Adrian James

Three sides of concrete from three corners of the world – brutally honest in india, provocatively artificial in Texas, and politely refined in Oxford

I was lucky enough to get to Chandigarh in the mid-1980s before it was cut off to visitors amid the Punjab insurgency. It was an obvious place of pilgrimage for a young architect. Universities didn’t place a huge emphasis on materials at that time, so to see this monumental urban set-piece of raw concrete left a real impact on me. Le Corbusier’s Capitol Complex is as brutish as you can get – just really rough, expressive concrete cast against standard sheet metal. It’s like a kind of inhabited ruin.

The masterplan originally conceived a city of 500,000 people but the housing is not so successful. You feel like the city will come into its own in 500 years when you can just see the bones of the Corbusier buildings – like an Italian town where the inhabitants have built between the remains of an amphitheatre.

In the 1990s, I got to see concrete from a completely different perspective, when I worked for John Outram on Duncan Hall at Rice University in Texas. For John, concrete was more a medium for conveying a message, a blank canvas to be manipulated.

He exploited the material’s plasticity, introduced pigments and created the terrazzo-like Blitzcrete. It was the perfect material to express the iconography of his wildly imaginative world – all these things he wanted to say about the history of architecture. I know many people find his buildings too much, but they have a real presence and a lot of that stems from the concrete.

Whereas a lot of postmodern architecture feels paper-thin, like a stage set, these are incredibly massive and powerful buildings. I live and work in Oxford, which is a brilliant place if you’re a concrete afficionado. Powell and Moya’s work in the 1960s offers some wonderful combinations of exposed concrete and Portland stone, and Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College similarly fuses concrete and brick to great effect. More recently, Níall McLaughlin’s Master’s Field buildings for Balliol College has these extraordinarily intricate precast panels, like a woven lattice.

One of my favourite buildings is Richard MacCormac’s Garden Quad at St John’s College. In some ways, it bridges the gap between raw, brutalist concrete and the way that postmodernists like Outram used the material. It harnesses a number of historic allusions, but in a way that makes functional sense.

The domed interiors of the conference hall and lecture rooms, which emerge into the quad as oculus windows, are a reference to Sir John Soane’s Bank of England, beautifully reinterpreted in precast concrete.

Adrian James is managing director of Adrian James Architects

Photos Serhii Chrucky; Archimage / Alamy Stock Photo / Nathan Willock-VIEW