The Geological London Seminar hosted by the London Research Cluster and the Expanded Territories Research Group in architecture that took place on March 14th 2013 at the University of Westminster was an intriguing event at which four speakers examined the life of London’s geology in very different ways.
Diana Clements, author of The Geology of London and member of the London GeoDiversity Partnership gave an instructive overview of London from the formation of its underlying geological structure as part of the alpine crumple between 65 and 2,5 million years ago, to the redirecting of the River Thames by the Anglian ice sheet some 450,000 years ago. She described the properties of the various chalks, sands, gravels and clays deposited through these processes and their use in the building of London.
David Dernie, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment and author of two books on stone architecture (Stone Architecture and New Stone Architecture) took us on a walk along Tottenham Court Road where companies like McDonalds and Santander Bank use thin slithers of rare and costly stone, currently from as far away as Italy and Denver as facings for their shop fronts. These, Dernie argued, give glimpses into distant geological worlds and opportunities for the contemplation of the earth’s vital materiality.
Nick Beech, architectural historian, gave a presentation about how London Clay was transformed into political and economic matter when the Royal Festival Hall was built on the South Bank in the 1950’s, on a site considered unsuitable by many. This was an instructive Latourian analysis of how engineers, earthwork engineering, boring methods and instruments, soil classification schemes and artistry were used to classify London’s soils as suitable for building on or not after World War 2, thereby validating political and economic decisions about construction or demolition.
Finally, Simon Phillips, Logistics Manager of the Crossrail project provided an overview of the project, its tunnelling processes and routes and of the transfer of 4,5 million tonnes of excavated material to Wallasea Island in Essex. This will transform 620 hectares of arable farmland into coastal marshland, thereby creating a resilient interface against storm surges and restoring the natural habitat of a number of species.
The seminar raised many questions about the vitality of apparently inert materials, about how they are endowed with political, economic and aesthetic lives, about the on-going reshuffling of earth materials and the reshaping of the earth by human activity and the opportunities this presents for both reflective and political work.