as inexhaustible choices of colour and tone.” William Hall, the designer and author of the Phaidon titles Concrete, Brick, Wood and Stone, cites the Barbican as an example of the material’s artistic potential. “You can see all different kinds of finishes there, including bush-hammering, which is where they put big pebbles in and get a mechanical hammer to bash away at it to reveal the pebble texture,” he explains. “The Barbican has an unpretentious rigour to it. If you think of its three tower blocks composed in brick, it wouldn’t have the elegance that it has.” Indeed, when you consider other finishes enabled by concrete, such as Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary, which is imprinted with an intricate lace pattern, the creative possibilities of working with this liquid form appear endless.

from pioneering towers to utilitarian structures like car parks, dams and bridges. Tim Bowder-Ridger, the principal of the London-based firm Conran and Partners, believes there is a charm to the sometimes minimalism of constructions such as the Centre Point Tower, which his team worked to revive in 2011. “Simple forms can be expressed as the personality of the building,” he says. “The ability to create continuous shapes makes areas such as fire, sound and water-proofing more straightforward, saving on cost and materials.” Certainly, the ease afforded by concrete – to be made on-site; to transport; to make its aggregate from whatever materials can be found locally; not to mention its low cost in comparison to other


materials – makes it very appealing to designers.

Subjective surfaces Portland cement, the modern industrialised form of concrete’s binder, was patented in 1824 by Joseph Aspdin, and this was later the basis for art deco skyscrapers like New York’s Empire State Building, built in 1931. After World War II, concrete was poured in abundance to rebuild cities ravaged by bombs, a time when Brutalist architects, such as Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, dreamt up radical free- flowing structures epitomised by the exotic sculptural forms of Niemeyer’s iconic master plan for Brasília and the plant-strewn confines of the

Barbican Centre. In Britain, debate on its aesthetics has historically been polarising. For some, these buildings evoke images of urban squalor and drab, repressive Soviet blocks. For others, they are historical relics that need to be protected from the bulldozer. The most vociferous critics clamouring for their demolition include Prince Charles, who once described Owen Luder’s Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth as a “mildewed lump of elephant droppings”. Bowder-Ridger would tend to disagree with HRH’s opinion of the material. “Concrete offers opportunities of theatre and sensuality,” he says. “It allows bold exploration of form through contrasts of light and shadow, texture, as well

But, like most things worth discussing, concrete comes with a caveat – the environmental impact of its production – as a colossal 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted across the globe each year. In more relatable terms, a concrete cube the size of a standard washing machine will have emitted the same amount of carbon dioxide as a car journey from London to Edinburgh and back again. Many engineers argue that there is no viable alternative to concrete without

2 3

1. Previous page: Sun Moon Lake Visitor Centre, Taiwan.

2. The Barbican Centre, London.

3. The National Congress building in Brasilia, designed by Oscar Niemeyer.


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