No Stone Unturned

Stafford Critchlow

Tectonics is a term that appears in the lexicon of both geology and architecture. For geologists it is associated with the formation of mountain belts; for architects it is "a means to reveal the essence of building" [i], the concept that ties all the elements of a project together [ii], or a way of describing the transition between component parts from which the beauty of architecture emerges [iii]. Both subjects are concerned with scale and jumping between the macro and the micro: for geologists, going from cliff face to thin section of stone under the microscope; for architects, from cityscape to detailed junction between materials. Perhaps it is not so surprising that geology was a taught curriculum subject on the first architecture course at University College London in 1895[iv].

In Oxford, the famous Natural History Museum marries innovative glass and iron architecture with exhaustive representation of geological specimens in the manner of Victorian educational philanthropy. The Earth Sciences Department, previously known as Geology, has moved from a location adjacent to this building and can lay claim to some of its collection.

In designing a new building for Earth Sciences in a city synonymous with the ochre stone of the Bodleian library and the Radcliffe Camera, the design team was presented with an exceptional opportunity to express the synergy between client, context and materials. A number of WilkinsonEyre's recent projects have sought to find an architectural character drawn from the identity of the building's users. The chance to allude to geological layering and represent the preoccupations of the department in the architecture was a key aspiration when we submitted the competition design in September 2005.

In architectural terms (as well as establishing a clear diagram for the building with separate laboratory and office wing with an atrium between) we wanted to set out our stall with a narrative about the building occupants. The so-called 'narrative wall' – the long elevation that leads one from South Parks Road to the entrance and into the atrium – is an organisational device that separates the two wings of the building while offering a subtle reminder that you are entering the world of geology. From a distance geologists may consider it much as they might a cliff face. Closer up, it can also function as an educational tool. Fossils - belemnites and ammonites that occur in the Jurassic limestones selected for the building - are present in the lower levels of the façade, and can be examined as specimens.

I was fortunate to be invited on the undergraduate field trip to the volcanic islands of Santorini shortly after we were appointed to work on this project, to get a feel for the subject, the people involved in studying, teaching and researching it, and to start to draw out the unwritten brief for their new building. People were patient in explaining technical terms and afterwards I sent a portfolio of my photographs to Philip England. It amused him, I think, that these photos were quite unlike ones that a geologist would take, and this started a conversation which continued throughout the project. I was struck by how the dramatic story of the volcano emerged over a number of days through a detailed reading of the cliffs around the caldera; how visually contrasting features demonstrate the magnitude and timing of what happened; the importance of scale on perception – that what appears at a distance as one thing is quite another close up. And intertwined in the geological story of successive eruptions is also a human one: tantalising speculations over Santorini's role in the legend of Atlantis and the end of Minoan civilisation.

And so the design of the narrative wall was developed as linear horizontal bands that rise and fall like strata on a cliff face. Two colours of Jura limestone – beige and gold – are articulated with different relief, the gold being 50mm thicker; and spliced through the whole are tapering ticks of dark Purbeck feather (only available in small quantities from certain quarries in Dorset – but the Department felt strongly that the stone of the Jurassic Coast, frequently visited on field trips, should play its part here).

Many people have explained to me that Earth Sciences is science for hill walkers. The characters who choose it as a discipline tend to be outdoorsy. They are interested in a relationship with the natural world and their new building, while offering state-of-the-art research facilities, should not look or feel 'clinical'. Accordingly, while the planning of the building is rational and logical, the narrative wall running through the atrium is an important foil to the controlled scientific environment: it contradicts the hegemony of science research buildings by being particular, not generic. People catch a glimpse of it from their desk or as they move around the building, a reminder that despite high-tech innovations, one foot is still planted firmly in the natural world.

The field trip also demonstrated the close interaction between undergraduates and the academic staff. Communal coffee breaks, a feature of life in the old building, are honoured in the new one with the senior common room on the roof providing a meeting place for academics. The faculty's interdisciplinary nature is one of its most striking characteristics and it is received wisdom that many advances in scientific research – eureka moments – are triggered by informal discussion amongst academics comparing specialised strands of research.

This is an extract from Stafford Critchlow's essay 'No stone unturned', which first appeared in the book Tectonics: a building for Earth Sciences at Oxford (Black Dog Publishing, 2011)

[i] Karl Botticher's treatise on Tectonics quoted in 'Digital Architecture and Construction', Ali A & Brebbia C A, Southampton, 2006

[ii] Kenneth Frampton, ibid

[iii] Gottfried Semper, ibid

[iv] See 'Architecture – art or profession? Three hundred years of architectural education in Britain', Crinson, Mark and Lubbock, Jules, Manchester, 1994