Architect magazine has an interesting piece about the world’s most famous marble quarry. The town of Carrara, on the west coast of Italy, has been mining Carrara marble for at least two millennia. Carrara marble – the Romans called it luna – is the white stone used by Michelangelo to carve the David, and to hew countless columns for classical buildings ever since. The pure white used for sculpture is called, naturally, statuario. Now the quarry has been written up as bad news in “The Cost of Mining Carrara Marble,” by Blaine Brownell.
Centuries of quarrying stone from more than 650 sites have significantly impacted the environment. Surface extraction disrupts existing ecologies and causes biodiversity loss. In addition, mining requires significant quantities of water and produces large volumes of debris consisting of fractured rock and dust. The resulting slurry can easily clog mountain streams and degrade territorial ecosystems.
All that and more, no doubt, including the chase scene in the Bond film “Quantum of Solace,” not to mention that the marble has the effrontery to be white. But let’s look beyond the ends of our noses. Carrara marble has beautified the world in uncountable ways, from the Pantheon to the Duomo di Siena and beyond. Marble Arch and Victoria’s Memorial in London; Harvard Medical School, in Boston, before the modernists put paid to that idea; Grant’s Tomb, in New York City; the Rotunda at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, in Charlottesville; the Temple of Proserpina, and subsequently many buildings in Valletta, where the Knights Hospitaller held off the Muslim hordes besieging Malta in 1565. That’s just to name a few examples.
The beauty attributable to this one quarry carved out of the Italian Alps has lifted the spirits of millions over the centuries and the millennia. Yet the stonecutters difficult jobs evidently led to the development of a contrarian, even anarchist, spirit, according to the account in Wikipedia:
The quarry workers and stone carvers had radical beliefs that set them apart from others. Anarchism and general radicalism became part of the heritage of the stone carvers. Many violent revolutionists who had been expelled from Belgium and Switzerland went to Carrara in 1885 and founded the first anarchist group in Italy. In Carrara, the anarchist Galileo Palla remarked, “even the stones are anarchists.”
I’m not sure precisely what that could mean. But I will, nevertheless, end this reaction against the negative spirit of Blaine Brownell’s article on Carrara marble with a salute to its contrary: the spirit of beauty as embodied down through the ages by the product of the town of Carrara.
The Blaine Brownell’s article in the Architect magazine on the Carrera quarry looks at the outer skin of the onion and ends there. Contrast this with Steve Webb’s article in the April 6, 2022 Architectural Review, which calls for building in stone expressly for environmental reasons. Here follows the opening paragraphs of “Stone Age: A New Architecture from an Old Material,” subtitled “As we near the end of the fossil fuel era, building in stone offers a hopeful future for construction.”
“Imagine you suddenly had to build a new house for everyone in the world. Let’s say 7 billion people spontaneously need a 25m2 living space which we propose to form with a 200mm reinforced stone slab. How much stone would we need? Is there enough? The total volume of used stone would be 35km3, equating to to a hole of roughly 40km square and 20m deep. This is a big hole, but in global terms it’s a pinprick: the Earth’s crust has a volume in excess of 5 billion km3. Between 5 and 70km deep it is mainly granite under the land, and under the sea it is mainly basalt. Stone is being replenished all the time through plate tectonics in unimaginable volumes. It is inexhaustible, a replenishable natural resource created by geothermal energy.
“Almost all construction materials are extracted like stone. Timber, one of the few which isn’t, is considered a sustainable material with good reason, but growing it occupies a lot of space with monocultural forests for long periods of time. A tree takes 25 years to grow 1.5m3 of material. If we quarry the stone under the tree we get 500m3 of stone in a month. Although quarrying is highly intrusive and disruptive while it is being carried out, fully exploited quarries can be returned to nature, backfilled with unwanted spoil or reused for other purposes. The quarry that supplied most of the distinctive sandstone for all of Edinburgh’s New Town, built in the 18th and 19th centuries, has now been filled in and forgotten, sitting under Craigleith Sainsbury’s car park.”
Also consider Oliver Wainwright’s “The miracle new sustainable product that revolunising [sic] architecture—stone” in the Guradian: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/mar/04/miracle-new-sustainable-product-revolutionising-architecture-new-stone-age.
Quarrying stone is far less environmentally destructive practice than mining, drilling for oil….
The Sahara desert is over 3 million square miles….and contrary to popular belief is only 15% sand, it’s 85% rock. The stones including noir, similar marbling is quite beautiful and ideal building material.
At low points a quarry excavating one cubic mile of stone; with modern ultra thin cutting instruments like lasers and water jet cutters, facade tiles and even dimension stone out Sahara would produce 120 Billion cubic feet of stone. Enough to build every new house in America.
Saudi oil executive said it years ago, “The Stone age didn’t end cuz we ran out of stone”