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