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V&A Diary: Coming up for air

Designing a building is a long and difficult process.

Work on my practice’s scheme at the Victoria and Albert Museum has begun. It’s not an avalanche of work, because that’s not the speed at which public projects progress, but some small traces are visible already. The doors to one entrance are closed and the gates have been locked. We have dug up two trees (we’ll atone for this by planting four more) and removed a Gilbert Scott red telephone box, too (though it will be put back in exactly the same place once the project is finished). Like the V&A’s buildings, the phone box is listed, so its temporary departure has been the subject of considerable debate with English Heritage, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and BT.

For now, the work is confined to the bowels of the earth. The V&A and the Natural History Museum have been invisibly linked by an umbilical cord of steel for nearly a century – they share a heating system. This cord has to be severed before hollowing out 15 metres below ground – quite a feat of structural engineering – can begin. Extensive excavation is required to create the walls of the subterranean gallery that will be the centrepiece of this project.

It presents a paradox: how do you make the invisible visible? In an attempt to resolve this, the structural form and geometry of the new gallery’s ceiling is designed to seep through to the paving pattern of the courtyard above, giving a subtle but palpable expression of the exhibition space by making the visitor conscious of the energy and rhythm of the space beneath their feet.

Spanning 30 metres, the folded plate of the ceiling is derived entirely from its function. Its articulated form, following in the neo-Gothic and neoclassical museological tradition of ornate ceilings, alludes to the didactic role the V&A has played in promoting the art and craft of manufacture. With the conceptual work done, the detailed design continues. Each beam has to be sized, the number of bolts calculated, all to be seamlessly integrated into a space that balances the conflicting demands of integrity, function and beauty.

I was reminded recently of this tension by a small exhibition on the life and work of one of the great engineers of our time, the late Peter Rice.Rice was a director of Arup, the engineers with whom we are working on this project. Many years ago, he gave a lecture in which he talked about an essay by W H Auden on Shakespeare’s Othello. Auden argued that that Iago is the prototype for scientific man. Rice went on to describe the dangers that architects and engineers face: by being merely pragmatic, using only rational thought, desperate to know whether what we want to do is right – by being Iagos, in other words – we destroy the very basis upon which the good or noble things in our life exist.

Rice’s claim is both poetic and true. Pushing the limits of what is possible is what drives us as designers. But to do this when your client is a public body is far from straightforward. The constraints are real and sometimes surreal. Decision-making structures at the V&A are slow and Byzantine in their complexity, a characteristic shared by many other organisations. It takes time to assure the myriad stakeholders that the risks in a scheme are noble and therefore worth taking. But time on a project is not infinite. And we have to have an unshakeable belief that, collectively, we have the ability to solve problems that we do not yet know exist.

In line with the founding principles of the V&A, we want the construction of the project to demonstrate and promote world-class British craftsmanship and also to extend the V&A’s didactic heritage into the 21st century. This is a rare opportunity to pair design excellence with industry-led regeneration, linking the V&A and the ceramics industry in Stokeon- Trent. The highly visible courtyard is the perfect canvas to showcase this but to achieve what we have imagined requires a degree of research. And research requires faith, because the result is not yet known.

It is difficult to say to a publicly funded body such as the V&A: “Trust me.” But that’s what we’ve done. The outcome of this research will be the subject of a future column, when I will be able to report, with confidence, the fruits of our endeavours.

There will always be frustrations in a project like this. But dealing with BT’s red phone box, grappling with the challenge of making visible the invisible and using our powers of persuasion to advance the debate through research is all part of the complex process of design. This is what gives me a sense of purpose as an architect.

Amande Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis