For the love of concrete!


I wonder if it’s natural to hold affection for the buildings that were constructed in your youth. For me, as a teenager in the ‘70s, that was concrete and the aptly-named Brutalism. Or at least the 1970s was the decade when that particular style of building was still being put up before it was swept away by architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers and their lightweight industrial vibe. I’ve always been a cusp kind of person, a foot in two camps, and it’s true of my taste in buildings. While I was drawn to the heavy concrete bulk and concrete ziggurats of Denys Lasdun’s University of East Anglia campus when I arrived there in 1978, I was blown-away by Foster’s aluminium shed, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

UEA with SCVA at left (photo: John Fielding/ Flickr)

UEA with SCVA at left (photo: John Fielding/ Flickr)

A change was in progress and at that time I was happy to revel in both, loving the way the 1970s SCVA shimmered at the end of the suspended concrete walkway leading from the 1960s university. It heralded the wonder of reflective glass and sexy metals that were to become the materials of the following decade. By the 1980s, concrete seemed very passé. 

But recently I’ve fallen under its spell again. Some of that I can put down to the time I’ve spent with Le Corbusier over the past year or so, and certainly it’s hard not to feel exhilarated by his concrete buildings of the 1950s, the various Unité d’Habitations and the chapel at Ronchamp especially. But I was recently wandering around one of Sydney’s most reviled concrete buildings, the University of Technology’s main Tower, as I prepared a short piece on it for my Iconic Australian Buildings series on ABC RN’s Blueprint for Living. The UTS Tower is famously hated for its lack of human scale and bunker-like aesthetic. Across the road from it stands Jean Nouvel’s One Central Park, a glamorous apartment building completed in 2014, with flowering green walls and plenty of glass.

I knew the UTS Tower well enough from the outside as it kind of hogs the limelight when you’re near it, poking up into your line of sight from the train, a marker for that part of town, or at least it did until Nouvel showed up. I’d been into it a couple of times to view exhibitions in its gallery but I hadn’t really studied the building properly. So I wasn’t prepared to be so blown away by its interior. Here was a busy space that was truly exciting, with broad areas of shining floor under low ceilings leading into cathedral-like spaces with grand staircases and bridges crossing above. There’s colour on some walls and a heavy lattice-work of lights. There are sitting areas tucked away for private conversations or occupying open spaces to encourage informal gathering. It felt simply wonderful. And that took me back.

It reminded me of my university days, moving into my concrete room in Norfolk Terrace at UEA. Its walls were painted white, its carpet was dark brown, and it had an acoustic heaviness that made you realise that it was made from a dense material. No sounds passed through its walls from other rooms. It felt very safe. That bunker thing. And then living in London, I often visited the National Theatre, another Lasdun building, with its wood-grained concrete walls (shuttering, they call it – the imprint from the timber formwork leaving its imprint after the concrete has set). It was a bunker, too, where you entered a zone to watch a play at one of its three theatres or sat in its various public areas to listen to jazz or poetry and watch the crowds. It was, and is, an engaged space – the concrete contrasting with soft carpet, polished timber and the colour of life.

One Central Park

One Central Park – can we have too much green?

I think that’s a clue to the successful use of concrete, when it is balanced with other textures and materials, just as the contrast of Nouvel’s shining, green tower makes the UTS Tower look better. Too much concrete is perhaps as overpowering as having every building clothed in plants although I have yet to visit the Salk Institute, Louis Kahn’s monumental 1965 concrete spread in California, and look forward to visiting (and hopefully staying in)  Le Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette this year, which is a consciously austere work, as demanded by the monks.

Salk Institute, La Jolla (photo: Alfred Essa/ Flickr)

Salk Institute, La Jolla (photo: Alfred Essa/ Flickr)

There’s a recent shift of appreciation for these concrete structures, perhaps a backlash to the translucence of current buildings, which is oddly circular as Brutalism itself was a backlash to the ubiquity of Modernist translucence back in the late 1950s. I find myself, as usual, standing on the cusp, enjoying the dark and heavy as well as the light and luminous.

 

Are you a concrete lover or hater?
Do you have a favourite concrete building?

 

 

Categories: Architecture, Australia, Design, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

37 comments

  1. not a lover of concrete. I look at Central Park One from my balcony and have admired it from day 1.

  2. I appreciate good architecture, whatever it’s construction method or materials; and Brutalist buildings framed my teenage years too.

    I think that, among the many, the words “concrete” and “cement” conjure up an undeservedly negative image.
    I am quite liking the gradual return to favour of these materials for interiors, polished concrete & cement floors, worktops, functional pillars etc

    We have areas in the house where concrete was, quite sensibly, used to augment and add to the original stone structures and I will not be trying to conceal it with faux finishes ; it’s all part of the house’s history

    • You’re so right, it’s all about the how materials are used. And if we hadn’t had concrete then we wouldn’t have marvels such as the Pantheon in Rome and it’s incredible concrete dome. Certainly people have embraced concrete much more in the past decade and it’s quite normal to see it used in kitchens and floors where it can look very svelte – I love it when it is treated with beeswax. The way you’re using it sounds great – I’m enjoying your ‘journey’ on your blog and lift a glass of Blanquette to you!

  3. This made me think a bit differently about it. I have a love hate thing going on with The National Theatre. From the outside I find it incredibly depressing, especially at this time of year when the rain comes down and it looks completely charmless but at night when they light it with vibrant colours I love it and I do like the inside of it, I like the communal spaces where singers and musicians perform and the theatres themselves are comfortable with good sight lines not something you can say about all London theatres that’s for sure!

    • Yes, the National Theatre can look pretty grim on a rainy winter’s day but I still think it has a sculptural quality that lifts it. I struggle more with the neighbouring Hayward Gallery and the horrible entrance to the Queen Elizabth Hall, partly because they’re crammed into a tight, friendless space whereas the National at least addresses the river. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a duff play at the National and part of that, I’m sure, is how comfortable I always feel sitting in the auditorium, with such a clear sight-line.

  4. Well, it is having you in my life that has turned me onto concrete and Brutalism. It’s all about education – and context. Knowing where and why a particular style developed and what had gone before. I know with teaching British architecture, it is very difficult to turn people onto Brutalism, even from a nostalgic standpoint with a complex such as the South Bank.

    There is a local 70s concrete tower block that is in the process of being demolished and people are rejoicing, imagining the day where the tower does not blight the skyline any more. So I think, as with all architecture, it is about being sensitive to what the surroundings when designing a new building.

    There is a misconception that the Ancient Romans invented concrete – it is actually much earlier than that. (Though the root of the name is Latin.) But they did love it, those empire building Romans – even building apartment blocks up to 5 stories high. Amazing!

    Apart from the UEA Ziggurats, I would have to go for The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, a very daring theatre design for the end of the 60s. It has since won awards and is now a Grade II listed building. Though my father, the architect, always rued that fact that it was only ever known for snooker tournaments …

    And, to answer your question, Yes!, you can have too much green.

    • How did I know you would say you can have too much green, ha! Like most of my guilty pleasures, one can have too much of a good thing and concrete is no different. I think it’s about the form of the building and whether or not it says anything. The tower block is a good example – many are reviled for what they represent but some – and I’m thinking of Ernst Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers in East and West London are very well-loved, both by the residents and those who look at them. Same, too, for Lasdun’s elegant four-leafed Keeling House in Bethnal Green which I always used to regard fondly from the train as I travelled to Chelmsford.

      I hadn’t realised your father was responsible for The Crucible. I remember how it wowed people when it was first opened – we used to have school trips to plays there and it had a superb acoustic and sight-lines. It’s terrific that it has been listed. I really think the time is coming for Brutalist buildings – there’s a sudden welling of appreciation. Reminds me of how much people loathed fussy Victorian buildings in the early 1960s and how quickly that turned around. Architecture always needs time to be appreciated!

  5. I love concrete, like you I’m having a bit of a Le Corbusier phase at the moment. The pure lines and simplicity of his concrete buildings are some of my favourites. I was most recently admiring the concrete structure of the Fondation Jerome Seydoux in Paris. It’s not the most obvious part of the building from outside, but I found the concrete interiors very beautiful.

    • Yes, Le Corbusier is a real education. I would love to see his work at Chandigarh but wonder if I might not be quite so enthusiastic seeing so many huge works in one place! Thank you for pointing out the Fondation Jerome Seydoux – I didn’t know it and will certainly take a look when I’m next in Paris. Like Corb, it’s hard to fault anything that Renzo Piano does. I even like his new visitors centre for the chapel at Ronchamp, despite wishing there was no need for it. I do envy you your ability to visit so many lovely buildings so easily!

  6. I live near the Readers Digest building in Surry Hills and see it from my windows. I can’t help rubbing my hand along the imposing smooth concrete walls when I pass it and it feels SO good. Recently I went one better: I pretended to be Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and stuck my hand in one of the disconcerting cast iron decorative grilles to see if my hand would be bitten off. Phew!

  7. Can’t believe I haven’t seen Central Park One before. You’ve picked some lovely examples here

    • Thanks! I think Brutalist architecture really photographs well. It’s that 2001 monolith element, I think. Yes, Central Park One is rather special, and becoming evermore stunning as the bougainvillea flowers and tumbles down its sides. They had a piece on it at the Design Museum in London when i was there in May last year as one of the top 100 designs of 2014.

  8. Have to say, concrete is not my favourite material, although I have often admired the conceptual ideal if not the finished article. It certainly seems horse when near nature, and does not weather well or ‘age’ like other material like granite. An example would be the houses of Cumbernauld, with concrete facings which are falling away from the brickwork. Sad to see, in what would otherwise be a nice location.

    • Yes, it can often look very drab, Harry, especially under a leaden sky. And ‘new towns’ like Cumbernauld and others in the 1960s certainly made a lot of use of it. It is a material that benefits from maintenance, certainly, but I still think if the form is good then it will look good in any circumstances. The question of what look good is, of course, very subjective!

  9. I used to hate concrete. And I still do, especially when it is given a texture such as wood grain (thanks for adding shuttering to my small architecture vocabulary). I think of the Seidler-designed Australian embassy in Paris as a bad example (if you want wood grain, why not use real wood) and of countless buildings in Britain with years of soot and pollution emphasising their walls’ texture and rough finish.The UTS Tower is a great local example of this.
    I am therefore pleased to see a growing use of polished concrete and often catch myself feeling the smooth finish of simple grey walls as I walk past. And gradually warming up to concrete.

    • Oh yes, polished concrete can look fantastic. Although of course it’s more ‘finished’ than the shuttering, which was simply a byproduct of the coarse planks used to hold in the poured concrete. Perfect for holding on to all kinds of grime, as you say. I think you’d love the fine work of Tadao Ando – it’s very precise and typically Japanese in that sense of refinement. But beware, a growing appreciation of concrete is a slippery slope and you might find yourself loving those hulking great shuttered places in the end!

  10. I find a visit to the National Gallery in Canberra a tactile experience too. But is the High Court a bit too brutal? It would be nice if hat institution relied more on the wisdom of its decisions rather than the bulk of the building where it sits. I guess the same goes for Parliament House but I digress. The Sirius building in the Rocks can be a conversation starter. The Cameron Offices in Canberra has undergone surgery.

    As to buildings i Like? The Harry and Penelope Siedler House.

    • Yes, some of the Canberra buildings are certainly monumental but not always successful. I’m in two minds about the Sirius Building – it’s got a touch of Habitat’67 about it but I fear it’s not a great building and probably not a great loss to the site. Seidler buildings, on the other hand, are definitely keepable.

      • The Chancellery in Berlin may not be brutal, but it is concrete. The architect is supposed to have claimed: “Concrete is the marble of the 21st century”.

      • Robin Hood Gardens is largely unloved and its future is doubtful https://goo.gl/iXG0lc. Does Brutalism work better in public buildings? In the case of Robin Hood, the shape of the site would surely challenge any authority wanting to house more people than the site could sensibly support.

  11. There always seems to be a cost to the pleasurable things in life. https://goo.gl/tuawJO

  12. When too much concrete is barely enough https://www.flickr.com/groups/82971046@N00/. The Economist is leaving its early brutalist building at 25 St James’ Square for cheaper digs. The site was consolidated and developed much like Australia Square but the punters do not enjoy the plaza area as much as they do in Sydney…could be the weather. More at the beta website http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21712028-goodbye-25-st-jamess-street-economist-bids-farewell-formative-home. Be warned: there may be paywall issues.

    • Thanks for the link to that interesting article on the Economist building, Richard. My first job in London was on Piccadilly so I often used to wander down to have a look at this building and try to figure out just why it was thought so great. I never quite ‘got’ it but that was the 1980s, I suppose. It seems that Robin Hood Gardens is to go although there are plenty of supporters for it.It’s interesting that there’s so much appreciation for the exteriors of these buildings and little about their interiors and whether or not they worked (dare I mention Le Corbusier’s lovely interiors in his Unite d’habitation…).I commend Barnabas Calder’s book on Brutalism to you, though.

      • I’ve read the preview of Raw Concrete on iBooks and it’s on my list after I am finished reading the appalling story of Blair’s salivating to invade Iraq in Broken Vows. Meanwhile Barnabas Calder is clearly infatuated with concrete https://goo.gl/f5KcFz. I think it is catching.

      • Ah, Michelucci’s church was one of my first loves – and took a lot of finding when I visited in 1979!

  13. “The love of concrete” quickly turned to a discussion on Brutalism. But there is more to the story…including a compare and contrast with Saint Chapelle http://wp.me/p45jLJ-31

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