DMJ 21/22 – Architecture and the Geological Imagination

Guest Editor: Kurt Forster

Drawing one’s surroundings, as well as composing images of landscapes, planning interventions and imagined buildings, implies an understanding of geography, geology, vegetation and climate, not to mention a familiarity with materials and their performance. In a word, what came to be called ‘geognostics’ pre-supposes and exposes knowledge of ground, location, and purpose.

In the later eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, geology emerged as a field of concrete new knowledge and as a domain of philosophical speculation. With new methods such as stratigraphy and comparative anatomy, both systematically developed by Baron Georges Cuvier, and on the heels of wild speculation about the mechanics of the earth and all forms of life populating it, the amateur naturalist James Hutton and the father of modern geology Charles Lyell began to lay the foundations of a new discipline. It is no exaggeration to say that what began with theories about the dark inside of the earth ultimately led to speculation about black holes and the age of the universe.

Inquisitive travellers and perspicacious landscape painters took a new look at many familiar features of the land, singling out curious rather than handsome phenomena, such as coastal erosion, volcanic explosions, erratic boulders, periodic lakes and an infinity of hitherto undiscovered plants. They also attempted to define the physiognomy of places and their vegetation. Alexander von Humboldt and numerous others, often botanists accompanying world-girdling voyages, inaugurated a genre of description that secured literary standing for the writings of naturalists. Artists kept in the forefront of these momentous changes and made vital contributions to knowledge of a pre-photographic world. Architects, long preoccupied with materials of construction and with analogies about the earth and its history, followed suit. Just as stratigraphy established a method of recording ‘finds’, graphic description of the land helped craft images that conveyed actual knowledge rather than impressions. Architects began to employ new materials, like iron and glass, for such phenomenal events as the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and a number of others in different parts of the world. The rise of steel and glass in modern architecture, whatever one may make of it, was sustained by knowledge of geology and of the processes of industrial refinement. Studies by Louis Sullivan for terracotta wrapping the steel frame of entire buildings or the drawings of Mies van der Rohe for the Barcelona Pavilion – travertine, water, bronze, and chrome-plated posts in bewildering reflection ­– strike a high note of geological derivation and instantiate technological fantasies. Both architects, among many others, intuited time and perfection as a building’s ultimate virtues.  

For this issue of Drawing Matter Journal we seek incisive and informative contributions that explore the ways geology opened up a dramatically new understanding of the earth and everything on it and how this interacted with architecture and its representations.  Topics that papers might explore include: how architects came to infuse the seemingly static qualities of their projects with expanded notions of time; relations between modes of drawing in geology and in architecture and how they attempted to render the latent or even invisible depth of time; motifs of petrifaction and fossilisation, including geologically-informed speculation on decorative forms (the volute-like ammonite, for example); geological stratigraphy and compositional layering in architecture; catastrophism and cultures of excavation; historical relations between early geological inquiry and characteristic locations of architectural production, such as the quarry or the excavated building site; ways that geological materials have been conscripted to express national and other identities; structures built to exhibit or teach geology; architectures conceived to be geological, whether in terms of form, structure, scale, or ways of use; and the architectural implications of the understanding of human agency as geological, as articulated in contemporary discourses on the Anthropocene.

Deadline for receipt of initial proposals: Monday 22 November 2021.

Submission Process

Cover image: ‘Jasperine agate, in perfect brecciation’, from a collection of siliceous minerals given to and arranged for St. David’s School, Reigate, by John Ruskin in 1883. DMC 2128.12.