HUMAN GEOLOGY  -  Wednesday October 7th, 2009

An everyday scene of a city during the apocalypse: London during the Blitz, via.

I was watching Time Team (a British archaeological television program) today – they were doing a special on the wartime defences of London (here, UK only). The site was Shooter’s Hill, to the city’s south east, which is one of the highest points in London. During the second war it comprised part of what was called the London Stop Line – military installations designed to slow down a Nazi Blitzkrieg invasion from Dover. These included bunkers, foxholes for anti-tank weapons, barrage balloons and a number of concealed traps. One in particular was a flamethrower disguised as a florists that could shoot a 100ft wall of flame across the main road, sending burning petrol rolling down the hill and into the forest.

Clue 1: While excavating a trench the team suddenly came across remnants of Bronze-age metalworking equipment (which is rare in Britain), with the possibility of a Bronze-Age hill fort underneath a foxhole. During the war they had dug into the hill and landed in the middle of another strata of history, so that separating the ancient and relatively modern finds became very difficult. The soldiers had compacted and superposed distinct epochs into a fused mess.

Clue 2: At a certain point a bunker was revealed that bore an uncanny resemblance to the National Theatre at Southbank. And I naively stared at it, thinking ‘oh yeah, like London Brutalism was totally a re-interpretation of the local military architecture.’

Human Geology: The larger geological landscape is made up of stratified materials, granite under chalk under clay, and so forth, which each one having its specific period of time. At fault lines, there is a displacement that allows for two very different materials to be found very close to each other: closing the gap instantly between millennia. Cities are in a sense human geology, the various strata each being formed under different conditions and at different times, the Neolithic under the Roman under the Victorian, and so forth. Where we cut or dig into the urban territory we produce artificial fault lines, backfilled superpositions of history. Edwardian street lamps lighting Saxon longhouses, Georgian ballrooms within Roman villas. History becomes anachronistic.

Apocalypse: The AA’s Inter 7 asks for a post-apocalyptic scenario that will tell us something about the world of today (don’t they all?). And so my own tale is this: as the global trading power of China and India rises, and the power of the United States wanes, Europe will become economically marginalised. London will become a spent husk of its former self, and over several centuries immigration (there will be no reason to come to London, since better jobs will be found elsewhere) and declining birth rates will reduce the city to but a few million inhabitants. Vast, empty suburbs. With the unification of Europe, there will be no need for a capital of England, and as London declines in influence, the capital of Britain will be moved to its intellectual centre: Edinburgh. The centuries pass, and but for the hushed talk of when London was great, no one will think of it. It will become nothing more than the ancient capital of a defunct economic model.

But then there will be a new renaissance. And just as the thinkers of the Enlightenment turned to Greece and Rome for their precedents, so now will architect’s turn to the untapped potential of London. Of course not much from its heyday will remain, just a few buildings, and the landscape will have changed quite drastically, but there will be at least several key buildings that will have survived, albeit in re-purposed forms (think about the Parthenon as a Turkish military stronghold). Because of the way we group history, we will no longer see the 19th as distinct from the 20th century. A period of several hundred years will be simply termed the ‘British Golden Age’ and architects will confuse Westminster Cathedral and the Barbican as contemporary, and misread their functions. The new hybrid styles that result from this cross-polination through the ages will form the basis of a neo-Londinian style: a baroque-brutalism, a neo-classical post-modernism. It will not be a poor pastiche of old styles, but a new style formed from an agglomeration of historical influences.

Houses of Parliament and the National Theatre and St. Pauls = What??

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