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The Language of Stone

Part 1 Project 2008
Fiona Macdonald
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK
The geological study centre is situated in Cockburnspath, a village in Berwickshire at the converging point of two routes: It is at the end of the popular Southern Uplands Way running to the south west, and at the beginning of the lesser-known walk to James Hutton’s “unconformity” at Siccar Point on the north east coast. The proposal for the study centre reflects these two grains with crisp narrow veins of grey sandstone pointing towards Siccar Point and broad terraces of red sandstone stretching off the road to welcome walkers from the Way.

The geologist’s space, exhibition room and museum are nestled between the veins. Curious passers-by must descend one of the perpendicular paths through the centre to the garden to look into the spaces obliquely and discover the purpose of the centre and the significance of James Hutton – a way of becoming enlightened through observation and deduction in the same way Hutton did in unraveling the principles of geology.

The meaning and function of each space is further revealed through each one’s profile of timber elements, thick stone walls and glass roofs. The curved wall and layering of spaces in the geologist’s space recalls the differentially lit spaces in the Renaissance painting, “St Jerome in his Study” by Antonella da Messina - this seems apt for its notions of enquiry and learning, and its degrees of privacy and concealment.

The exhibition room, raised above the garden and reed beds, contains a stone “dovecot” wall into which wooden glass-fronted chests can be placed to display temporary exhibition objects. The rest of the space is flexible and can be used by the village as well as visitors for local events, meetings or private study and contemplation.

The final element, the museum, is orientated towards Siccar Point where Hutton’s “unconformity” can be seen and it is from here that the walk begins. When the museum is closed however, the reed beds, garden and coastal path can still be reached by walking along the top of the thick stone vein which bridges the museum and offers views of the “unconformity” in the distance.

Fiona Macdonald

The project to design a geology study centre and garden near Siccar Point was an investigation into the possibilities of making an architecture which would be situated in a particular physical and cultural context, and into the role of architectural history in the design studio. In its design, the students explored the iconographic tradition of stone as a building material and its historic links with south-east Scotland on the one hand, and the story of James Hutton and modern geology on the other. Siccar Point is a geological formation on the Berwickshire coast, used by Hutton to support his theories about the earth as a dynamic system continually evolving in geological time. It is of great significance in the development of modern geology and receives numerous visitors from across the world. Fiona McDonald’s project is an extremely imaginative interpretation of the study centre building and garden as a kind of petrified landscape, a metaphor for Hutton’s principle of geological ‘unconformity’. Oriented toward Siccar Point on the coast nearby, the group of buildings marks the beginning of a journey of exploration. Simultaneously, the project sensitively alludes to local historic precedents as well as the paradigm of the scholar’s study. With its configuration of paths and terraces, it also enhances the quality of the public realm in the quiet village of Cockburnspath, where it is situated. The project was beautifully and evocatively drawn and modelled throughout. Fiona McDonald was the best student in the group, creating an extraordinarily sensitive and rich project, and providing inspiration to the other students.


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