Placeholders

Stone salvaged from V&A facade reconfigured as temporary street furniture. Commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum for the London Design Festival, September 2021. A project by Aude-Line Duliere and Juliet Haysom With a documentary by Ele Mun

Installed in Exhibition Road September 2021–April 2023

Project Category: Long-Term

When the V&A rebuilt its Exhibition Road courtyard in 2013, the Aston Webb Screen (built in 1909) was transformed from a solid facade into the porous entrance we see now. More than four hundred large Portland Stones were removed from the original screen. To save them from being crushed into aggregate – which is the fate of most used stone, no matter how large, historic, and precious – they were hauled to a quarry in Dorset, where they have languished for nearly a decade.

Here, some of these stones – marked by a century of London pollution, cratered by shrapnel from the Blitz, and now cleaned and restored – make a comeback on Exhibition Road in the form of street furniture. This intervention points to the enduring possibilities for reusing stone, which is emerging as one of the lowest-impact building materials (if quarried and reused locally), holding great potential for the circular economy within the construction industry.

The Borough’s plan is to ship monolithic freshly-quarried granite blocks from India to this site, to form “permanent” street furniture. For the time being, these stones, originating in Dorset and bearing the traces of London’s recent history, will hold this space.

Project Credits

Supported by Wallonie Brussels International

Curators: Meneesha Kellay and Catriona Macdonald

Collaborators: Mark Haysom (Haysom Purbeck Stone), Rotor, Hugo Corbett, James Westcott

Contributors: Ruth Siddall (UCL); Benoit Misonne (Pierre Bleue de Belgique); Francis Tourneur (Pierres et Marbres de Wallonie ASBL); Robert Greer and Tom Harvey (PAYE); Carlo Raffaelli (MSA); Steve Webb (Webb Yates Engineers); Charlie Corry Wright and Zachary Mollica (Architectural Association, Hooke Park); Lionel Devlieger, Tristan Boniver, Arne Vande Capelle, Lionel Billiet, Caterina Miralles Tagliabue (Rotor)

With special thanks to: Hailee Kukura and Corinna Gardner (V&A); Gary Noble, Peter Weeden, Gregory Colley and Kofi Anyang (RBKC), Laurence Degoudenne (WBI, Wallonia-Brussels International); Nathalie Brison (WBA, Wallonia-Brussels Architecture), Sebastien Mainil and Marie De Belder (AWAP, Walloon Heritage Agency and CEFOMEPI); Simona Palma and David Thonon (Awex, Walloon Export and Foreign Investment Agency); Sally Stott and Beatriz Chivite (Architectural Association), Ke Yang, Pol-André Dulière, Francis Kezirian and Geoffrey Baillez (Merbes de Sprimont), Julie Abraham (Pierre Bleue de Belgique), Simon Barker (Oxford University), Valerie Vermandel (Whitewood)

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Research & Development

Aude-Line and I teach at the Architectural Association, and we share an interest in stone. In spring 2021 Aude-Line was invited by the V&A to produce a commission for the London Design Festival that focused on architectural reuse. By a fortuitous coincidence, in 2017 my brother, a stonemason, had agreed to salvage blocks of Portland ashlar from the V&A, and had not yet found a use for them. Aude-Line invited me to collaborate with her on a project that would use these salvaged stones as its starting point.

The V&A’s Aston Webb Screen, Exhibition Road, 2013.

 

The Portland stone masonry used within Placeholders were constituent parts of the former Grade1 listed Aston Webb Screen, built in 1909. This was dismantled from the V&A’s facade on Exhibition Road in London in 2013 to create access to a new courtyard and visitor entrance for the museum. Amongst the 1375 stones which made up the screen: gargantuan shrapnel-scarred ashlar, oversized coping and elegant capitals. The majority were reinstated within the courtyard refurbishment project, which was completed in 2017.

The V&A’s Aston Webb Screen, before and after the recent work, showing the stones that were superfluous

Around 400 of the original stones were not required within the reinstated screen. These were stored by the museum for a while, but as they were neither part of the museum’s collection nor required in future, the V&A arranged for their salvage by Haysom Purbeck Stone where they have been stored for almost 10 years. With the Portland stone horizon excavated to the verge of depletion, these stones are representative of a valuable yet finite resource. Nevertheless, due to their specific shapes, using them as found objects presents specific design constraints. Could a strategic intervention facilitate their reuse?

Some of the salvaged stones, palletised and stored at Haysom Purbeck Stone, 2017

In the aftermath of several terror attacks in London in which vehicles were used as weapons, sites with large concentrations of pedestrians were identified for protection using Hostile Vehicle Mitigation (HVM) measures. In Exhibition Road, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) commissioned HVM in the form of monolithic granite blocks which were designed to fit within the street’s existing pattern of diagonal paving. The granite initially chosen was black, but this was changed after public consultation due to it being difficult to see by the visually impaired and by street users at night. The specification was changed to red to establish a visual match with the terracotta facade of the V&A and other local buildings. The geological source of the chosen red granite is India. Due to the Covid pandemic and resulting supply chain issues, the delivery of the granite was delayed, so at the time when our project was commissioned the temporary HMV took the form of clusters of kerb blocks that were surplus from a local cycle lane improvement project. We designed Placeholders to occupy three of the eight chevrons intended by RBKC as locations for permanent HVM. These were later installed in 2023.

Temporary HVM granite blocks and tarmac infill permanent HMV locations. Exhibition Road, August 2021

We believe that, in the context of the climate emergency, clients and designers need to shift their design rationales to take into account the embodied carbon and waste their choices require. It is unconscionable for stone to be shipped such vast distances requiring harmful quantities of embodied carbon using a criteria as superficial as its colour- particularly when low-carbon and equally visually-appropriate alternatives can be found much closer to the project site. Even better- why not reuse what is already available and at hand?

Detail, measured survey with photogrammetry. Credit: XXXX 2013

A recurrent bottleneck preventing the reuse of building materials is lack of reliable and detailed inventory. As part of the process of dismantling the Aston Webb Screen, the V&A invested in a detailed measured survey of the screen and each of its constituent stones. This survey informed the subsequent careful process of dismantling, cleaning and repair, storage and reconstruction undertaken by PAYE Stonework and Conservation.

Some of the salvaged stones in amongst undergrowth at Haysom Purbeck Stone, August 2021

However, by 2021 the salvaged stones were not accompanied by drawings or other documentation, and by the time we started work on our commission the stones were effectively a collection of confusing puzzle-pieces obscured by undergrowth. We began by working out our own cataloguing system, and with a laborious process of recording each of the stones quantities (size and shape) and qualities (WW2 shrapnel damage, fossil content, staining, weathering etc) so we could establish unit types and start to see how they might be configured. Being issued with the V&A’s 2013 survey drawings as our commission developed assisted us in making sense of the salvaged stones.

Architect Hugo Corbett, Geologist Ruth Siddall, engineer Steve Webb and Director of PAYE  Restoration Stonework Robert Greer examining one of the schrapnel-damaged stones during our study workshop, August 2021

Hand-annotated survey drawing produced during the study workshop, August 2021

The three configurations chosen for the Placeholders installation, showing the surface treatments required prior to the stones’ reuse.

Testing one of the chosen configurations in the quarry yard. August 2021

Preparation work went into renewing each stone we chose to use. They have been cleaned, dressed, rubbed and/or trimmed, but have not been substantially recut. This process was done by Haysom Purbeck Stone through the course of 2 weeks. Other than some superficial weathering, the stones have retained their initial physical qualities as cut for the Aston Webb Screen in 1909. Features which would have been hidden within the joints- such as the Lewis pin hole, used to lift each block, and their 1909 hand-cut identification numbers- were revealed in the process.

Sawing, washing and dressing the stones, August 2021

Before and after: removing old join mortar and revealing hand-cut inscriptions. August 2021

Sawn ends of the coping stones, revealing the old mortared ‘joggle joints’. August 2021

PAYE Stonework and Conservation installed Placeholders in September 2021. In order to communicate the ethos and genesis of the project, we commissioned PAYE letter cutters to carve an inscription into two of the stones during the London Design Festival opening weekend. Our inscription was in the same size and font as two earlier texts on the V&A facade- one from the 1950s commemorating the WW2 damage to the museum, and the second from 2017 commemorating the removal of parts of the museum’s bomb-damaged wall to create the new courtyard.

PAYE Stonework and Conservation installing Placeholders. September 2021

The Placeholders inscription reads:

“Most building stone, when dismantled, is crushed.
These stones were part of the V&A facade for a century.
Until they are moved again, they will hold this place.
September 2021“

PAYE Stonework and Conservation stonemasons cutting the inscription into the stones during the opening weekend of the London Design Festival. September 2021

PAYE Stonework and Conservation stonemasons cutting the inscription into the stones during the opening weekend of the London Design Festival. September 2021

So far, It took a succession of self-initiated players with some common sense and plenty of  good will to salvage these Portland stones. Their return to Exhibition Road has celebrated these efforts and the survival of these heritage building components. The Circular Economy is much more than the depiction of frictionless diagrammatic arrows: it involves the complex interrelationships of chance, opportunity, timing and will. As Rotor points out, constructions are never ‘permanent’- rather, they are assemblages of materials in a state of pause. The Indian granite is being installed in Exhibition Road in phases during 2023. The Placeholder stones are due to return to storage in Dorset, where they will pause once again. Their durability means they’re capable of waiting a long time…

Sorting and reorganising the salvaged stones. August 2021

The presence of these stones has triggered a series of conversations that have taken form across media and institutions. It is presented in detail through this documentary, hosted by Wallonie-Bruxelles Architectures in Belgium. The project received positive reviews in The Financial Times and The Times. In January Aude-Line Duliere, James Westcott and I organised and moderated the 1-day symposium (Re)Building with Stone: Ashlars, Spolias, Quarries and Cities, which was followed by a dinner within Productive Drawing, Working Stone an exhibition of my students’ stone models. Our essay was featured in Digestion, a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the 2022 Tallinn Architecture Biennale.

The London Design Festival is a citywide design event that takes place over nine days every September. Since 2009 the Victoria and Albert Museum has acted as the central hub location for the festival where special installations are displayed throughout the museum, complemented by an extensive programme of events, talks, keynotes, daily tours, and workshops.