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Paleontology Experience, Lyme Regis

Part 2 Project 2002
Haydn Thomas
Gavin Smyth
Cardiff University, UK
Paradigm - patination, to tectonic transformation

Do architects design a finished product? Or do architects merely start the process by which our built environment starts to evolve? If from the moment of creation the architecture starts to become something else, can the architect explore what it means to help shape that future? Within a society that continues to embrace change at an accelerating rate, is architecture able to sustain the same propensity for change?

Can the architect start to take ownership of the life the building will lead, by embracing the capacity for change and programming the building with the potential to evolve to suit the complex changes in topology, climate, technology and society? If so can surface and structure form the means by which to express time and the nature of change, so that the building itself becomes a record by which to understand past, present and future?

Investigation - evolution of the Lyme Regis cliffs

From the cliff tops of the Lyme Regis to the shoreline is a descent of some 170m combined with 300million years of history. These cliffs are a vital record documenting a large proportion of the evolutionary journey of life on this planet. But perhaps more extraordinary are the cliffs morphology and capacity for change caused by the unique build up of rock strata, which result this area of Dorset displaying the most active set of land slip systems in the world.

These land slips act to continually reveal vital specimens from the cliffs, but perversely they remain intact only for short periods, before the destructive actions of the sea mean they are lost forever. These cliffs display an amazing duality between the eternal and the ephemeral, life and death, the focus of the architectural discussion, the permanent and the temporal.

These cliffs are not only a vital scientific resource but also a huge attraction for tourists and a valuable teaching tool from pre-school to post-graduate. It has no established museum, but provides a unique opportunity in that there is a direct relationship between the items that can be exhibited and the location in which they can be found. Not only that but it provides the opportunity as a layperson to make the same kind of discoveries as those that can be found in the museum.

A complex study of the geology and the nature of the programme, established a means by which to key in to the specifics of context. Examining the factors that affected the conditions on the cliffs lead to means by which to assess expected lifespan and the capacity for movement which structures would require. This exploration led to the classification of four types of architecture and four relevant uses. The structures were to be thought of as a pair of crossed hands. When close together they provide great protection and limited movement against each other. As the action of the site slowly starts to pull the hands further apart so they provide less and less protection whilst allowing greater and greater movement.

The volatile zone - expected lifespan 1-5 years. The area of cliffs most active and which would experience most change. It is also the area in which people will search the cliffs looking for newly revealed finds. In this zone the architecture was to act as a landscape interpreter, an overlay to the
cliffs that was capable of deforming and changing with site. This was described as Phoenix architecture because it was capable of collapse, disassembly and reconstruction to suit new site conditions. In this way the interventions could have a similar duality to the cliffs, that of the ephemeral and the eternal.

The temporary zone - expected lifespan 25 years +. An area which will experience significant geological movement but which is expected to remain recognisable for the next 25 years. The nature of consistent changes is linked with the experience of temporary exhibitions and nature of display of specimens. The palaeontological artefacts showcased in museums are almost entirely replicas, the originals too valuable or fragile for display.

The permanent zone - expected life 50 years +. The area most suitable for buildings traditionally classified as permanent. The site will still move but the structure is designed with the capacity to accept this. Split into two uses, the permanent exhibition and the archive, the structure becomes tightest and most protective towards the top of the cliffs housing the most precious archived finds.

The analysis of architectural and structural form lead to a layering of elements allied to anatomical references.

Spine – control
Bones – structure
Muscles – continuity
Veins – supply
Skin – flexibility
Scales – protection

Each element was inextricably linked so that any adaptation in form due to the changes in site conditions would create a visual record etched into the building fabric. The exploration or patination within a saline environment provided a means by which to inscribe the passage of time of the buildings surface, in the same way that the rings of a tree record its age. The galvanised steel scales of the external skin were capable of sliding over one another as the building deformed, so areas of shingle would become exposed or concealed the build up of rust showing the passage of time.

As the site continued to erode, so slowly the life of even the more permanent interventions would draw to a close. The tectonic transformation from a closed and rigid system, to open and fragmented, not only alludes to the actions and condition of site, but also to the expected evolution of the buildings form throughout its life, from permanent to transitory, their life history laid out before them.
The result was the creation of an architecture able to display the past, respond to the present and anticipate the future.

"The two dimensions of past and future telescope together in the present of ichnographic representation, since the ground plan that is the first movement of the construction project is structurally equivalent to the vestige on the ground, which is the last trace, the ultimate ruin of the destroyed edifice."
- Louis Marin

Haydn Thomas
Gavin Smyth

‘I realised that architecture was made possible by the confrontation of a precise form with time and the elements.’ Aldo Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography.

Uniquely, the first year of the two-year BArch course at the School of Architecture is spent in practice. The Design Thesis occupies some two-thirds of the in-house year, and is preceded by a ‘Design Primer’ intended to help the students clarify the architectural issues to be addressed at length. In Haydn Thomas’s case these grew out of his longstanding interests in materiality, tectonic expression and other aspects of architecture as an ‘art of making’ – a theme also explored in his graduate dissertation.

With the Design Thesis, these concerns took an intriguing turn. Recognising that all buildings are transformed by, and ultimately succumb to, the actions of time, the site and programme were chosen to maximise the freedom to explore issues which rarely loom large in conventional design thinking. Geologically active and famously rich in fossils, the cliffs and foreshore at Lyme Regis provided an ideal context within which to re-think the act of building.

From settlement to surface patination, every aspect of construction was addressed. In the process, the tectonic expression was heightened and clarified as a structure emerged which was designed to dramatise the process of its own destruction. The utlimate fragility of both land and the designed interventions were tellingly evoked by a combination of fastidious, hand-crafted drawings and computer-generated renderings of startling realism.

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