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Less mix than match at the British Museum

Yes, it's true. I was in the Great Court of the British Museum a few weeks ago and I can confirm that the new South Portico sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Was I surprised when I saw it?

No. Was I shocked to learn that 'inferior' French limestone had been used instead of good old British Portland stone? Not really. Do I agree with Sir Jocelyn Stevens that 'one of Britain's greatest buildings has now been severely damaged for all time'?

Not on your proverbial.

Call me naive, but what I thought I saw was no more than the inevitable and unavoidable clash between freshly quarried stone and weathered stonework which has been exposed to London's malodorous atmosphere for a century and a half. Acid rain, diesel fumes and coal smoke have severely discoloured the original Portland stone facade.

Irreversible chemical changes have taken place in its surface layers.

Even if the new stone had come from exactly the same quarry as the original, it would not be the same colour.

This is hardly an uncommon situation. Normally the only certain cure is time. A few decades of exposure, even to the cleaner air of modern London, usually blends new and old stonework together. The problem here is that the brilliant Foster/Buro Happold designed roof over the Great Court will almost eliminate the normal weathering process.

So whatever stone was used for the South Portico, it would remain a distinctively different colour to the old stone far into the future - unless some one was bold enough to attempt to match the colours artificially.

So reports that the local authority involved might order the Museum to demolish the portico and rebuild it with genuine Portland stone leave me baffled and despairing. It also seems that the landmark roof is under threat, because of some piffling transgression of the planning permission.

My personal opinion is that the only thing worth seeing at the British Museum - in architectural and engineering terms at least - is the Great Court and its roof.

Otherwise the original building, far from being 'one of Britain's greatest', is strangely unimpressive, as well as depressingly dingy. If it is not careful, Camden Council will find itself among the normal chorus of envious third rate, technically illiterate underachievers who always line up to carp and whinge about landmark projects.

The Great Court is suffering the same fate as Portcullis House and the Jubilee Line Extension. In 50 years time it, like them, will be remembered as a major achievement of architecture and structural engineering, and its critics will be forgotten.

Mind you, if it were me, I would hark back to the practices of the Greeks, the Romans and the mediaeval cathedral builders, and reach for the paintpot. A couple of coats of magnolia Sandtex would brighten up the whole Great Court and solve the whole stone mismatch problem at a brush stroke.

Who said weathered Portland stone was attractive anyway?

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