DMJ – Shallow Cuts: the geological sectioning of Newcastle, NSW

Michael Chapman

Michael Chapman, Section (North South) of Newcastle, New South Wales, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

This paper charts the emergence of the drawn section as a mode of documenting geological time and physical space. This is specifically mapped in the Antipodean context of colonisation, where vital resources underneath the ground were mediated with strategic ambitions above. The relatively small period in the history of the Earth during which coal seams were formed—the permo-carboniferous period—laid down the resources that enabled colonial processes of industrialisation and whose exploitation led to the era we now identify as the Anthropocene. As a mode of drawing, the geological section offered an affront to the machinations of horizontal modernist planning, documenting the ambitions of colonial extraction and recasting the relationship between the ground, the surface and its recent history.

Newcastle, on the east coast of Australia, is one of the largest coal-exporting cities in the world. From the arrival of colonial forces in Australia, the coal seams that lie beneath the city and the region have shaped all aspects of the city’s urban development. Sectional drawings have provided an important artefact of this colonial history, not only documenting the competing forces between the ground and surface, but mapping the contradictions and ambitions that emerge in processes of resource exploitation. As the primary industrial and mining hub for Sydney throughout the 19th and the early 20th centuries, the paper argues that this sectioning of the geological crust in the Newcastle context is an important moment in the scholarship of architectural drawing and establishes a significant industrial and environmental context for architectural representation generally, and the section specifically.

Using examples from the 19th and 20th centuries, the paper explores the capacity of the drawn section to engage with the contradictions of urban and industrial forces upon the landscape. There is an inherently architectural mode of drawing that evolved out of the advent of industrialisation, primarily during the era of colonisation in the Antipodes. Edgeworth David, as a student of Ruskin and pioneer of the geology of the Australian continent, used geological sections to extensively map the terrain and potential of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. Framed by broader paradigms in ‘aesthetic geology’ and architectural representation, these drawings became the foundation for the geological understanding of the city and region as well as a part of its collective memory and imagination.

As the economic relevance of coal currently fades because of its destructive environmental and spatial consequences, these architectural sections mark a rare moment where geological time and anthropocentric time intersect. As slices through over 300 million years of history, geological sections provide a visual representation of vast durations of time and activity but at the scale of the human and the city. These drawings offer a mode of documentation and extraction that replicates the physical processes of mining and situates the commodity of coal in relationship to the surface, and the present. They also offer a point of reflection and relativity from which to reassess this turbulent moment in the earth’s crust and the holes it has left behind.

DMJournal–Architecture and Representation
No. 1: The Geological Imagination
Edited by Mark Dorrian and Kurt Forster
ISSN 2753-5010 (Online)
ISBN 978-1-9161522-3-6

About the author

Michael Chapman is a Professor of Architecture in Newcastle, Australia. He has researched and written widely on all aspects of architectural drawing and its scholarship as well as industrialisation and its relationship to urbanisation and architecture. He is the co-author of ‘Residue: Architecture as a Condition of Loss’ (Melbourne: RMIT Press, 2007) and has published journal articles in ARQ, Interstices, Fabrications, CENTER and IDEA. As well as his scholarly research, he has exhibited and published his architectural drawing projects widely, including at the State Library of NSW, the Melbourne Museum, Tin Sheds Gallery in Sydney and the Venice Architecture Biennale. He is currently completing his second PhD in creative practice at RMIT, focusing on the fictional architecture of fictional architects whose first name is Michael.

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