addition to implementing ventilation systems, breweries also began to use natural ice in their storage cellars. The quality, reputation, and economic success of Munich beer became better and better.”

Photo: Deutsches Museum

With beer cellars, comes a perfect spot for a cool place to drink beer as well, such as the Augustiner beer cellar seen below:

Photo: Augustiner Keller

Few cellars remain, as mentioned:  “The majority of Munich’s beer cellars no longer exist today. After serving as bomb shelters in the Second World War, many were destroyed, demolished, or built over. The beer cellars have since been largely forgotten. Only here and there are they still around, hidden, mostly inaccessible—deep below the cellars of buildings.”

There were some interesting uses in that interim period, especially in the war, where “mushrooms were grown underground in an old rail tunnel beneath Goetheplatz. Today the U3/6 line runs through the “mushroom tunnel,” which was built as a section of Munich’s first subway line.”  The below image is from World War II, where “…the subway shaft served as an air-raid shelter, and afterwards as a place for cultivating luxury food: button mushrooms. However, invasive ground water ended mushroom cultivation.”

Photo: Stadtarchiv München

The underground also was developed to manage runoff, as previous mentioned. “To ensure that wastewater does not flow into the Isar, enormous subterranean basins store excess water.”  The image in the header, shows one of these, and below shows “The largest rainwater-retention basin in Europe (90,000 meters) is located below Hirschgarten…”

Photo: Lisa Bauer

Beyond the underground storage tanks, the aforementioned sewers were build come with an interesting tale.  The impetus for the sewerage is a common theme, to combat waterborne disease. This case was a bit different, as discussed in “The Queen’s Death Ensures Clean Water“:

“Max von Pettenkofer brought about a change in Munich’s cleanliness. The doctor found that the recurring cholera outbreaks could be traced back to unhygienic conditions. In order to counteract the causes of the epidemics, he encouraged the idea of a modern sewage system with a waste transport system and the introduction of flush toilets. He also pushed for a supply of drinking water from the Mangfall valley in the Alpine Foreland. He initially encountered strong resistance. The government took action only after the death of Queen Therese of Bavaria. In 1854 she became a victim, along with another 2,935 Munich residents, of a cholera outbreak.”

Photo: Lisa Bauer

Thus Munich built the modern system, per the map above.  The image above shows this “…masonry canal was built in 1912. Even today it drains wastewater from surrounding houses.”

The hidden hydrology of any city starts to become similar when you start looking at how cities have developed, development pressures, and the inevitable ‘modernization’ by burying of surface waters into underground systems. The thread that exists in modern urban areas around the globe, concurrent with the Industrial Era in the 1850s to 1900s, is telling as within a short timeframe of a century, most world cities will have undergone a massive reconfiguration from surface to subsurface water.  Not to say Munich is special in this case, just brings up the point that all stories lead to a similar conclusion. Worthy of some comparative exploration.

From this inquiry also emerges some interesting stories of how subterranean spaces have been used, re-purposed, and are woven in the histories of places and their people.

Citation:  Bauer, Lisa, and Sonja Meinelt. “Munich from Below.” In “Ecopolis München,” edited by L. Sasha Gora. Environment & Society Portal, Virtual Exhibitions 2017, no. 2. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/node/8052.


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