Monday, November 06, 2006

The Language of Stone

A few posts back I wrote about the language of food, showing that any given meal has a particular structure in the same way that a sentence has a structure, and that it has a particular meaning.

Writing about this caused me to wonder whether there is also a language of stone.

Most of us have little opportunity to speak with stone. It is the prerogative of architects and sculptors.

When we do say something with stone, however, we may wish to consider our statement carefully: a memorial stone, for example.

Or a worktop in the kitchen. It needs to be hard-wearing because it's used all the time, but also it will say something about the chooser.

Or the stone in a ring.

For a memorial stone, we would probably choose a stone that was hard and lasting. That is our privilege today. Centuries ago it was local stone that was used for memorials, and if the stone was easily weathered, the names would become largely worn away.

But is it the names that speak, or the stones themselves?

If it is local stone, then it reflects the land under our feet, the local character.

Most regions take their character from the local geology. My wife comes from Sillesbourne in Warwickshire and the houses there abouts are built with Wilmcote Stone which comes from quarries only two miles from where she grew up. The stones are flat grey slabs a couple of inches thick. They are distinctive. Just as most stones are distinctive.

So, a lot of the language of stone is local dialect.

But in cities, this local dialect can be lost. Not in Paris, where most of the stone came from quarries directly beneath the city. But in London, where there is no such potential for quarrying, the stone was delivered from surrounding areas.

In cities, such as London, stone makes its statements.

What do we say with stones?

On Flickr, I found a photograph of the United States Supreme Court building in Washinton D.C., focussing on the base of columns and steps built in solid white marble. The caption reads: "conveying legitimacy".

I found a BBC geological tour of Maidstone which describes the different types of stone used throughout the town. Sometimes particular stones are used for practical purposes: hard-wearing granite kerb stones placed outside the brewery so that they wouldn't get worn out by the brewery barrel carts.

At other times, the stone is purely for effect. Like the St John's Travertine from the Tivoli Hills above Rome used on the front of McDonalds and the Rustenburg gabbro used along the base of the facade. Here is another geological tour, this time of Ipswich town centre which describes exactly the same use of stone for a McDonald's frontage. According to this site: "rocks fronting this establishment are also an advertising symbol and are used by McDonalds all over the world."

Returning to Maidstone, we see that red and pink coloured rock was favoured for the Queen's Monument built in 1862 to mark Queen Victoria's Silver Jubilee. The columns and the plaque are made from Peterhead granite (carried all the way from Scotland) which is easy to recognise by its pale pink colour that is described as being like "tinned salmon". The base is pinkish coloured Permian sandstone which is not weathering well. Apparently, the pink colour was so important that two different rock types had to be independently sourced. The aim was apparently to add some warmth to the otherwise cold and distant persona of the Queen.

The walls of 'The V Bar' are white-veined dark-green slabs of a metamorphic rock called Serpentinite (because in the Victorian mind it looked like serpent's skin). The mineral calcite fills lots of fine cracks producing veiny patterns. The black and white crackles generate a sense of excitement that is suited to a cafe.

White Portland Stone is used in the upper windows of Renaissance Couture Bridal Wear, again providing a feeling of purity. Yellow Bath Stone is used in the windows and cornice of The Bath and Spa Company.

All of these stones are imported to Maidstone for effect. The Archbishop's Palace is a much older building constructed of local stone; Kentish Ragstone, called rag because this stone is difficult to work.

And if these stones had not been imported to Maidstone, the alternative would have been brick. Local brick from Kent and Sussex clay pits. Brick says something also: it says "cheap, efficient and easily available".

Do "red brick universities" not suffer by this association with the materials from which they are built as compared to, say, Oxford and Cambridge colleges built of Cotswold limestone...

Underlying the meaning of stones are the property of stones:

In his story 'The Valley of the Beasts' about an English hunter who tries to persuade his indian guide to lead him into a forbidden territory, the point-blank refusal of the guide to continue is described thus: "It was as though a granite boulder spoke." It's a nice phrase, evoking as it does the speech of stones. But why a granite boulder? Why not a sandstone boulder? Because sandstone boulders crumble. Granite boulders are hard and intransigent.

The colours of stones clearly have different cultural significance. I wrote a post a while back about the use of ochre in body painting. This material, a sort of reddened ironstone, is widely considered 'the blood of the earth' by aboriginal peoples. Red colours are generally associated with passion.

White stones such as the Portland Stone used to build civic buildings in England represent purity and integrity. The White Cliffs of Dover are made of chalk and they exude a sense of unsullied purity. They symbolise island nationhood.

Black stones such as jet are carved to create memento mori, rememberances of the dead.

What are the properties of stone that can be evoked? For example, the heaviness of ironstone; the lightness of pumice; the sharpness of flint; the softness of talc; the hardness of granite; the weakness of sandstone; the untrustworthiness of shale, and the brilliance of diamond.

The individual stones themselves and their properties are merely the language of stone. The 'speech' of stone is found in the work of architects and sculptors. Sometimes, as in the case of the McDonalds facade, that 'speech' can be extremely repetitive.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, Jonathan. I hadn't really thought of stones as symbollic before - but I guess that they are. One particular stone I love is Labradorite - I think it is frequently used to face banks. It is austere and dark but has a faint glimmer and perfect for its purpose.

Like your wife's place in Warwickshire in the village where I grew up in Leicestershire the old houses are made from the local diorite. I love places like this. It gives the buildings a feel of permanence - even if they are brand new - and they feel right - as though, like the people, they are making an indigenous claim to be where they are.

Anonymous said...

Some very good points there, Jonathan. Mind you, some of it's relative. I went to a polytechnic which branded me as something of a failure at my school (I was only the second person to enrol in a poly). At that stage of proceedings a red-brick Uni looked like an unattainable dream !

Anonymous said...

I remember researching the geology of this part of Kent for a commission. The sense of place one gets from local rocks is special.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Clare - thank you. I had to look up your labradorite on the internet. I found something called larvikite also known as "Publich-houseite" (or "pub stone") since it is so common as a facing stone in British Pubs!"

Labradorite was also in Lenin's tomb in Red Square. It appears as a black band around a monument that is primarily of red granite. The article says that this combination "embodies... the grief of the people and the power of Lenin's eternal teaching."

Ian - thank you. You probably know that many polys in the UK have now changed their names to become universities. You will therefore be able to update your CV!

Richard - I also spent some time looking at the rocks of Kent for English Nature. They sent me to look at outcrops of the Wealden that they wanted to preserve. Many of them were close to diappearing or had already been submerged beneath the vegetation.