Friday, November 11, 2016

The white stuff

It's that time of year again. As winter sets in and Christmas approaches, I post a few reviews of recent books that have struck a chord with me this year. I begin with a new book on Brutalism and, especially, on concrete – subjects that I've only rarely touched on here...

Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism
Published by William Heinemann

Over the last few years, Brutalism, the architectural style of the 1960s par excellence, has begun to be described, discussed, and appreciated more than ever since the building boom in which these boldly massed and often controversial structures were built. In this new book, Barnabas Calder nails his colours to the mast. He likes these buildings, has always liked them, and likes, more than likes, loves the material most of them are made of. The book’s first sentence is, ‘I am a lover of concrete.’

Over 300-odd pages, Calder presents a detailed account of a clutch of Brutalist buildings, documenting their history, anatomizing their design, and explaining what’s good about them. Several are the usual architectural suspects in London – structures such as Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers, the vast Barbican development by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, and Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre. There are also less well known and more far-flung but equally interesting buildings, like New Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge, and buildings I’d not thought Brutalist at all, like Stirling and Gowan’s Engineering Building for Leicester University. And there’s the commercial Brutalism of Richard Seifert, the architect of London’s Centrepoint block. 

They all throw up memorable stories. We meet the rebarbative Goldfinger getting angry that someone in his office isn’t working and sacking him on the spot; the victim turns out to be a visitor. We get insights into the struggles between architects and builders at the Barbican. We marvel at how Denys Lasdun coped with multiple and contentious committees when building the National Theatre. And we meet Sir Leslie Martin, the quiet man of Brutalism, overseer of so many projects for the LCC and mentor to so many young architects.

Along the way, Calder tells us a lot about concrete. That, after all (and notwithstanding Jim Stirling’s red buildings, which flaunt their red brick and problematic glazing) is where Brutalism begins, with béton brut, the raw concrete of the title. Calder loves this material but his is not an unquestioning love. He loves it most when it is good quality concrete. And although many people think of concrete is a cheap material, good concrete isn’t cheap. His accounts of the hammered concrete at the Barbican make this clear. Bush hammering produces the artistically roughened surface that makes much of the Barbican so impressive. You get it by hammering off the topmost layer. But that doesn’t mean you can pour the concrete any old how. Concrete destined for hammering has to be just so before you set to work with the hammers – if it’s not, the stuff breaks off unevenly and you have a mess. And the hammering itself takes a lot of time, noise, and dust. It’s a tough job. Similar pains went into the production of the concrete at the National Theatre. Here it was poured in situ into wooden shuttering. But the shuttering had to be just right, and only reused once – more than that and it would not produce the crisp image of the wood on the concrete surface that is such as feature of the building. Structures like the National required as much craftsmanship as good brickwork or stone masonry. All this is conveyed with the author’s winning mixture of clarity and zeal.

Calder talks about how the buildings work, too. And he’s honest about this. While thoughtfully explaining how well planned most of the structures are, he also admits some of their shortcomings, such as their energy consumption – they were built at a time of relatively cheap electricity. Even so, for Calder, these buildings are about as good as it can get. He’s always their advocate and his book is an enjoyable, informative, and entertaining read.

1 comment:

George said...

In downtown Washington, DC, until a couple of years ago there stood a large brutalist Christian Science church at 16th and I Sts. NW. After a good deal of trouble, the small congregation got permission to tear it down and build a new office building on the lot. The building has a small sanctuary, I believe, and must provide a good deal of income. I was not an admirer of the church's looks, but what replaced it is nothing exciting--though it has an odd ornament that a few days a year reflects dazzling glare into nearby offices.

I would not be surprised if the Hoover building on Pennsylvania Avenue at 7th St. NW came down in the next few years, for the FBI has outgrown it and plans a move. It is a distinguished--I would not say handsome--example of brutalist architecture. I don't think that will save it from replacement by something newer.