Four views of a grey wall: remembering, forgetting, making & embracing concrete
June 30, 2013 2 Comments
is the first generation for whom
material and meaning
are completely and effortlessly
Caroline Bos (1995: 22)
On standing, he coughed and approached the podium. Looking apologetically out into the eager audience the final speaker offered up a nervous mea culpa:
“I’ve spent most of my life not thinking about concrete”
In ordinary company there would be nothing strange in the content of that truth (although it would be odd to bother to state it). But this was not an ordinary gathering. This was Nottingham University’s recent symposium on the Meanings of Concrete.
And yet, the strange thing was that many of the preceding speakers had, in one way or another, more implicitly echoed something similar. If concrete is returning to the aesthetic stage it is doing so awkwardly, tentatively and conditionally. No strident Neo-Brutalists here.
The event was themed around Adrian Forty’s recent book, Concrete and Culture (2012) and Prof Forty was there and contributed a short synopsis of his thinking on the semantics of concrete. For Forty the big point about concrete is its indeterminacy. Applying a linguistic-structuralist tinged analysis, Forty concluded that this ubiquitous material is restless, it has no stable classification and therefore provokes ambiguous (some might say conflicted) cultural responses.
In furtherance of this point he aptly quoted Peter Schjeldahl’s wonderfully vivid depiction of the slippery meanings of this:
“liquid rock – concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care…concrete is most careless, promiscuous stuff until committed, when it becomes fantastically adamant.”(1993: 28)
This is a material of indeterminant state and strength, at points almost living and at others resolutely dead, fixed and brutally immovable.
Forty’s key thesis is that we simplify to depict concrete as a messianic proposition – a wonder material – in the early 20th century and the antithesis of this one hundred years later. To equate concrete with Modernism ascribes too much stability to concrete’s status and image at any point in time. As Forty pointed out, Modernism was about transparency, and steel was so much better suited to fitting that brief.
It is concrete’s mutability (and mouldability) that is both its virtue and its vice. It is a shape changer , but the properties that give it that amorphous quality deny it a stable place in culture, and Forty concludes that this unstable, unclassifiable otherness explains much of the popular antipathy to it. If architecture is haunted by John Ruskin’s invocation that good design would reveal the truth of materials – their honesty to their properties and form – then concrete violates this aesthetic framework, because it is a shape-shifter, as Schjeldahl puts it:
“Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is the slut, the gigolo, of materials.” (1993)
The thread connecting many of the speakers at this event was the idea of concrete as anaesthetic (in the sense of invisible, not noticeable). Barnabas Calder, charted this through the career of Denys Lasdun (of National Theatre / South Bank fame). Calder reported how Lasdun’s work in the 1950s had not advocated whole elevation use of exposed concrete, and that it was only at the height of Brutalism in the 1970s that concrete had emerged foregrounded as a surface, prior to that modernists of Lasden’s ilk were advocating construction in concrete as a means to an end – as a way of opening up the built forms, rather than advocating a pro-concrete material aesthetic per se. Primarily reinforced concrete posed new (fairly cheap and certainly strong) structural (i.e. load bearing) possibilities. Traditional constraints on size and openness of buildings could be surmounted with concrete.
As Modernism evolved, and as an ancillary, the aesthetic value of concrete (and its colour pallet) emerged as it came to be regarded as a background tone that would not crowd out the human or natural elements in the local environmental frame. In short, using concrete was a way of transcending matter through use of a ubiquitous, register-less material .
There were some echoes of this in a later talk by Rob Hayes of architects Curuso St John, a practice with something of a niche in the rediscovery of concrete architecture. Yet Hayes illustrated how concrete emerged into his case study projects as solutions or fine tuning to designs that primarily featured other construction materials. Here concrete was finding use as novel surface finishes, twists and details – not as a signal of a Neo-Brutalism. For Hayes, the use of concrete within these projects helped to stop the building being about the building – focussing instead upon letting the building just ‘be’ (i.e. exist for its purpose). Hayes’ illustrations, alongside Fiona Samuel’s presentation on Le Corbusier’s churches, both went some way to refute the accusation oft made against concrete that it is unsuitable as a visible construction material because it is incapable of carrying detailing, Hayes showing concrete’s suitability to mosaic and other imprints, and both speakers showing this material’s ability to curve, and portray complex organic textures and shapes.
The plan was laid, this grey matter should not be seen. At dusk the change would begin.
The event’s compere, Steve Parnell opened the day with reflection on the obliteration of concrete icons in Sheffield, remarking how ‘The City of Steel’ was at its height more a ‘City of Concrete’ and how the turn away from Modernism since the early 1980s has seen the erasure of prominent concrete landmarks, either by outright demolition or by a process of masking – a surfeit of cladding over Brutalist concrete surfaces. Thus the iconic grey forms of the Tinsley cooling towers, once standing proud astride the elevated sections of the M1 have been pulled down, to be replaced by a human form statue: The Man of Steel. Thus this city defines itself through the metallic form rather than the cementatious.
Meanwhile the Park Hill Flats – a vast concrete ridgeline now Listed against demolition, are in their regeneration to be saved from concrete oblivion by the insertion of metal cladding and a stainless steel corkscrew staircase.
And a monolithic Moore Street electricity substation in the centre of the city is softened (at night at least) via bathing in multicoloured spotlights.
It seems concrete grey is only appropriate for aesthetes – the mould poured artist studio bloc of Persistence Works being the only blatantly concrete poured building to have been erected in unapologetic blockhouse form in recent decades. Concrete style – concrete as foreground, as surface – is left to exist as an isolated artist-thing. And yet…
Striding out from his site office, the site manager proudly surveyed the scene before him. Standing by a freshly laid foundation pad, he took a deep breath, leaned back in satisfaction and extolled the marvellous self-levelling properties of his new concrete mix. Yes, there is a high-art fetishism that can attach to this grey matter, but there is also a robustly prosaic field in which concrete comes to the forefront of attention, and approaches a material-love.
Alexander Styhre writes of this in the context of a study of Swedish tunnelling contractors, and the aesthetic nature of their tacit knowledge – accumulated as sheer experience of concrete’s behaviour – as concrete sprayers. He reminds us that aesthetics was once wider than the fine art sense in which it is commonly used today and covered craft – artisanal work too. Proficency in such human-material engagements requires attunement of all the senses, as one concrete sprayer put it:
“Quite often, you hear various sounds…you may see the movements of the [spray] machine…you notice that it doesn’t do too well, the spray concrete just bubbles and hisses by the mouth-piece, and then something’s wrong…you can listen to the pump-beats whether machine works as it should” (2008: 407)
In making his point Styhre makes an interesting observation – that for the fine arts aesthetics is a matter of what is produced, whilst for the artisan aesthetics is processual – it is about attaining (and maintaining) the craft and competence entailed within the task, its technology and its matter.
Forty addresses this and concrete’s high art vs daily craft duality in his book – noting that care should be taken not to ascribe the origins of the proliferation of concrete construction entirely to the world of architects and technologists. Instead, space should be preserved for the pragmatic, on-site, ‘trades’ level development of concrete usage (and in particular the pioneering of reinforcement). Thus, much of the life-history of concrete lies in these hands, and is largely unrecorded. But these hands (and the wisdom and experience connected to them) were engaged in close, co-evolving relationships with concrete, an everyday erotics of trial and error, experience of this stuff, its abilities and weaknesses.
Standing by the freshly laid foundation pad, the site manager continued on, his traumatic sagas of premature curing, and of consequent cracking, rolling forth punctuated by the palpable joy of his newly-found improved concrete formula which has rendered all that pain a thing of the past.
But no one would suggest that the high-end housing estate that he was building should be built of concrete. Oh, no – these will be houses faced with brick (with concrete blocks behind, as Building Regs dictate in acknowledgment of concrete block’s better thermal performance than the humble house brick). That will fit the character of the area and the tastes of the market. Poured concrete homes in the UK have the connotation of poorly built housing for the poor.
Back at the conference Adrian Jones, Nottingham City Council’s former Director of Housing gave some sense of this in his overview of the relationship between concrete and his city’s development. The Post War situation saw demand (and Governmental will) for reconstruction and for modernisation. Concrete offered the promise of speed, relative cheapness and a sense of the future. Construction came to look increasingly factory orientated – with system building. But the structures thrown up in this wave did not prove durable. Sometimes this was due to poor build (or the limitations of concrete) and at other times it was simply vulnerability to a public sentiment that had never fully embraced concrete as a ‘proper’ construction material (unless that stuff was secreted out of view within a more palatable material coating of brick, cladding or render).
Jones also gave an enticing glimpse of the normally unnoticed local landscape of concrete supply – the quarries and batching plants, the riverside (concrete) warehouses, the roads and bridges by which this grey stuff was made and found its way into the city. Much of this infrastructure of local extraction and transhipment is now gone. A new branch of infrastructural urbex waiting to be explored…
As the traceur pauses, staring out in to the landscape before him, something catches his eye:
“The differences in height, and the material of the surfaces are, you know, optimal, and…it has…this concrete wall which is not painted, not polished at all, so first of all it’s good to hang from and to practise things, and it doesn’t show any traces on white paint, for example, so that nobody has a reason to complain, and it is really, very diverse.” (2012: 169)
So states, ‘Valtteri’ a Finnish traceur interviewed in Lieven Ameel and Sirpa Tani’s research into the everyday aesthetics of Parkour , and specifically the development – within that practice – of what traceurs call “Parkour eyes”, an attentiveness to structural and surficial details that would not normally register in conventional engagements with the urban environment. Thus to become proficient in Parkour is to develop an ability to read the surrounding with all senses engaged, and to commune with such objects wilfully, intimately (for example by bodily slam, the trusting of weight or anticipated degree of friction). In such engagements – it appears – concrete comes out very well, and thus a conventionally drab decaying concrete landscape becomes valorised for a range of non-visual qualities (strength, traction, uniform gradient, camber, temperature). These qualities all contribute to the usability of these objects, and are interpreted aesthetically as the ‘feel’ of the object. Thus developing ‘Parkours eyes” Ameel and Tani conclude:
“Is not only about seeing possibilities in unexpected places, but also about seeing possibilities for attaching new and unexpected feelings to place” (170)
And thereby a prosaic, everyday “aesthetics of ugliness” (171) is found for the concrete wall.
In similar vein one can hear the unnamed writer of Article Magazine, gazing at the Moore Street Brutalist structure, summoned to stop and stare by the brute concrete edifice:
“I hear dubstep whenever I see this building: lurching over it seems to force me into the ground. Its only purpose is to keep people out and yet it succeeds in drawing me into it.” (Article: 2009)
Ameel, L. & Tani, S. (2012) ‘Everyday aesthetics in action: Parkour eyes and the beauty of concrete walls” Emotion, Space &Society 5 164-173
Article Magazine (2009) ‘Sheffield Concrete’, www.articlemagazine.co.uk/wordpress/feature-articles/sheffield-concrete
Bos, C. (1995) ‘Painful Materialism’, Daidalos, Aug 1995, p.22.
Forty, A. (2012) Concrete and Culture: a material history, Reaktion Books: London.
Schjeldahl, P. (1993) ‘Hard truths about concrete’, Harper’s Magazine, 287, no. 1721, October 1993, pp. 28-30 [a longer extract from this wonderful paean to concrete is at: http://marchingunderbanners.net/2011/09/21/hard-truths-about-concrete/]
Styhre, A. (2008) ‘The aesthetics of rock construction work: the beauty of sprayed concrete, rock reinforcement and roof bolting’ Culture and Organization, 14, 401-410.
Photo credit: Moore Street Substation (Sheffield) by thebustocrookes www.flickr.com/photos/thebustocrookes/8396394404