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The Great Portico Fiasco

A most inferior oolite

Bloomsbury, that genteel and intellectual area of London famed since the early 20th Century for bluestockings and barely repressed hysteria, was the scene of a prize panic for most of last year. The subject? One of the many cuckoos in Bloomsbury’s nest – the British Museum, whose prestige project to refurbish the central courtyard was nearing completion.

Interestingly, most Bloomsbury cuckoos (University of London, University College) are built of Upper Jurassic Portland Stone, the peerless white limestone that symbolises Authority and the State. Except, alas, it appeared that suddenly the British Museum was no longer pure. Lured by a cheaper tender, the Museum and its architects turned out to have been using Anstrude Roche Clair from France instead of good old Portland Limestone from the Base Bed. The wailing and tooth-gnashing knew no bounds.

There was talk of the Museum being forced to demolish what had already been built, throwing off its schedule and scuppering the opening of the central court by Her Majesty in December 2000. There was backbiting and recrimination all round. But let’s go back to the beginning.

The long overdue redevelopment of the inner courtyard, which included glazing over the space surrounding the former reading room of the British Library attracted press attention from the outset. The project was led by Lord Foster and Partners, famed designers of the famous "blade of light" wobbling footbridge to the Tate Modern, and of the projected "Erotic Gherkin" on the site of the former Baltic Exchange. The project included demolishing redundant book stacks, leaving the Reading Room at the centre of the courtyard and removing the 1870s extension to the Front Hall and rebuilding a south portico to the courtyard.

Wherein lay the seeds of the trouble. The Museum found out, in June 1998, that the stone being used for the South Portico was not Portland. It decided to go on with the project. The Museum has defended the decision, saying that the stone was to all intents and purposes exactly the same as Portland. "It just happens to come up at the other side of the Channel", Suzanna Taverne, Museum’s Managing Director, told the Daily Telegraph. Since Anstrude is Middle Jurassic (Bathonian) rather than Upper Jurassic (Portlandian) this point was geologically suspect. However there is no doubt that Roche Claire does provide a good match for Portland (though not in colour), being described as "a stone with medium to fine texture presenting a uniform beige ground lightly speckled with grey." It is sourced in Yonne.

Roche Clair also, in fact, fitted the sloppy architectural specification for the South Portico, which demanded "an oolitic limestone (Portland limestone from the Base Bed or similar) to BS 5390".

The question quickly arose, after several politicians had got up on their hind legs and inadvertently misspoken themselves infront of the House, as to whether the supplier, Easton Masonry of Dorset, misled the architects and the museum into thinking that it was true Portland from Portland. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, asked the Museum to conduct an inquiry into whether a deception was really committed. This was being conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers, and was at time of writing still awaited.

The story was then further confused by the new portico’s unweathered appearance. This fresh/weathered contrast was mistaken for (or perhaps willfully confused with) the contrast between the French and English stones by many who should (and perhaps did) know better. There was then a bizarre set of reports about discussions between English Heritage and Camden Council regarding various methods for "toning down" the fresh stone.

These were said to include a real Bloomsbury-style remedy for a storm in a teacup – namely painting the stone with tea. Would that Lewis Carroll had heard of this plan to dip the British Museum in Orange Pekoe. Then we might have had another stanza of the White Knight’s song, after the one about saving the Menai Bridge from rust (by boiling it in wine). The other remedy involved sheep manure, but MM is happy to spare his faithful readers the gruesome details.

In November 1999, English Heritage, from their unimpeachably Portlandian bastion in Savile Row, issued a stirring condemnation of the Museum (whose trustees had already received drafts of the PWC report and were also being accused of holding it up). The problem was that this advice showed EH to be as ignorant of the subject as those whom they were accusing.

English Heritage’s Chairman, Sir Neil Cossons, while condemning the Museum over the choice of stone and the poor quality of much of the workmanship, nevertheless recommended that Camden Council (the Museum’s local planning authority) should not call for the edifice to be demolished. Then, in an "explanatory note", English Heritage said: "Anstrude Roche Clair and Portland are both Oolitic limestones (ie made out of shells)".

Media Monitor wondered what the most shocking aspect of this error was: the ignorance of geology, or of Attic Greek? Or was it the apparent inability to use an ordinary English dictionary? The Shorter Oxford, for example, clearly defines the term oolite (1802), gives its derivation from the Greek roots for egg (oion) and stone (lithos), and explains that it gets its name from a resemblance to fish roe.

The explanation "made out of eggs" might have been preferable (to the classicist, or the pastrycook) even if geologically inaccurate. Perhaps English Heritage were thinking of egg shells? After all, quite a lot of them had been trodden on. But we digress. There was more to come.

As the opening of the new courtyard approached and Her Majesty was hoving into view on the Trustees’ mental horizons, more geological controversy surfaced – this time over the paving. The story went that limestone (nationality uncertain) used - at Norman Foster’s request - stained so easily that the two restaurants there would only be able to serve white wine.

Not only vinous visitors would be affected. Health-conscious blackcurrant and cranberry juice drinkers will also be unable to enjoy their favourite tipple, for fear they might tip it. Orange juice was also barred. The motto? Drink anything you like as long as it’s white.

This reminded Media Monitor that at Burlington House, which as the home of the Royal Academy as well as the GSL, receives well over a million visitors every year, nearly had limestone paving too – also at the behest of aesthetically minded architects designing the new Annenberg Courtyard (picture). That is, until a timely intervention by the Executive Secretary of the Geological Society had the specification changed to granite (Geoscientist v10, no.8, p5]. The possibility that the Royal Academy’s wine receptions might also have damaged limestone paving did not figure in the equation; though we were happy to take the credit for saving BH from that menace too.

Spokespersons for the British Museum were unable to say, according to reports, whether visitors to the (no doubt ace) pair of caffs that would serve the space when it finally opened to the public on December 7 would be able to enjoy ketchup on their egg and chips.

[References too numerous to list in full: see Daily Telegraph 25.8.00, p4; Peterborough, Daily Telegraph 28.11.00 etc. etc.]