License to Drill

This post has been contributed by Polly Hunter, a second-year MA student on the V&A/RCA Course in the History of Design. In it she discusses two extraordinary promotional images that she discovered in the course of her research, which focuses on design in extreme environments, such as oil drilling platforms. (Images courtesy of British Petroleum Plc.)

Recently, in the BP (British Petroleum) archive at the University of Warwick, I ran across this unusual watercolour:

Little information was attached to it, but I could determine that it was an artist’s impression of a drilling and production platform, originally designed for use in 1970s oilfields in the North Sea east of Aberdeen, Scotland. As the legend on the sketch reads, the platform, ‘some 550 feet in height from the seabed…is shown superimposed on a drawing of Princes Street, Edinburgh, 1972’. This is one sketch that bears no direct impact on the design of a product. A colossal structure, necessarily highly engineered for use in a hostile context, has here been left marooned on land. For whom does this image exist? 
Stylistically, the image is reminiscent of artists’ impressions of future housing developments. 

Here, it is as if the design manifests everything we had imagined for that space; our own desires for an ideal environment lay before us.  Usually we ourselves are also depicted, strolling along landscaped boulevards or relaxing in wifi-integrated atriums.   The artist’s impression is the friendly face of a future that has already been planned, designed and paid for. 
The sketch of the oil platform, in contrast, is not intended as a realistic projection.  In this juxtaposition of two distinct environments, we lose any frame of reference; the image is more like a science fiction fantasy.  It is not intended to make us feel comfortable about the design, but rather to heighten our sense of awe in confronting the indescribable enormity that is the very frontier of technology.  The alien character of the platform is enhanced by its location within the familiar scale of the streets of Edinburgh, as if it had landed from outer space.  
The huge scale of offshore oil exploration has always borne an easy analogy with space travel, not only in terms of the exceptionally sophisticated technical demands but in the sense that both seem to operate beyond the realms of our imagination, somewhere improbably and indescribably remote.  By depicting the oil platform within a more familiar, conventional context, the artist not only emphasises its enormous size but exaggerates its mysterious novelty.  
Simultaneously, however, this image brings the industry home.  Adopting as its foundations the historic cityscape, this technological masterpiece rises up amongst the other vertical monuments that punctuate the Edinburgh skyline.  BP is here proclaiming a new monument developed from the very anatomy of the land on which it stands and symbolic of an industry which would guarantee a future for the citizens beneath.  To ensure national support of what, at that time, appeared as only the abstract and decidedly risky prospect of profitably extracting oil from a remote, hazardous North Sea, a certain level of propaganda had to be employed. 
Another related drawing held in the BP archive shows a drilling platform called the ‘Sea Quest’ in comparison with Piccadilly Circus, London, in 1965. 

Sea Quest was a real-life structure. Ordered by BP in the summer of 1964, it was an early example of the larger, semi-submersible rigs that the deeper, rougher waters of the North Sea demanded.  The significant national finance (approximately £300 million) invested in the platform was such that a press release, for which this picture was intended, needed to emphasise the extraordinary scale and unparalleled ambition of the project.  Such a domineering impression suggests a certain level of assurance, and could help maintain a common anticipation of the evidently vast rewards to be reaped once the rig was to be installed and producing oil. (In the event, it took five years to get that far.)
In this second image, the platform fits snugly between the once impressive buildings of the capital as if adding another commercial layer to the city. This time, the intended destination of the rig is evident in the background.  The sea fills the horizon, rolling ominously towards us. If this were a diptych, might we expect to see London submerged and the platform left victorious? Those on board proclaimed citizens of a new ‘oil city’, not dissimilar to Ron Herron’s seemingly fantastic ‘Walking City’ proposal in an Archigram pamphlet published in the same year? 

And so is it possible to ask, as with any sketch, whose visions are being described? Are they those of the engineer or the national corporation?  The tax-payer or the politician?  The avant-garde architect or the accountant?   The extent of the impact of these megastructures resounds in the scale operating within these early visions.

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