Holes in the Ground & The Opercularist
of a survey of street furniture in Cork, caused some amusement as I went about
my work on the streets. This work eventually became the book "Cork
City: A Field Guide to its Street Furniture", available on this
website. A part of the study included recording the different types of street
cover in the city.
It seems that taking
an unusual amount of interest in anything in the public domain itself attracts
attention. A member of the public would approach me and the usual dialogue went
a little like this; "Are you from de Council?" 'I'm doing a
"Cus I was onto dem about de water awhile-go, 'tis the colour o' piss,
and dey've done nuttin' abou'da!"
I tried various explanations, but the one that seemed to satisfy most people was to say I was an artist (which I'm not) questioning the materiality of modernism (or some such guff). At this, they'd nod sagely and say something positive, or peer intelligently at whatever it was I was studying.
I may have been blazing a trail of sorts in Cork, but I'm far from the first to take an interest in the subject. As far back as 1863 a London student (who else would have the time!) started a catalogue of the different designs for the coal and other covers on the streets of his city. He went as far as publishing a little book of the most decorative and naming his obsession "opercula" making
him the world's
first opercularist I suppose. (An operculum is a small lid).
It is notable that the coal holes and manhole covers in Cork are decidedly less fancy than those in Dublin or London which often feature vegetation or star shapes. Cork designs generally are simply cross-hatched.
I have no suggestion why our ones are so much simpler. Nonetheless, like many fields of human endeavour, when one studies any area in detail, variety becomes apparent.
Looking at the most mundane objects, such as manhole covers or fire hydrant lids many different manufacturers and designs can be found. In Cork there are many more than 100 different designs of cover for gas, water, sewerage, telecoms and electricity. See how many you can spot!
For me the most poignant are those installed around the turn of the last century by the various plumbing firms in the city, a few of whom remain, but most are gone, leaving their street covers as a sort of memorial."
and Photographs © Tom Spalding, 2009