Category Archives: Materials

Concrete Concept

Brutalist buildings around the world
Christopher Beanland

Packing case lettering, thick stiff card cover, no frills like a dust jacket and an A to Z of Brutalist Architecture from Jonathan Meades. What more could you want?

Christopher Beanland introduces his subject with the usual questions.

“Why brutalism?….why do you like these ugly buildings? Where the bloody hell did they come from? The answer to the first is easy as pie; the second -well how long have you got….”

Unfortunately the answer to the first is so personal that it only confirms my suspician that “brutalist buildings” are more about style than substance.

Brutalism was all the rage when I started studying Architecture. A first year project included an assessment of the South Bank complex, which rightly appears in this book (Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room). We didn’t think of it as “architecture”. We ignored or at least we’re not conscious of the discipline of creating the concrete materiality, the interiors and their functional requirements. We concentrated on the external spaces, terraces, the movement and the drama of the forms. We enjoyed photographing it and printing our own photos in black and white. Our project turned into a graphic production.

Only later did I realise that in Concrete buildings there is often no façade. Concrete is a rigorous task master. If I had done my year out working for Lasdun I would have learnt more about the discipline of the material, maybe my appreciation of its qualities would be deeper. Concrete became a means to an end not an end in itself. A malleable, invariably structural material with lots of great qualities but usually hidden because to expose it was too tricky, expensive and prone to all sorts of failures.

Meades and Beanland are not architects. This is no disqualification but as enthusiasts who love the material for its imagery, drama and robustness, they risk becoming advocates for something far more complex and challenging than they perhaps appreciate.

The 50 selected buildings are an example of the dangers of these thematic and luxuriously illustrated books. They seduce and avoid the pitfalls, the failed details, the cold bridges. There are many more that could equally deserve to be included. One of the great pities is that some are no longer with us or are actually being demolished, as I write.

If this can add to the record before it is too late, it is all to the good. Whether Brutalism and concrete can catch hold of the imagination of more than just the cognoscenti is another matter.

Zaha Hadid

Do we need a new vocabulary to do justice to Zaha Hadid?

Last week saw the Imagine programme with appearances from the lady, her business partner Patrick Schumacher and Alan Yentob wandering through many of her great and not so great works across the globe. If this is architecture then we need to reconsider what is involved in the “discipline”. Does the computer generating forms to order qualify? Is there a place for the economical use of space and materials?

Unsurprisingly the commentators and fellow architects and teachers were all expressing their approval of the work. There is no doubt that the Peak would have been extraordinary, the Phaeno Science Centre at Wolfsberg amazing and the Cardiff Opera House was one of the missed opportunities of all time.  But I came away with Piers Gough’s Frank Gehry quote as summing up the whole design conundrum of her work. Flat piece of something $1, single curve $2, double curve $10. With enough budget extraordinary things are possible, but they are generated by what? And they are constructed using vast quantities of steel, designed by the 3D capability of computers operated by exceptional engineers like Hanif Kara.

The Festival Hall is over 50 years old, St Paul’s Cathedral over 400 years, the Pantheon 2,000 years…. Will the “organic, rolling, slipping and sliding” cultural centre in Baku be the ultimate Zaha experience?

Alan Yentob sums it up as “…one of the most remarkable structures I have ever seen” Give it a few more years Alan.


If COR-TEN is the answer What is the Question?

Fashion in architecture is more than skin deep. However sometimes the skin dominates the fashion. COR-TEN or weathered steel is not a new material, but compared to the everyday choice of building materials, it has a relatively short and some might say patchy history. It also has that elusive quality of authenticity and honesty. Many though not all ‘modern’ architects like to work with materials that are unencumbered by other messages references to historic styles .

Urban Splash’s refurbishment of the SOM / YRM Grade II* factory of WD and HO Wills Factory outside Bristol is one famous example of a COR-TEN structure being brought back to life with a completely different function.  John Winter’s house in Highgate is perhaps the archetypal British modernist architects house. But these are very specific, fine examples of a rigorous structural aesthetic approach with the material expressed for what it was – a structure.

Other purely sculptural and structural examples, Richard Serra’s Fulcrum in Broadgate, the Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North and Marks Barfield’s Kew Tree Walk are now added to by advertising displays at the Chiswick roundabout with COR-TEN structure.

















Passing a quiet suburban street in Kew recently I was drawn to the remains of a modest brick facade undergoing reconstruction. I say reconstruction as it seemed that the planning authority was faced with a distinctive approach to the provision of a new home but with the remnants of an existing building, within a conservation area and with neighbours whose initial reaction was probably negative. The Richmond planning website revealed that it was designed by Piercy Conner receiving permission in 2011. When finished it will probably grace the pages of architectural and design magazines. But will it last and how will it weather? COR-TEN is a complex material and has many

Last week the Waddington Studios by Featherstone Young were illustrated in the AJ.

COR-TEN was the preferred material of enclosure to the public face of the building. This time it was not compromised by attempts to keep some reference to what was there before and to that extent it makes a more positive statement. It is also a far more complex arrangement of spaces and functions and the COR-TEN was only a part of the stylistic references and messages. (MAXXI, green roofs, Waddington playing card designs)

COR-TEN can be used in its pure structural and sculptural form without references or historical detail. It can as in the examples of Piercey Conner’s house and the Featherstone Young building be embellished and perforated to create patterns. But there is more to the material than honesty and truthfulness, it has distinctive weathering qualities and design detail requirements. This demands complex design detailing and craftsmanship.

The question lingers, if COR-TEN is the answer what was the question?