= The Crawford Arts Review: Is there a third way to work architecturally with concrete?

Monday, 10 August 2015

Is there a third way to work architecturally with concrete?

I think of architecture as high art. Art that moves both the occupant and the passerby. Art that makes the toes tingle. When I first visited Prague, I was moved massively by the way every building combined this 'being art' with its functionality: the bicycle sheds were art.           Sally Crawford, 10/08/2015 

I constantly look for the above combination of art and functionality in London. Thrillingly, it occurs often. I feel the profession lets itself down each time it opts for one (function) over the other (art) when both are achievable, within the same cost and time frame, with the requisite effort. 

I attended RIBA's Brutalist Playground exhibition with trepidation. Concrete – b├ęton brut – used as a building material seems to me to declare not only that function trumps art, but that it doesn't much matter: the next generation will tear it down anyway. (Old Nick Barbon's modus operandi does not become the profession but it still operates.) It is the fabric of the living city that suffers as a consequence.

Raw concrete needs art in its formation to make it anything less than ugly. Le Corbusier had that art – that sensitivity to ratio, to scale, and to context. We have grey postwar estates, underground car parks and the Barbican. No wonder such buildings attracted the term 'Brutalist' (and I know the etymology) for those who worked with it so rawly.

RIBA are seeking to at least ameliorate this reputation with their exhibition, The Brutalist Playground, which finishes on Sunday 16 August.

Concrete's relative cheapness makes it one of the most useful (and flexible) of architectural materials. I can't say I've ever loved it until one day in May 2002 when I saw another exhibition – also at RIBA – that showed me what concrete was capable of. It ran for 2 months and, rather brilliantly, it was called HARDCORE: Concrete's rise from utility to luxury.

To my mind – writing, as I think In have explained elsewhere, as a user first and an exponent second – it was sensational. Here was a brave new world of concrete that wasn't coarse textured or uniformly grey; that was as tactile as stone (see archive links below). I wish they would repeat it.

Child playing on and beneath a high density foam
reproduction (to scale) of the 'flying saucer' originally built
in concrete as part of the Churchill Gardens Estate, Pimlico

In the present exhibition, RIBA have been true to the architectural struggles of the past – to deal with postwar shortages while at the same time provide housing and recreational space for postwar generations. The architectural collective Assemble and the artist Simon Terrill have been equally diligent in their investigation of the archives in order to faithfully reproduce the era in microcosm. Nothing disappoints.

A young architect demonstrates her building
skills using coloured foam hexagonals

I am sure there are many fine examples of 'post brutalist' use of concrete – this year's Stirllng Prize finalists provide some striking examples. The use of added pigment or textural aggregates, surface texture or lustrous finish, can give results that are inspiring for anyone working with or living with this material as part of their built environment. Expensive you say. Well, yes, if used for core and exterior. But expensive building stone can now be cut into thin facings that both look good and wear well. Concrete lends itself to the same treatment. Let's at least have some grown up Modroc, a uniform and thoughtfully produced layer of concrete that can be fused onto sturdy backing, cut to fit and fixed into place. Comments welcome.

RIBA's free exhibition, The Brutalist Playground, runs until Sunday 16 August at RIBA, 66 PORTLAND PLACE, LONDON W1.

Opening hours: Monday to Sunday 10am to 5pm and Tuesday 10am to 8pm

From the RIBA archive, HARDCORE: Concrete's rise from utility to luxury

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