Negative space and the ghost of formwork



I grew up in rural Scotland so I didn’t have much awareness of concrete, other than as a pretty utilitarian material. I first became aware of it when I was studying at Edinburgh University, through the very controversial work of Basil Spence and RMJM around the central campus at George Square. That gave me mixed feelings, but I also started to appreciate concrete’s versatility and its power.

Probably the classic Scottish example is St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross [1] by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (1966). That’s a very powerful piece of work, sculptural and playful, but also beautiful and serene. It’s brutal in its execution, but delicate and refined as well. I’m always very sorry to see the state it’s in now, but it’ll be exciting to see its renewal as an arts venue. I think the approach is not to restore the building, but to treat it in its found state – to accept it as a ruin and exploit the strength of what remains, much as some of the buildings I admire riff on a huge landscape and use concrete as a way of making insertions into a natural space. The Temppeliaukio Church [2] – Church of the Rock – in Helsinki by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen (1969) is excavated out of rock to create a sunken circular space, then above that is a copper dome like a sun, supported by a series of radial concrete columns. It’s an amazingly beautiful space. Natural light washes down the smooth concrete columns, which contrast with the rugged quality of the walls, just hewn out of the rock. The Igualada cemetery [3] outside Barcelona by Enric Miralles and Carme Pinós (1994) is a seamless integration of landscape and space, with concrete as a retaining structure. It has such a rich variety of spaces, from very public to very intimate and private, and the geometry is very fluid and plastic.

Zaha Hadid was a master of using the plasticity of concrete, and the work of hers that I like best is the diving boards in the London Aquatics Centre [4] (2012). It’s a lovely composition of forms poised at the end of the pool, dynamic and muscular and heroic, but also incredibly delicate and refined. That to me sums up the sport of diving.

Euan Macdonald is a partner at Hawkins Brown

Photos: 1. Mark / Flickr; 2. Jorge Lascar / Flickr 3. Cecila / Flickr; 4. Hufton + Crow