For diploma unit 11, UEL, June 2013

I remember a structures 101 lecture that told us students there were two kinds of buildings: wigwams and igloos. Wigwams are tension structures, igloos are compression structures. So cathedrals are igloos. Wait a minute, what about the roofs? We said, young and sharp. And to this question of what a composite paradigm might be called, we were wearily given a choice: Wigloo or Igwam. Stupefying: it may well be that matters have to be simplified to be clarified, but compare the banality of that explanation to the feeling you get as you turn off the A1(M) at junction 9 and head off north of London’s greenbelt beyond Baldock and the landscape changes from hedges and fields to eye stretching, open, rolling chalkland. The road follows the path of the ancient Icknield way towards Royston. The clarity there is not banal but exhilarating. The open structure of the chalk itself has arranged a sparse settlement of both people and vegetation over millenniums past.
The chalk is the underlying structural rock of the London Basin. It is a large syncline about a hundred and fifty kilometres across that disappears under the London Clay of the city itself and reappears on the other side as the South Downs, from which you can see the English Channel. A spur of chalk runs off to the west of London all the way to the sea cliffs at Dorset. And if you head west along this spur, towards Marlborough and Devises, you will come across the Ridgeway, the other ancient chalkland path, and you will find all along it architectures so profound and so clear they pitch you well beyond exhilaration and into wonder. How did the humans living in the emptiness of prehistoric life do it? Not just how did they manhandle the huge stones of Avebury Ring into place without the aid of power cranes, but how did the white horse of Uffington Down even occur to them? And with what processes of description and imagination did Silbury Hill get purchase enough on their minds to get itself constructed? We couldn’t do it now, so how did they do it way back then?
Infrastructure is usually taken to mean the base level of structure. Roads, railways, drainage, powerlines, the things put in place that make the human settlement possible. Infrastructure is engineer’s business, economically inclined and politically charged. It’s the fourth bloody Heathrow runway and the sustainable bloody windfarms. But way back then, when structure was being the human fragment of evolution and not much else, the infrastructure was the land itself. And the planet, turning amongst the stars. And the gravity that strives to compress everything into dust. Those enigmatic wonders of Avebury, Uffington and Silbury were set down into a powerfully straightforward complex of forces we still feel today in spite of our structural sophistication and our dense history. What shapes buildings today, the whirlwind of mathematics, money and politics, is as distant from those heavy, earth-bound creations on the Ridgeway as the Earth is from Mars. Why try to connect them? Is it possible? What sublime instrument of magnification and time travel is required? Is architecture rocket science, after all?

The view of the City of London from Parliament hill is protected by law. In fact it is the view of St Pauls Cathedral that’s protected, but the trees along the bottom of the hill are making a bid for the sky and, if they’re left untrimmed, St Pauls will be obscured sometime during the summer of 2017. What is still clearly visible, seven kilometres distant, is the group of nick-named buildings that cluster round the Lloyds building in the centre quarter square kilometre of the City’s square mile. This shape-conscious pile of real estate is growing all the time, a collection of structural tours-de-force that nestle into the ground like cuckoo’s eggs. They zoom into the sky from their basement podiums, with no street sense at all. There is instead of streets a net of double yellow lined alleys between them, like bridges from nowhere to nowhere. And there are more of these towers to come. Not that street sense matters to the view from Parliament Hill. Despite the opprobrium and the absurd PR, the sight of distant Leadenhall Street from up on the hill is beautiful, especially late on a clear day with the sun cascading gold off the grey glass towers.
It is sometimes called ‘late-capitalist’, this current thrust for showy, shapely buildings, but should it not properly be ‘middle-capitalist’? Early would be the Industrial Revolution, and middle what we have now, the capitalism that has survived the twentieth century social revolutions. Mildly regulated and mission statemented, perhaps, but surviving intact, and now, powered by mathematical debt algorithms, running with a roar that gets louder by the day. Late capitalism is yet to come, by which time the sky above London may be completely obliterated by towers, or perhaps the entire corpus will have moved away to Asia leaving the centre empty and full of flowers. Whatever happens to the city, there is a position often taken that makes architecture – buildings – synonymous with it. Speculations on the future shape of cities are commonplace. We learn that over half the world’s people live in urban conditions now and this makes urbanism the ism of the future. Why would an architect study anything outside the city? A proper subject of study would be shanties and favellas, which ring with the turbulence of the human race, not prehistoric rings and mounds, which languish in the silence of ages. To this assertion one might offer the Dutch picture: there is no urban and rural. It’s a false distinction, bred out of the liberal ascendancy and reactivated by the greenbelt-greenheart-greenlung thinking of mid twentieth century planners. There is no urban and rural, say the Dutch guys: the land is simply one woven tapestry of settlement that in some places is more densely pictorial than others. The puzzle is that at the same time as architecture is becoming urbanism the City of London’s new crop of towers are reviled as objects, as icons, as a waste of every serious person’s time and money – so how can they also be thrilling? Could it be that the long view is part of that tapestry, and that the towers are according to something beyond their own ambitions? As pieces of city they are pointless. As part of the tapestry, they make sense.
In contrast to urban studies that draw on context and regeneration the ancient buildings of the Ridgeway, programme light but cosmos heavy, offer a different way to examine the nature of contemporary shapely buildings. It’s a question of infrastructure again: a building precisely placed in its landscape, and programmatically acute, has the possibility of changing everything around it. Context is reversed from incoming to outgoing. The building becomes what you could call an infrastructural building. The contemporary crop of exaggeratedly gestural museums and art galleries intended to make a splash and put their cities on the map are chasing the idea if not actually pulling it off; maybe Guggenheim Bilbao is the only Bilbao-effect building that actually works! But think of the cathedrals of northern Europe, only one thousand years old now and much younger than the four thousand year old buildings of the chalklands. The cathedrals do it, they contextualize and they infrastructuralize, in a way that everyone understands.
And so into this picture, the picture of infrastructural moves and buildings so beyond being simple objects that their shape and size and position – all the characteristics of objecthood – are everything that matters; into this picture tiptoes the Puck like figure of the archetypal building. I have here a short list – temple, palace, fort and tomb – that more or less corresponds to our baseline cultural structure. There is the fetish, the thing of value, the weapon and the ancestor. And all four of them are embodied in the historic city centres we assiduously conserve, and around which the chaotic shanties and favellas of contemporary architectural practice are folded. The new cities of the new third world capitalism are archetypically conscious, with their tallest in the world towers and their flower oceans and their Western themed parks, but over here in the old world how to renew the archetype is a puzzle we no longer try to solve. It’s all just heritage to us. A quaking mass of ancient profundity we can only approach through the visitor centres.

Hence the value of the chalklands study. While the physics and the astroscience, the silence of ages, the forgotten truths and the horizon searching that form the chalkland buildings pull you in like gravity, spinning your asteroid and clamping your muscles, the simple and clear material evidence of the ancient infrastructural scene that is uncovered by research completely renovates the possibilities of acting in the present. There is the porosity of the chalk, which won’t hold water and so strings out small settlements along the springlines, and that won’t support trees, so spawning the trackway routes with their punctuation of rock and earth buldings along the tops of the downs. There is chalk’s calcareous structure, made of the shells of long gone sea creatures as numerous as the Milky Way’s stars. It produces a rock so soft you can carve it with a knife: see Ely cathedral’s fecundately carved Lady Chapel, which has an intricacy that made the modernists blanch. Then there are the sarsen fields, which are strewn with magnesian limestone boulders carried down from Yorkshire and deposited by the ice sheets, thousands of years ago, the boulders from which the stone henges and tomb entrances are made. There are the ordinary vernacular buildings, composite masonry structures made to cope with the chalk’s softness, and there are the grand set pieces like Woburn, built from an aristocratic bed of harder chalk. There is flint among the chalk too, beds of petrified jellyfish? Petrified seaweed? That offer a splintery homogeneity quite opposite to the graphic crumble of the home rock. And Everywhere there is the racing-quality turf that rides the chalk, pressing the green and white chalk cut figure buildings, all shape, all programme and as thin as a surface, into existence. Who needs steel and glass out here? Who needs reinforcing bars? Who even needs capital?

At Royston, under the ground, there is an invisible chalk building that takes the form of a string of cave like cellars. The walls are inscribed with elaborate bas-reliefs of the story of the world according to the gospels. They have the intensity of an Anabaptist hideout. They are a festival of narration, and they ring a bell: the besetting difficulty of architectural education is that it favours the narrative tendency. Talk architecture. Explain it. Metaphorise it. Wigloo and Igwam it. Nail it! And now show us your killer drawings! When all the time, outside in the clear air, a subject of immense complexity is continously crawling its way into view. Silently powering into space. Take a look at that.