As one walks across the green countryside towards Cooper’s Hill in Runnymede, a low, circular building emerges from the base of the rolling hills of Surrey. This is the new permanent installation by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger, produced in collaboration with London-based architects Studio Octopi, as a celebration of the Magna Carta – the seminal document sealed by King John over 800 years ago on the land that is now cared for by the National Trust. The art piece, entitled ‘Writ In Water’, was named after the inscription on poet John Keats’ gravestone.

The structure was inspired specifically by the Magna Carta’s famous Clause 39 – ‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land,’ – that is widely considered a landmark moment in shaping common law and modern justice and democracy across the world.

With the initial commission won, Wallinger approached Studio Octopi, who he knew through their design of the Delfina Foundation, where he is a trustee. ‘We were keen to establish a narrative that linked the architecture with Mark’s concept. It was agreed that the building’s materials should be drawn from the context, that the form should physically embed itself in the landscape and that encoded within the design would be references to the passage of time’, says James Lowe of Studio Octopi. 

The team responded to this by creating a round, low and symmetrical structure that is open at its heart – a central oculus masterfully unites the sky and a reflective pool on the ground, bringing together air, water and light in perfect harmony. Wallinger and Studio Octopi wanted to ‘provide visitors with a space for reflection and contemplation’, they explain. The structure is a simple circular labyrinth made of rammed stone from the site; this references the local geology of the ancient site. The roof structure consists of 52 stained Douglas Fir rafters.

The inside of the round pool is carved with the words of Clause 39. ‘In Writ in Water, the use of reflection to make the text legible plays against the idea of a law written in stone. Magna Carta curtailed this divine right and issued the first secular writ’, says Wallinger.

‘In working through each of these details Studio Octopi’s aim was to best represent the concept within the historic landscape, choosing materials and details that reinforced Mark’s concept. Our work is predominantly involved with existing structures and establishing a narrative between host and insertion. Our approach was very similar here…’ concludes Lowe. §