VN: How did your stone story begin?
PB: My parents were always keen to travel and in the 1970s one of the best ways was by campervan. We spent the first six first years of my childhood travelling every August through Greece, Crete, and Italy. I grew up with the caryatids of the Athens Acropolis as my babysitters! Perhaps the fact that I only visited stone architecture and my name, Pierre, which means stone in French pushed me. My grandfather was a silversmith, my mother always drew and my father, a vet, is good with his hands. When I arrived at eighteen, I had to find a way to survive. The Guild, the ‘Compagnons du Devoir’, took people at sixteen and eighteen. My parents were extremely pleased that I was joining the Guild as it's seen as an elite school for craftsmen. You had an interview and stayed for a week in the House. It's very good because there’s very little hierarchy and you are always accountable. You cannot lie with craft. So long story short; I love history, I love architecture and I wanted to do something with my hands.
Is France much better at equipping people and having this this route in?
When you join the Guild, you are part of the elite of craftsmanship, but you should always be very humble in what you are doing. We craftsmen are not good at selling ourselves in France. In England, you become a stonemason through a trade or business and then you will go straight into the market. There is a validity of your trade by money. Not in France and definitely not in the Guild; a good craftsmen should be a poor craftsman.
That seems a bad price to pay! I was interested in what you say about sharing knowledge of French stone building, so that’s something that sets you apart here in the UK.
I sometimes describe the Stonemasonry Company as French touch with English engineering or English flair. I call that ‘Savoir Flair’!
Talking about ‘savoir flair’, which is brilliant, how has technology changed what you're doing? With your French knowledge, have modern construction methods pushed the conversation forwards?
I think that’s a false idea. I think craftmanship has always been highly technological. There’s a romanticised idea of trades and craft which does not exist. You need to keep the core value of your trade, the respect of the material and the respect of the tools. Technology should be just a tool and shouldn't be the answer to a problem. We use a CNC machine, but we use it to help us to rough out the stone and speed up the process. It should be there to erase the backbreaking part of the trade but shouldn't take anything away from our humanity.
When you’re speaking to people about stone what’s the most common misconceptions that you encounter?
That it’s expensive which has never been true. If you are building a barn in Northumberland, and you’ve got local stone, it could be a very simple barn with very simple stone. If you are Lord of the Manor and use local stone, you’re going to take the best and it’s how you are going to shape it that’s going to be where the money is. It's a mistake to think it’s expensive. Just take the stone and make as little work as possible on it and it will be a cheap material. Concrete can be a very expensive material if you make some terrazzo or extensive moulding with fine finishes.
Estaillades Quarry, France. Photograph by Pierre Bidaud
That it’s not strong enough is another misconception. With the right geometry, you enhance the use of a material by good design. To build cathedrals in France and Italy in the Gothic period they had to use the material they had at hand. Local quarries usually had medium strength stone, so it was how you organised that stone to make it as efficient as possible; it’s load path and how it’s going to be distributed in the structure. I think people tend to forget how forward-thinking Gothic builders were. Give me any Gothic builder over a Renaissance builder, their knowledge was incredible. I love the Henry VIII Chapel in Cambridge, it is a very British engineering system, the understanding of the shell structure is amazing.
In the antiquity, in Greece and Egypt, to generalise, they used stone as a strong material, working it in a static way. Some people describe it as strength through geometry or strength through material and they are two different ways of thinking. A good example is a Nervi structure. Nervi had an extremely good understanding of geometry, and the way structures behave. You've got fine ribs and an extremely exquisite concrete construction.
Another misconception is there's not going to be enough stone. I think there are two fascinating sciences; geology and astronomy and we're stuck in the middle as humans at our scale. We always think of the next 100 years, but stone has been around 200 million years. One day the human race will vanish, and we will be just a little layer on the next cliff. Geology is the science that puts you in perspective, like astronomy. I don't think there's any scientist in astronomy who just sees this one moment.
Why was Clerkenwell Close by Groupwork an important moment in stone?
I think because it was a sort of ‘disrobing’; undressing stone. Eric Parry did the same at Finsbury Circus with stone pillars. At Clerkenwell Close there is a rawness and honesty with the material. It was one Stonehenge after another Stonehenge. There is nothing more architectural than Clerkenwell; just two columns and one beam on repeat. We were aligned with Amin Taha who said if it’s broken here or there, who cares. It doesn’t mean it’s badly done. It's just that we wanted something fast, affordable, and very pretty. Well, I think it's pretty!
15 Clerkenwell Close by Groupwork – a love letter to structural stone with its limestone façade - in collaboration with Steve Webb of Webb Yates and Pierre Bidaud of The Stonemasonry Company.
Photograph by Agnese Sanvito
Which European architects do you most admire using stone in contemporary architecture.
I think Swiss architects Archiplein are doing well. Mario Botta and Ricardo Bofill made interesting work. Using stone as we are doing? Not many!
Immeubles Pierre Massive by Atelier Archiplein, Four apartment buildings built of solid stone, 2021. Commune of Plan les Ouates, Switzerland. Photograph by Leo Fabrizio
You said very poetically that the best showrooms for stone are stone cities. I now walk around London looking at all of the stone.
If you stand in Trafalgar Square and do a 360 degree turn, it’s only stone. It's insane that most of the stone brought from Portland built London. I love Lyons. It’s a beautiful stone city but there are small villages as exciting as big cities. I think you can only fall in love with a place where you can see that there is enormous care and respect for the material, that will show in the village church and in the town hall. If you are in a quarry in France, the village and everything around that point is going to be built with stone. But that's not the feeling I've got with Portland Island; a lot of buildings are not stone.
Portland Stone was used primarily for grand buildings as a show of power. We also don’t seem to be good at ‘local’ here anymore, that tradition seems to have been lost.
As one of the first industrialised countries, you very quickly lost a lot of things that have been kept alive in the rest of Europe.
What does The Stonemasonry Company aim to do in the next five years?
For me it’s essential that stone regains a logical and healthy place in modern building; so we can build schools, hospitals, community centres - all built in well sourced stone, well put together. I think it's something we really need to do. Stone will be back as a commodity and not as a luxury.
Pierre Bidaud is Creative Director of The Stonemasonry Company
Portrait by Midnightbeastz