The British Exploratory Land Archive

I'm pretty excited to be part of an exhibition opening up tonight at the Architectural Association over in London, so I thought I'd post a few random shots from the gallery—wish I could be there!—as well as text taken directly from the exhibition poster.

The work on display, including huge models and photographs, are from an ongoing collaboration with architects Mark Smout and Laura Allen of Smout Allen, for a project called the British Exploratory Land Archive; we initially put it together for the Venice Biennale, where it was exhibited last summer, in 2012.

The British Exploratory Land Archive

We've expanded the work quite a lot since then, however, and—insanely, awesomely—we've done so with the support of Williams, the F1 racing and engineering firm, who helped us develop and painstakingly fabricate some of our models, and who also introduced us to the finer points of their flywheel technology. We got to work the Nottingham Caves Survey on a re-visit to some of Nottingham's truly unbelievable subterranean spaces. And we even got to do some work with ScanLAB Projects on some digital modeling.

If you're in London, consider stopping by; the exhibition is up till December 14. I'll hopefully have more photos soon, including much more interesting and detailed shots of the models.

The British Exploratory Land Archive

Here's the poster text—and, yes, it's quite dry and on the academic side, but it describes the project well enough (and it makes a great poster). Note that spelling and punctuation are Anglicized… Enjoy.

THE BRITISH EXPLORATORY LAND ARCHIVE

The British Exploratory Land Archive (or BELA), a collaboration between Mark Smout & Laura Allen of Smout Allen and Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, first launched at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. The main goal of BELA has been to assemble an expeditionary catalogue of augmented landscapes throughout the United Kingdom.

Focusing specifically on locations that have undergone spatial transformation at the hands — or mechanical tools — of human beings, BELA aims to assemble a working archive of sites that span all spatial and historical scales, whether industrial, scientific, agricultural, artistic or infrastructural, from the contemporary era to ancient history.

LANDSCAPES OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL UTILITY

From archaic flint quarries and brutalist car parks to dew ponds and industrial pig farms, from the South Uist submarine warfare-training range in the Outer Hebrides to the Imperial College 'Field of the Future' experiment in Berkshire, what are the relevant examples today of landscapes altered by human activity? Where are the behind-the-scenes extraction sites or pieces of enabling infrastructure that help to define — and, very often, to limit — human life in contemporary Britain? Where are the assembly lines, aqueducts, and antennae farms, the capped landfills and active mines, the National Parks and military bases which indicate much larger systems of cultural value and economic priority in the United Kingdom? How can these sites best be identified and explored?

If settling the British Isles is an ongoing landscape project, by no means concluded and far too early to deem successful in the long term, then civilisation here can also be at least partially analysed from the perspective of human land use, where every dam and motorway, every logistics centre and burial cairn, every city and sewage system, is part of an applied geography, shaped over thousands of generations. Understanding historic varieties of landscape production and documenting contemporary settlement patterns thus becomes a form of spatial anthropology, coextensive with the study of civilisation itself.

The British Exploratory Land Archive

ENVIROGRAPHIC INSTRUMENTS

There is a second purpose to the British Exploratory Land Archive, however, and this is to design and fabricate a family of prototypical future survey instruments, experimental site-identification beacons and architectural devices. These tools, both semi-scientific and purely speculative, can be used for marking, measuring, describing and otherwise emphasising BELA's target locations.

In addition to expanding its archive of land use sites, BELA has, for the past eighteen months, been mounting small expeditions to locations throughout the UK in order to test and deploy these devices in the field. While these tools will be the subject of continuous development and prototyping, several early examples of these specialty instruments include:

—A Flywheel Reservoir for the Isle of Sheppey. With the support and assistance of Williams Hybrid Power, BELA has been investigating the use of flywheel technology in the design of a mechanism for stabilising power generated by the London Array, the world's largest offshore wind farm of 175 turbines.

Devices on a large enough scale become indistinguishable from landscapes, and the Flywheel Reservoir is an example of this: a constellation of architectural features, geological augmentations and topographic ornaments that 'harvests' and smooths the fluctuating electrical supply and in many cases, reapplies electrical energy to a site on the Isle of Sheppey. Power levels and flywheel capacity is displayed in an elevated point cloud of laser light that ebbs and flows in the air like a mist over the landscape. The reservoir functions like a landscape battery, inspired by the Dinorwig's Hydro Power Installation with its 'black start' capability providing instant energy production via topographical advantage. This speculative landscape-scale instrument currently exists only in model form.

—A Speleological Pantograph for the aboveground reproduction of subterranean spaces, objects and volumes. Although functioning very much like a traditional pantograph, this device will instead act three-dimensionally, connected to tools of volumetric analysis installed in underground spaces, such as caves, mines and basements, in order to reproduce those spaces on the Earth's surface.

To date, the Speleological Pantograph has been designed for the sand mines of Nottingham, an astonishingly extensive underground network of voids hollowed out beneath the surface of the city to help produce construction materials. The sand mines, now derelict — many turned into postmodern parlours and private drinking rooms — are only part of Nottingham's extraordinary subterranean heritage, and other artificial cave types in the region will be explored by BELA in the next phase of the project.

—A Clinometer for measuring slopes and geographic coordinates. The Clinometer borrows technical ideas from both analogue and digital site surveying equipment, including radar corner reflectors (used as site-marking beacons) and basic measuring tools (to calculate angles of slope and declination). The ornamental details of the Clinometer also refer to standard mapping notations (such as graticule grids), reference lines (such as longitude and latitude), and hachure marks (used to indicate the general direction and steepness of slopes).

BELA's Clinometer combines 2D and 3D graphic mapping languages into a faceted 3D form composed of nine triangular aluminium sheets, upon which hanging weights are fixed. The device can be assembled in numerous configurations, using a bungee cord laced across the face of the sheets through eyelets along their edges and lever arms attached to the weights. As the Clinometer is reconfigured for various site conditions and angles of slope, the bungee cord is stretched, this distorts the pattern of cords and allows a reading of the site to be achieved.

The device has thus far been tested on the slate spoil heaps of North Wales, which form a significant topographic feature of the Welsh landscape. Interestingly, the UK's industrial history of mining and geological production has created a dispersed geography of spoil heaps, made from china clay, slate, and coal slag. Many of these have become accepted topographical landmarks and even cherished local monuments to a region's heritage. A good example is the 32 acre, 6 million tonne slag heap at Bersham Colliery, near Wrexham in North Wales, where Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service, have opposed plans to recycle the waste for the building industry, citing the heap's significance as a monument to the region's industrial heritage. It is a literal wasteland now subject to historic preservation.

—A Capture Blanket that acts as a soil-remediation breathing apparatus. The Capture Blanket is a composite textile mat, approximately 6m2, constructed from Tyvek, gold Mylar and felt. Rubber attachments and zipped pockets enable access to the ground surface. The device uses a technique called 'air sparging' to evaporate and capture hazardous chemical waste and fuel pollutants that have contaminated a brownfield site. The system forces air underground to the contaminated area and then dissolves any gases that make their way to the surface; there, they are either collected or allowed to disperse harmlessly into the atmosphere.

The Capture Blanket has been tested in the Stanlow fuel station in Amlwch, on Parys Mountain in Anglesey and at Martlesham Heath, a disused WWII airfield in Suffolk.

—'Sniffers' and 'Drippers' for aerosol sampling and water evaporation field tests. The previously exhibited 'Sniffers' and 'Drippers' have been field-tested along the Severn Estuary as part of an earlier investigation (2012) of the Severn Bore, a tidal event (and unlikely recreational attraction) in the river.

—Finally, the British Exploratory Land Archive has also designed its own research Site Hut for ready installation and use in otherwise remote British landscapes. The Site Hut provides easy access to the gear, literature and personal workspace necessary for performing effective site documentation, whilst itself acting as a marked optical device that can provide a scalar backdrop for photographs and filmic depictions of BELA sites.

A prototype of the BELA Site Hut was exhibited at the Royal Institute of British Architects in Spring 2013.

BELA will continue to pioneer the design, fabrication and expeditionary deployment of new landscape survey tools: instruments and devices both functional and speculative for the interpretive analysis of augmented landscapes around the UK.


End of poster. Stop by the Architectural Association—and perhaps BELA will be visiting an augmented British landscape near you soon.

Photographs courtesy of Stonehouse Photographic.