The V&A makes way for the diggers

Intuition is as much a part of design as logic.

There is no going back now. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1909 Aston Webb screen is coming down to make way for the diggers, which will hollow out a 15-metre-deep void, forming the shell for the new gallery. It is a meticulous and painstaking process that has already revealed some unexpected details about the screen’s history.

The removal of the first stonework course from where it had lain for the past century revealed joints made from cement mortar (historical precedent had suggested that the screen had been built using lime). At the end of the 19th century, people experimented with cement because of its strength and resistance to water but, in many cases, it caused severe damage to the stone – hence the best conservation practice was and still is to use lime mortar.

Accurately predicting the continuity of historical convention has proved difficult, but it is the accidents of history and experimentation that move things forward. Accidents, chance encounters, intuition or twists of fate are as much a part of the design process as logic or forensic analysis. Each project is unique in its complexities. For our work at the V&A, an examination of its ceramics collection and the ceramics embedded in the building became our starting point for the design’s narrative. To create something that reflects the didactic ethos of the museum and marries art with industry, we set out to explore the limits of ceramics and re-contextualise it in the design of the new courtyard.

This has tested but deepened our relationship with the V&A. The research has been more complex and taken longer than we envisaged. I am grateful for the V&A’s unequivocal support and I have relished the slower pace of working with a museum.

We have collaborated with manufacturers from three European centres – Stoke-onTrent, Granollers in Spain and Makkum in the Netherlands – each with an extraordinary history and the dedication to take risks. When the ceramics industry departs from standardised volume production, development follows a more artisanal line, in which accidents and difference are prerequisites of advancement. It is a process of shared learning that relies on trust and mutual respect.

We asked a lot from our partners and it was a privilege to work with people who share a desire to explore. We have been rewarded with three different tile prototypes, each rather beautiful and representing a huge step forward. Next, we must make final selections of who and what is right for the courtyard.

Our obsession with ceramics has seeped into other projects. A bench made of ceramic plates has inspired a bridge of a similar construction and the cladding for the EDP Foundation Cultural Centre in Lisbon is created from three-dimensional ceramic tiles, designed to capture the light reflected by the water. The most ambitious piece of research that we have ever undertaken is for one of our smallest projects, a piece that challenges perceptions of ceramics’ materiality and structure. Pairing a hi-tech ceramic with an ancient crackle glaze questions the material’s history and modernity.

Reinvention is critical to staying relevant and for survival. Crackle glaze dates back to the Song dynasty in China – a technique that was a result of an accident in the kiln. Realising the delicacy and complexity of this accidental effect, ceramicists in the 13th century devised a way to reproduce it intentionally.

After 18 months of research with our French collaborators in Bazet and Limoges, drawing on developments and skills spanning almost 1,000 years, we arrived at the end of our self-imposed illogic. The perfected piece was placed inside the kiln for its final firing but a rare and unforeseeable accident caused irrevocable damage to the piece. It was a massive blow for us and our collaborators but one that, in time, will become part of the mythology of the work’s creation.

Amanda Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A

Art of reinvention: a detail from Amanda Levete's design for the V&A's new underground extension.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit