Architecture and geology share a language… Great architecture aspires to these qualities of scale, space, awe, light, permanence, purity found in geology.
Architecture wants to be geology
Architecture wants to be geology. Architecture wants geology’s immensity of scale; its variegated repetition of forms; its twisted and tortured shapes and volumes; its functional patterns formed by millennia of erosion and chance; its ability to accentuate the opposing qualities of light and dark; its innate ability to create spaces of awe and enclosure; its monolithic purity of material; its effortlessness in projecting ontological meaning and harnessing phenomenological effect; and above all its timelessness and permanence. Architecture wants all of these qualities, and sometimes achieves them.
The immense scale and sense of cavernous enclosure of Ettienne Louis Boulee’s 1751 Bibliotheque Nationale proposal -top-lit like so many caves by a single opening within the ceiling; or the organic development of towers at San Gimignano, undulating together to form an outcrop of architectural hoodoos; the angular forms of Fritz Hogers’ Chilehaus in Hamburg which reveals itself like a sudden, violent erosion; or the sweeping, smoothed curves of Virilio and Parent’s St Bernadette Chapel which looks like the product of a slow, gentle erosion; the beautifully patterned economy of Gothic fan vaults forming like space-defining stalactites, best seen at Canterbury or Peterborough Cathedral; the ethereal beauty of Louis Kahn’s stone island shrouded in mist at Dhaka, Bangladesh; the exquisitely carved El Deir monastery in Jordan fashioned from the voids and negative space of a single, red cliff face; or the timeless simplicity of that most numinous and mystical of structures the Great Pyramids of Giza rising like mountains of sand. These are a handful of the countless examples where architecture has, and continues to aspire to the qualities that geology inherently contains.
A shared language
Architecture and geology share a language. This is evident in the many geological terms which have become part of the architectural vocabulary: accretion, archipelago, fold, kink, metamorphism, morphology, tectonics, topography to name a few. Each describe a geological process or state that is transferable to the creation of architecture. The same qualities that make for important and distinctive geological formations, also make for great architecture. Great architecture aspires to these qualities of scale, space, awe, light, permanence, purity found in geology. Crucially, these examples avoid literal symbolism – instead harnessing the qualities of geology rather than copying their forms.
This practice is still apparent today – Barozzi Veiga’s Philharmonic Hall, Szczecin, whose snowy white peaks appear as a microcosmic mountain range providing a stark counterpoint to it’s prosaically dull and flat roofed neighbours; or Snohetta and Casson Mann’s Lascaux Visitors’ Centre – a deep concrete-hewn fissure in the landscape created both as a nod to the limestone caves and rock formations which characterise the region but also to minimise the buildings’ visual impact on its surroundings.
Some architects however, ape geology – not in an experiential way, but in a mimetic way. Bjarke Ingels + JDS Architects even go to the extent of printing a 25m high impression of mountain on the side of their carefully branded ‘Mountain Dwellings’ to mask the overly generous parking garage created when a steeply terraced building is built on flat land; or the Mountain Village proposal by MAD and Thomas Heatherwicks’ M50 development, both of which are deliberately conceived as topography, blurring the lines between nature and architecture, appearing not quite like either, instead as polished facsimiles of something much more effortless and visceral.
Alvaro Siza once said “What is made by men is not natural… more and more I think there must be a certain distance between the natural and the man-made. But there must be a dialogue between the two. Architectural forms come from nature, but architecture transforms nature.” This ‘dialogue’ is thrillingly evident in the energy of his 1956 Boa Nova Tea House, one of his first commissions, where coastal formations and architecture combine yet retain their own and accentuating each other’ differing qualities. The ability of architecture to ‘transform nature’, is hindered when a mimetic approach to natural forms is adopted. Not only hindering our own abilities to create forms and spaces which have the same spatial and experiential qualities we find in geological forms, but also creating inferior versions of the real thing. As Barozzi Veiga’s use of the starkness of a snowy mountain range or Snohetta’s evocation of the dark drama of limestone caves testifies – Architecture, and the human brain simply cannot compete with the wonder of geology, but it can harness its experiential and spatial qualities.
The Tepuis – Architectural Geology
I was reminded of this when I came across the Tepuis, a table top mountain range composed of sandstone located in the highlands of South America, straddling Guyana, Brazil and Venezuala. This environment is truly a ‘Lost World’ separated millions of years ago from the land mass that was once South America and Africa, it’s mesa remaining untouched. Typefied by the tortured rock formations which crown Mount Roraima; the 300m wide sinkholes containing mini forests of Cerro Sarisariñama; or the cathedral-esque caves of Cerro Autana – these unique geological features also possess all of the formal and spatial elements that architecture aspires to.
Immensity of scale both formally and spatially; varied repetition of functional pattern created by millenia of erosion; strange otherworldly forms, texture, purity of material, an ability to harness and accentuate light, local symbolic importance, and above all a sense of permanence and timelessness.
The sheer range of spatial and visual experience the Tepuis exhibit is astonishing. The Tepuis rise imperiously above their surroundings like a colossal hilltop temple; their verdant summits punctuated by perfect circle shaped voids creating space from solid rock; these depressions providing a sense of canopy and enclosure like a future world courtyard; rock face apertures perfectly framing views out to the landscape beyond; shafts of light and water illuminating the darkness as if directly sent from above. In an ironic twist, the spaces and forms created over millennia almost seem too sublime, too intentional to have been formed by accident. If only most architectural brains weren’t so rigid and limited to even dream up the spatial and formal possibilities achieved by the Tepuis – it’s almost as if they were designed that way.
Piranesi – Geological Architecture
One architects’ brain who could never be described as rigid or limited was Piranesi. Piranesi also best understood and explored the architectural potential of geology. or indeed the geological potential of architecture. Unfortunately, he left little in the way of built examples but the countless sketches and engravings he completed display the same dizzying range of formal exploration and spatial awe found in the Tepui. Piranesi harnessed the potential of geology, not in a mimetic way. Piranesi created an architecture which transformed nature and was evocative of its best qualities.
This is best evidenced in his vedute of Rome from his Le antichita romane of 1756, and Camp Marzio dell’antica Roma of 1762. Here, he re-imagines Rome as a sort of terrain-vague (as coined by Ignasi de Solà-Morales), a semi abandoned hybrid landscape of vegetation, geological formations, existing and proposed architecture. Piranesi uses the ruins of the past, nature and geology as springboards for architectural discovery and conjecture. His architectural representations and additions contain all the properties the most sublime and wondrous geological formations contain:
Defiance of simplistic Cartesian geometry; the use of surface texture to define space; erosion as a design tool slowly carving out new forms and spaces through subtraction and accretion; an eternal quality improved with the effects of time and aging; elemental forms beyond any notions of styles or fashions. This is a pure, unadulterated celebration of mass, form, texture, material, light, and space much like the visual and spatial experiences encountered in geological formations.
While the line between geology, nature and architecture is blurred in Piranesi’s depictions of Rome, these elements still appear autonomous as with Siza’s approach. The man made and the natural engage in a close and teasing dialogue but retain their autonomy. Time, styles, functional issues evaporate to achieve a timelessness that focuses on the eternal experiential components of architecture – sculpting of form, manipulation of scale, creation of space, its interaction with nature and light, its’ ability to make his understand our place within the world.
The lessons learnt from geology and Piranesi are that the experiential and spatial qualities of architecture are what will endure. Society and its needs, technical requirements and programmatic functions change over time, and we must respond to them nimbly and fastidiously, but the celebration and creation of space, mass, form, texture, material, light and space is what endures through the ages in architecture just as in our geological formations. By harnessing the qualities of geology, to paraphrase Pier Vittorio Aureli’s remarks on Piranesi, we can ‘overcome the insufficiency of architectural form, making it possible to rethink architectural design and open the potential for imagining it differently.’