Vexing lyrical

Stephen Chance reflects on the exhilarating concrete pour for Vex – part London house, part musical experiment

The great mystery of casting is in what is first hidden and then revealed. In the celebrated bell-making sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Andrei Rublev, the process of casting is portrayed as a rough, uncertain art. In medieval Russia, a boy makes a leap of faith to lead a group of sceptical workmen constructing the formwork for casting a giant cathedral bell. The process fuses the best technology of the day with brute labour, and portrays tentative leadership and reluctant teamwork, innocent daring and experienced fear.

Meanwhile, in present-day Hackney, site manager Nigel Fanshawe and I are looking up anxiously at the suspended hull of a curving boat-like structure. It contains the mesh armature for the concrete pour of the entire top floor of our project, Vex.

Vex is a new house. It is also a curved, fluted chamber for which the electronic composer Scanner has devised a musical piece, created by manipulating the sound of pouring concrete. We’re collaborating to create a building and sound piece based on Erik Satie’s Vexations – a short, looping piano work intended to be played 840 times.

The walls’ constantly changing curvature has been set out by computer so that the curves meet smoothly, with tangents joining at right angles to shared multi-centre radii of differing lengths. From these, curved walers are CNC-cut. Then comes the heavy work – wrapping the building in bespoke “library shelving” formwork clamped in place by sturdy ranks of twin “soldiers”. These restrain the flexi-ply-backed corrugated steel sheets.

In his book Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty describes the irony of concrete as a modern, indeed modernist, material when its creation can be so stubbornly archaic. This is borne out in Vex’s finished concrete surface, its construction manifested in the rhythms of corrugations, in shutter boltholes and the casts of screw heads. There is minimal cosmetic work – just the occasional blowhole infill where the reinforcement cover might be compromised, while accidental variations of surface and tone add a textural layer.

As Nigel and I assist with the concrete pour, checking the formwork below decks for possible weaknesses and supervising from above the vibrating within these thin curving shells, our primary emotions are excitement and fear. Casting the exterior envelope of a whole storey in one go, there is no room for significant failure – no chance to remake and limited possibilities for making good.

Within these walls, Scanner’s track Flow tolls, as sonorously, and ambiguously, as Tarkovsky’s bell. 
Stephen Chance is a partner in Chance de Silva

Photos: Hélène Binet; ITAR-TASS Photo Agency / Alamy Stock Photo