on site 29: geology

the introduction to onsite review 29: geology

This issue, on architecture and things geologic, was suggested by the work of Smudge Studio and their Friends of the Pleistocene website. I came across them at a Musagetes Foundation café in Sudbury in September 2011, where they handed out their guidebook to New York, Geologic City: a field guide to the geo-architecture of New York. This was followed by the symposium The Geologic Turn: Architecture's New Alliance, curated by Etienne Turpin of Scapegoat.

The geologic turn. No doubt it is happening, this interest in identifying deep history through geology, but why is it happening? and in the sense that new art is often activist, or critical, why now?

Land art has had a large influence on architecture ever since Robert Smithson's jetties and islands of the 1960s, Alan Sonfist's forests, Michael Heiser's earthworks, encoded in critical books such as Lucy Lippard's Overlay. Parallel, or co-incident to, were Richard Long's walking projects in Britain. These were all artists who intervened in the landscape either at an uncommodifiable scale, or else to draw attention to some condition, such as the loss of the countryside in Britain. The Boyle Family's forty years of cast sections of the earth's surface is a record of something we sense is under threat.

The growth of environmentalism and awareness of climate change – from the activism of David Suzuki since 1966, Greenpeace founded in 1971, the Sierra Club founded in 1890 and engaged in activism since1950, to Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring – was often a subtext to these investigations of space at the scale of the earth, rather than the canvas, or studio, or gallery. Land Arts of the American West, for example, has a program that tours installations in the southwest states of the USA, combining land art - Heiser's Double Negative for example, with the use of the West and its vast, almost 'empty' territories for military testing – craters and irradiated landscapes, and for infrastructural projects – water management and mining.

In On Site review 26:DIRT we looked at the surface of the earth as the tray upon which we conduct our lives and work: but surface is just the top thin layer of the deep geology of the earth. When the crust is cracked open, either by meteors, or volcanoes, by heat from an over-thin atmosphere, or by mining which is by definition below the surface – when the surface is cracked, life as we know it is changed and often endangered.

Environmentalism has moved beyond just the reclamation of small brownfield sites, or disused mines, and is now engaged at the scale of the planet: the inevitability of climate change which is a global issue that transcends national projects and local political issues. The local invariably refers to the global; so one can see a similar escalation of scale in environmental art: the conversations are linked. There appears to be a recognition that surface intervention, at the scale of dirt, is only the top layer. The deep movements and forces of the earth, its deep geological processes which we have either ignored, discounted or taken for granted, have more influence on our species' future than we have previously thought.

This is new territory for artistic practice: activist, scientific, historic, at the scale of aeons not just the post-industrial era.

If we look at oil extraction, particularly bitumen, what we are finding is that where previously we focussed on the product and what use could be made of it, we now realise that the process of extraction releases many unforeseen conditions and other, usually toxic, products that were hidden deep in geological strata historically released slowly by erosion. Thus, for example, there is a concentration on the process in Mary Kavanagh's work – the infrastructure it takes to collapse the slow-release of arsenic, or barium in amounts that do not threaten life, in favour of a rush-release in the bitumen extraction process.

We know that radiation occurs naturally in the atmosphere. What we have developed is a way, through weaponry, to concentrate it in lethal amounts. It is this concentration of the earth's products that has parallels with concentrated cancer cells, an uncanny metaphor as it is the concentrated release of things deep under the surface (uranium, asbestos, oil, carbon) that causes cancer in the human body.

The value of land and territory today is evaluated entirely on the basis of extractable resources, whether platinum (South African miners' strike), bitumen (the 2012 US presidential election: selling the US to China in exchange for energy) or potash (the end of the Wheat Marketting Board as the surface production of grain has been marginalised by the under-the-surface production of potash, ironically, for fertiliser).

Wars are no longer fought for ideology or for humanitarian causes, but for geological reasons.

This is the general awareness within which contemporary architects now work. There is a reason why there is a geologic turn now and here. It is because it is larger than consumerism, it is unthreatened by information technology (other than rare earth extraction) and it is, as many of the essays in this issue of On Site review show, omnipresent.

We start with a brief sampling by Dora Crouch of her brilliant 2003 book, Geology and Settlement: Greco-Roman Patterns. The complexity of tectonic plate movements in the eastern Mediterranean is both frightening and active, but there is a 3000 year-old built record that demonstrates the very roots of the geological imperative in building. Thomas Mical follows with Auckland, New Zealand; Giulia Piana with the Tarpeian Rock in Rome, Ryan Coghlan in Vancouver's False Creek and Michael Leeb's poem about the Frank Slide. In all these pieces, geological upheaval happens, we stumble out of the rubble.

Then comes a group of articles on mining and its impacts: Heather Asquith looks at Cobalt, Ontario, site of a silver rush in the early 1900s; Martin Abbott looks at hinterland mining in Australia with the astounding metaphor that massive excavation in the west is piled up literally and productively on the east coast of Australia's dense urban shoreline. Greg Stone finds a company town in Sweden at the mercy of the mining corporation which seems able to move it around the countryside at will, and Shane Neill writes about ASARCO and the remediation of a very scarred landscape,

Remediation and reclamation figures in the next grouping: Dustin Valen raises important questions about the technological 'disappearance' of waste which actually encourages the production of more of it; Clint Langevin presents a demonstration of this elision of waste dumps and pleasure, and Karianne Halse has sent a beautiful project for the re-use of a concrete plant at Fresh Kills landfill. John Calvelli thinks about mineralisation.

In the next section, the articles are connected through the sense that there are hidden worlds beneath the surface. Nick Sowers listens to it; Vanessa Eickhoff writes about a creek treated like a sewer pipe under a small Ontario town; Mary Kavanagh visits Trinity Site in New Mexico, the site of postwar nuclear tests now turned tourist site, and Will Craig goes into an Icelandic volcano and is very afraid. Bradford Watson presents a critique of Denver's relentless suburban push into unsuitable geologies: because foundations are by definition hidden, politicians, developers and buyers remain unaware of the unsuitability.

Maps and the making of maps are the subject of Trent Workman's work on charting the prairies, and Joshua Craze's essay on determining the location of Abeiya on the border between Sudan and the recently declared South Sudan. The map is just the top layer of deep histories, deep geologies.

the cover

Louis Helbig.  Highway 63 Bitumen Slick. N57.00.43 W111.35.03 Syncrude Mildred Lake, Alberta

Louis Helbig. Highway 63 Bitumen Slick. N57.00.43 W111.35.03 Syncrude Mildred Lake, Alberta

This is one of a series of aerial photographs by Louis Helbig: Highway 63 Bitumen Slick. N57.00.43 W111.35.03 Syncrude Mildred Lake, Alberta. Helbig, before he moved to Australia, had a small vintage plane that he flew many times over the oil sands. His oil sands work became a book, Beautiful Destruction, the photos are on his website. In all our conversations he seemed wracked by the apparent beauty of such dreadful processes and the traces they left on the land. For him it really questioned the nature of art as an object of beauty rather than as documentary. That is a discussion often attached to Edward Burtynsky’s work: the documentation of some earthly phenomenon of a scale so vast it abstracts itself.

Borehole chart for Fox’s Farm, Nanaimo, BC, 1918, courtesy The Nanaimo Community Archives.

Borehole chart for Fox’s Farm, Nanaimo, BC, 1918, courtesy The Nanaimo Community Archives.

The back cover is a borehole chart for Fox’s Farm, Nanaimo, BC, 1918, from the Nanaimo Community Archives. Do we know what is under our feet? Nanaimo sits on the eastern slope of a mountain range that is the spine of Vancouver Island. It is a deep water port indicting that the foot of the mountain behind it, Mount Benson, continues quite a way below the waterline. Water sheets off these mountains in rivers, soil is gravelly and shallow over an almost impermeable layer of gritstone. Vancouver Island was, between 1849 and 1866, its own self, a colony separate from British Columbia, with mining rights owned by Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish coal and railway developer. The Nanaimo mines were massive; from 1852 coal was shipped to Pacific ports from Chile to Hawaii; miners were imported directly from Europe, particularly Wales and Italy. This is all to be read in in hindsight, from the geological charts. Geology plus technology is the progressive combination that has led to our present environmental crisis. It’s important.

the titles font


Skyfall had just come out; its really great title font was everywhere. Geology, which is, in deep time, skyfall.

further observations on geology and architecture over quite a few years, starting in 2009