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The Language of Stone: A Geology Study Centre Near Siccar Point

Part 1 Project 2010
Ben Watson
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK
Siccar Point on the coast of Berwickshire is the world famous site of Hutton’s Unconformity. Here in 1788 the Scottish Geologist James Hutton found evidence in the formation of unusually juxtaposed rock strata to support his previously ridiculed conviction that the earth was millions of years old.

To mark the significance of this phenomenon, a Geology Visitor Centre is to be constructed in the nearby village of Cockburnspath. Situated on the threshold between urban and rural environments the facility recognises the significance of Cockburnspath’s location at the eastern end of the Southern Upland Way, a trans-Scotland hiking route. The function of the geology centre goes beyond hospitality and education as it becomes a social focal point of the small local community and the place of interaction between locals and outsiders, be they hikers, geologists, students or day-trippers.

The study centre embodies the spirit of James Hutton’s determined search for the evidence that would prove his theories. Visitors are drawn towards the curiously clad museum tower. On finding their way inside the sudden discovery of the cavernous central space is overpowering in its unexpected scale. From this initial revelation the visitor is drawn to look more closely as they climb within the walls of the tower catching only occasional glimpses back into the central space as they peer beyond the carefully framed exhibits, and finally emerge atop the tower to find themselves precariously perched, gazing out toward Siccar Point and the sea beyond. Construction focuses on an interpretation of geology through architecture that is grounded within a contemporary response to local traditional building techniques. This locally prevalent language of stone construction is at once embraced and subtly reinterpreted in the employment of gabions that form both the monumental tower and earthen subsidiary spaces. These elements are carefully interwoven within the complex sloping site accessed from external spaces that are carved from the earth and link the village to the coast. The intervention is at once contemporary and primordial and intrinsically related both physically and conceptually to context with which it exists.

Ben Watson

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. The nearby village of Cockburnspath was chosen as the project’s site, so that its public realm could be regenerated. The outdoor components were to form an integrated ‘stone garden’ which would bind the scheme to the existing semi-urban context.

Ben Watson’s project is outstanding, addressing many of the aims of the brief in a mature and sophisticated way. It consists of a series of elements – a chthonic stone museum tower, the skylit geologists’ studies, pub, public toilets, café and a series of outdoor public spaces ‘carved’ into the side of the hill – which are related to each other and to the context in a series of well-judged, meaningful relationships. The museum tower, enclosed in thick gabion walls, alludes to the local tradition of the stone dovecot, as well as to the cave or quarry. It provides an appropriate visual focus at the entry to the village, and a powerful setting for the stone exhibits. The public courtyard and staircase connect the new café and public toilets meaningfully to the public realm of the village, much enhancing it, and creating a rich ‘petrified landscape’ which is integral to the architecture. The project exploits the rich materiality of stone in an entirely contemporary and imaginative way.


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