After an era inside the doghouse, concrete is greater stylish than ever. So why don’t we take higher care of our brutalist architecture?
Ove it or loathe it, concrete is anywhere. It isn’t only beneath our ft and above our heads, forming the heritage infrastructure of buildings and towns, however, it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Bookshelves groan under a load of hefty volumes celebrating the beauty of concrete, tomes as heavy as the material itself. Homes are decorated with concrete plant pots, concrete worktops, and concrete hello-fi audio system, at the same time as present shops brim with tea towels, crockery and cushions celebrating heroic concrete homes. You can spray your self with Concrete perfume by way of Comme des Garçons, wear one among 8,000 concrete jewelry gadgets available on Etsy, drink on the Southbank Centre’s Concrete Cafe, then a birthday party at the Concrete Space nightclub.
How did this humble aggregate of cement and sand, for decades maligned because the scourge of our cities, end up the final way of life idea, used to sell everything from luxurious apartments to club nights?
The characteristics that entice people to concrete are the equal characteristics that have always repelled others. It is gritty, urban and uncompromising, it stands with a geological heft, forming soaring cliff-faces and plunging gullies, cave-like undercrofts and muscular flyovers. It is the cloth that most embodies the era of the welfare nation, a time while the general public area-constructed housing, faculties, hospitals and theatres on an impressive scale. It is the liquid rock of socialism, the stuff of emphatic country-constructing and interesting sculptural monuments to bygone targets. It is also the fabric maximum carefully associated with the social troubles that observed the decline in industry, loss of upkeep and inner town decay. It exudes optimism and generosity to a few, violence and misery to others.
Only a tiny fraction of the world’s actual manufacturing is used in architecture, and but it’s miles architects who’ve carried out extra than all people else to shape the great creativeness of the cloth, for higher and worse. After a generation inside the doghouse, while concrete behemoths frequently crowned surveys of buildings maximum hated by the general public, the fabric has ended up more elegant than ever – at a time when its catastrophic environmental impacts are finally being observed. A recent document found that cement manufacturing accounts for up to 8% of all CO2 emissions global, even as concrete waste in all likelihood makes up as a whole lot as one-fourth of all landfill.
“I don’t suppose we have to be the usage of concrete in any respect,” says Barnabas Calder, historian of postwar architecture and author of Raw Concrete, a passionately argued e-book on the splendor of brutalism. It is an unlikely remark coming from a self-professed addict of the hard stuff, who keeps loved fragments of demolished automobile parks as if they have been holy relics. “Of course it seems cute. However, it has a big carbon footprint. We ought to most effective hold what we’ve got and now not build any greater.”
Books like Calder’s have performed an awful lot to popularise the fabric again, and there are not any symptoms of architects turning their backs on it any time quickly. The revival of uncovered concrete commenced within the Nineteen Nineties, normally as a reaction in opposition to the perceived flimsiness of what structure had grown to be. Two decades of postmodernism had visible architectural expression decreased to a thin appliqué, with homes dressed up in some thing gown the purchaser so favored. Materials should faux to be anything they desired in a generation when representation was more essential than substance.
The resulting backlash saw a nearly spiritual devotion to the innate homes of raw substances. Architects pursued a kind of spiritual cleaning through an again-to-basics approach that put the maximum emphasis on how materials affected the senses. They wrote dense treatises on phenomenology and the “thingliness of factors,” arguing for materials to be exposed and handled with honesty. There became a puritan primitivism to all of it, following the excesses of the 80s. Above all else, salvation may be discovered in the beauty of a board-marked concrete wall, the roughness of the wood shuttering ingrained inside the potent mineral surface.
In this quest for honesty, purity and the unique crafting of things, the Swiss were at the forefront. Coming out of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, architects like Peter Zumthor, Valerio Olgiati, Peter Märkli, and Herzog & de Meuron set a brand new bar for the sensuous and tactile potentials of concrete. Each battled to be extra primal and honest than the subsequent. Zumthor forged a notable concrete tower in a field, the usage of rough aggregate from the landscape, poured over a pyre of tree trunks – earlier than burning out the wooden to create an atmospherically charred chapel inside. Olgiati’s sharp white concrete K+N Residence changed into so seamless that it seemed to were cast in a single pour. His very own domestic in Portugal is a stark hymn to the stuff: concrete walls body, a concrete pool, left out via a concrete bunker of a living room, entire with a concrete sofa.
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Such seductively unmarried-minded tasks have been catnip to an architectural career grown used to specifying merchandise from catalogs of proprietary components. Where once buildings were made, now they’re assembled. They are layers of bits, every guaranteed via unique warranties, compiled in the most risk-averse manner possible. Exposed concrete, solid in situ, alerts a clean opportunity: the singular material mass is intoxicating.
Outside Switzerland, Japan and some Latin American international locations – whose difficult topographies have bestowed their respective building cultures with generations of advanced concrete knowledge – it’s miles enormously hard to do it nicely. Well exposed concrete, therefore, signals a special sort of virtuosity. Architects coo on the seamless soffit and the perfectly board-marked inner nook because they know quite how difficult it is to reap. Zumthor’s cutting-edge “rammed concrete” house in Devon took ten years, and several concrete specialists, to realize.
Externally, it’s miles even rarer to locate. Increased environmental consciousness because the glory days of in situ concrete within the Sixties mean that thermal bridging is now out of the question: a fabric exposed at the out of doors of a constructing cannot retain thru to the interior, without a huge layer of insulation in among. Concrete systems consequently have a tendency to be insulated and clad with something else, frequently of a skinny, plasticky nature – including, paradoxically, a current vogue for faux-concrete panels, complete with faux shuttering texture.
The result is that visible concrete has usually retreated to the realm of interiors, from the sweeping spiral staircase and angled buttresses inside Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern Switch House to the uncooked ceilings and partitions in AHMM’s White Collar Factory workplace building. Both projects use naked concrete as a means of simulating an “as observed” commercial person. The former riffs off the antique oil tanks of the Bankside energy station, while the latter creates the illusion of a transformed warehouse for tech begin-united states of America east London’s Silicon Roundabout. Both bask in fakery, nostalgia and the theatrical energy of bare mineral mass.
“There’s been a real shift within the ultimate decade,” says Elaine Toogood of The Concrete Centre, a part of the enterprise’s alternate association. “There’s a whole lot extra acceptance of workplace buildings having uncovered concrete ceilings, which is right for thermal mass and permits you to have better spaces as it does away with the suspended ceiling. It adds real individual too.”
It is now common to discover it in housing developments as nicely, wherein concrete surfaces are left uncovered on both environmental grounds (it cools the constructing in summer season and keeps warm temperature in iciness), and to provide the sensation of a simple, sincere shell: you’re now not procuring fixtures and fittings which you don’t need. Designs for the affordable Naked House scheme, by younger exercise OMMX, fetishize its spartan finish, with uncovered concrete flooring and blockwork partitions, implying a stage of adaptability and customization. It is a clean canvas for the residents to make their very own mark.
Concrete can also more and more be seen as a guilty pride, but it isn’t going everywhere fast. It permits countless opportunities for sculptural and tactile effect, capable of being polished or ground, bush-hammered or etched, poured like oil or more or less rammed like compacted muesli. But our chief difficulty ought to be searching after what we have already got: given the amount of power embodied inside the existing stock of concrete-framed buildings, the concern ought to be on maintaining, retrofitting and reviving what is already there, instead of demolishing and including to the landfill heap.
“For all of the enthusiasm, concrete buildings are nevertheless being needlessly demolished,” says Calder, “on the equal time as being nearly excessively voguish on social media. It is a catastrophic waste of resources.” The hashtags and tea towels, it appears, haven’t but translated into real love and care.