From Byzantium to Beaconsfield, an ancient and modern tale of sustainability made in stone.
On a clear February morning at the top of a hill in Beaconsfield, Guido and Samuel are placing the final stone cubes into the impressive porphyry driveway they’re installing. Perched on single stemmed milking stools that resemble large mushrooms, they twist and rotate 180 degrees, picking stones from behind them before swivelling again to drop another cube into the motif, which forms a sea of undulating waves, coloured with a digital like speckling of browns, reds and greys that flows for 500m2 towards the English country house.
Guido and Samuel are artisans, a rare breed of Italian stone workers with the skill to install complex paving patterns by eye and string alone. Working at a rate of over 30m2 per day, they lay the stones on a bed of Steintec grit, which locks up when compacted but remains free-draining across the entire surface of the pavement. This ‘sustainable drainage system’ (SuDS) is designed to ensure that the minimum amount of stormwater reaches the existing gulley and pipe network, and instead, is attenuated and contained within the pavement’s sub-base before slowly filtering away into the ground below. Up to 40m3 of water will be held back by this one domestic project, and prevented from adding to the flood risk in the plain downstream.
On this morning, as the client walks across his new driveway to the waiting Rolls Royce, he beams a broad smile and does a thumbs up at our two artisans. Later, when I asked Guido how he felt about the client’s reaction, in his strong Italian accent he said “where we come from, this is just normal work for us.”
Fast forward two months…
High up in the rugged Dolomites of Northern Italy, the enduring wheels of the Italian porphyry industry cheerfully turn. My host Simone, manager of the ‘porfidi’ works at Lona-Lases, is enthusiastically demonstrating how the stone naturally splits along fissures, by wielding a large hammer and smashing at some of the boulders he’s found on a conveyor belt. “Look” he says, as a briefcase sized rock breaks exactly into two halves, “this is how we work it. This split surface is good for walking.” This splitting of the porphyry is the age old way of working the stone, which is then graded for size with their sides guillotined by hand operated machine to form paving slabs, rectangular setts or cubes. Nothing is wasted. Even the slithers of broken slabs are re-used as ‘Smolleri’ to create aesthetically rugged, yet alluring pavements and roadways, which provide exceptional grip on steep inclines.
Porphyry is a volcanic rock similar in composition to granite. But unlike granite, which has larger interlocking crystals, it has cooled from its molten state more quickly and under less pressure. Crystals need time to form, so the resultant ‘porphyritic’ structure contains a mixture of small crystals—typically 2-5mm diameter—with a much finer grained matrix in-between. It is this ‘matrix’ that gives porphyry its subtle texture and distinctive colour, that ranges from light ochre, through grey, red/brown to deep purple. A classic porphyry cobbled street will vibrate with a variety of colours, that casts a warming, heartening glow on its environment.
Simone is pointing out across the valley which is thickly forested with pines on the far side. “20 years ago, all of this was quarries.” His forefinger traces the line of tree tops for a good mile down the valley side. “Now it is all back to nature”. I ask Simone how much of the reforestation was due to a deliberate effort. “When we’ve finished quarrying we recover the land, we rotate the landscape like a farmer rotates his fields. We live here, we want a nice place to live!”
I was taken to see one of the larger quarries of the region at Albiano, and we parked by a football field and community centre. My host informed me that many of the local facilities are funded by the valley’s quarrying industry; schools, local businesses, they even have a porphyry museum! We walked up the broad slope into the quarry mouth, navigating by huge yellow Volvo trucks and rusty scoop buckets, to admire the rock face. It was here that it was possible to truly appreciate the richness and full spectrum of possibilities porphyry provides. What was once the core of a violent volcano, now provides the raw material for an industry that supports an entire region. An industry that has preserved its artisan skills and re-instates the landscape by enshrining into law, sustainable policies of land use, quality control, apprenticeships and local community initiatives to name but a few.
Back at the porfidi works, Simone is pointing again, this time across a deep gorge flanked by hazy vineyards, to a picture postcard town on the far slopes. “That’s Guido’s house”, he said. Moments later we had Guido on the mobile. “How is my English friend?” he asks, “How is my driveway? Soon we will make a beautiful porphyry driveway for your queen, instead of all the red tarmac around her London house!”
Later in Albiano we visited the Porphyry Museum where every conceivable use for the stone is on display. An impressive array of interactive machinery, turning wheels, pulleys and levers occupies a large portion of the space, designed specifically for schoolchildren to learn through play. There’s even a mock dynamite detonator that triggers an ‘explosion’! Another feature of the museum is the audiovisual presentation room for visiting architects and other specifiers to learn about the stone and the quarrying process. Most interesting of all are the display boards showing before and after photographs of quarries, that have been reforested and returned back to the landscape. Satellite images record the former scars, now lush and green, some with emerald lakes as a centrepiece to a new country park.
60 miles south of Albiano is the fabled city of Verona, where the Adige snakes a silvery trail through some of the most coveted Roman and Renaissance architecture in Italy. It is easy to imagine Shakespearean scenes being played out on almost every bridge or street corner of this magnificent city. By way of contradiction, I find myself in an anonymous commercial zone on the city fringes visiting the only factory in the region able to cut large slabs (over 3 metres in length) from solid blocks of porphyry. By carefully selecting stone from a variety of different quarries, the blocks can by isolated to individual colours. Here you will find all the usual porphyry colour palette, but on a much larger scale. Staring upwards, at an Indiana Jones warehouse scale wall of rough blocks stacked one on top of the other, feels as though I’ve been shrunk to the size of a mouse and put amongst those setts and cubes I’d seen earlier in the mountains. Giant band saw machines roar constantly, whilst water jets make a noise like a steam train as they drill the stone, slicing intricate shapes from slabs to be processed and finished into high-end kitchen worktops. Juxtaposed amongst all this industrial paraphernalia, Germana—the company’s managing director—strikes a more glamorous pose in her tailored Italian trouser suit. “Viola is the most popular colour for interior design, it is the closest to the Imperial Porphyry of ancient Rome.” She is referring of course, to the royal porphyry favoured by the emperors, the world’s only known source of pure purple porphyry which outcrops at Mons Porphyrites in Egypt. Abandoned in the 3rd century AD, it was here that the Roman army administered a garrison to house the skilled quarry workers a mile above sea level. The stone was excavated and shaped in the quarry—some pieces weighing over 100 tonnes—and then taken by cart along the road to the Nile, where it was floated to the Mediterranean, and onwards to the Tiber River and Rome. “We’re closing a circle here” Germana calls out above the factory din, ” big blocks of porphyry haven’t been worked like this since Constantine the Great!”
On my return to London, I emailed Germana with various copies of the professional photos we’d had taken of the Beaconsfield project. Our photographer—Peter Mukherjee— had done a fantastic job of capturing the overall scale and colour of the driveway in relation to the house and garden. In her reply she wrote “our Italian porphyry compliments your English red bricks very well. Guido and Samuel want to know when the next Italian job in England will be?”