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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At last, Jeremy Corbyn gets the biography he deserves

Liam Young reviews Richard Seymour's Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics.

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the fullest and fairest account of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise released to date. In avoiding much of the rhetoric espoused in similar accounts focusing on Corbyn’s early career this book provides a frank account of how the unlikely leader took charge of the Labour party. It is a very readable account too. Richard Seymour writes plainly but effectively and his writing is both accessible and incredibly informative.

Seymour attempts two monumental tasks in this piece: first he attempts to account for Corbyn’s rise and then he attempts to predict where such a rise will take him, the Labour party and the wider left. Zoe Williams wrote that Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn was an account of “ex-girlfriends, the state of his flat” and featured “very little ideological insight”. Seymour does the opposite. In simultaneously engaging with Marxist and Gramscian theory, Seymour provides readers with something of academic value in the place of such gossip.

For any supporter of Corbyn, the first few chapters are a trip down Memroy Lane. Reading of the last minute rush to get Corbyn on the ballot paper sends the heart beating once more. While perhaps a niche political event, supporters know where they were the minute Corbyn’s place on the ballot was confirmed. The fact that we know the outcome of the uncertainty that surrounded the leadership election doesn't detract from the reading.

Seymour’s work is not simply the polar-opposite of Prince’s hit-job though. It would be wrong to suggest that it is a positive, self-fulfilling account of Corbyn’s rise. In many ways it is a hard hitting and realistic look at what lies ahead. For supporters of the Labour leader much of Seymour’s analysis will be discomforting; indeed the writer concludes that it is likely “labourism” will outlive “Corbynism”.

Such a view is hardly surprising though. Seymour’s repertoire of anti-establishment work suggests that it was always unlikely he would find a comfortable home in an establishment party. In this sense it suffers from being an account written by an outsider looking in. While the Marxist analysis of the Labour party is thought-provoking it seems too lengthy and seems to fit with an orthodox view surrounding the inevitable death of the Labour party.

Seymour’s concentration on “movement-building” is pertinent though. Utilising Jeremy’s own words on such a phenomenon is an effective tool. In drawing this distinction Seymour pokes at an open wound on the left asking exactly where all of this fits. It is about time that frank discussion on this topic was had. While there is a range of different opinions on the matter, Seymour’s intervention is an important initial step. It is an awkward conversation that the left can put off no longer.

The criticism levelled at the media is also well founded and long overdue. Seymour’s take on long established journalists who refused to accept Corbynmania makes for entertaining reading. On a more important note the fact that he credits social media as a central part of Corbyn’s campaign is interesting. The importance of this often overlooked element has been a point of debate within “Team Corbyn” and Seymour is right to poke at it.

Seymour’s work is, on the whole, a refreshing take on the events of last summer and a thought-provoking piece on the future of the Labour party. It is important to note that rather than viewing this book as an account of Corbyn’s campaign it should be seen as a review of the context surrounding Corbyn’s victory. Given that context is open to interpretation it is only fair to add the caveat that it should be read with an understanding of Seymour’s ideological foundation. Though I disagree with his conclusion concerning the Labour party’s future, I found it an important read. With an accessible yet authoritative tone Seymour manages the task of providing an academic insight into Corbyn’s election. Such analysis is far more valuable than words wasted on rumour and gossip – Seymour does well to avoid this and should be proud to have done so.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.