Cementing a New Status

18 Jan 2020

Published in: Daily Mail, January 2020

Concrete structures are popping up everywhere - and winning awards, too. Few other building materials are more vilified than concrete. the philosopher Roger Scruton believes that post-war Britain was almost ‘obliterated by ugly deposits of concrete and steel’.

And even the revolutionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright recognised concrete had an image problem, once describing it as the ‘gutter rat’ of the building world. From the man in the street who huffs and puffs at the latest modernist eyesore, to Prince Charles who famously described the proposed extension to the National Gallery as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’, the world is full of people who can’t look at a concrete construction without feeling aggrieved.

Yet now one of Australia’s foremost architectural critics, Joe Rollo, who writes for the Age newspaper in Melbourne, has decided that enough is enough. in Concrete Houses, a lavishly illustrated book published later this month, he defends concrete with a missionary zeal.

‘The concrete houses I have included in the book are beautiful - each elevates the art of house design to another level,’ he said last week. ‘Concrete has conviction, strength and directness. ‘it has plasticity too, which makes the possibilities for formmaking almost endless.’ Some of the houses chosen by Rollo, such as Casa Plana in Porto Feliz, Brazil, designed by Brazilian architect Marcio kogan, are spectacular.

It's 68m by 17m slab roof, which appears to float above the glass walls of the building, is sown with grass that keeps the building cool in summer and warm in winter. Then there is the Pierre on the San Juan islands in northwest Washington in the u.S., designed by tom kundig, which appears to be squeezed in between an outcrop of rock. only concrete would allow for such mind- bogglingly peculiar shapes. ‘You can pretty much build concrete structures anywhere,’ Rollo says.

Concrete houses have their supporters in this country, too - notably at the Concrete Centre, an organisation providing guidance in its design, use and performance. They are keen to promote examples of concrete houses sitting well in the British landscape - houses such as outhouse in the Forest of Dean. this building has addressed a problem that torments architects: how to get planning permission to build in a scenic landscape.

Their solution? Disguising the house with natural camouflage. Nominated for the RiBA Stirling Prize in 2016, the low- slung 490 sq m building projects from just one facade and is barely visible from any distance. it has wonderful views and its covering of thick green grass runs naturally into the surrounding hill.

Yet, as Rollo says, you do not need an impressive open landscape to frame a concrete structure. Hill top House, an angled terrace infill in oxford, is yet another award-winning property. All of the structure was prefabricated off site and finished in less than a week.

So why the dodgy reputation? there have been cases of people finding difficulty in securing finance for non- standard construction home insurance, which includes concrete. there have also been horror stories of postwar concrete council houses being defective with poor quality steel rods used in their construction.

There’s also the matter that if you build a house using concrete, pipes and wires have to go into the wall, meaning you have to break through it. And don’t concrete buildings cost more to build than traditionally constructed homes?

Elaine Toogood, head of architecture at the Concrete Centre, disregards these so-called problems. ‘The issues you mention all date back 60 years - concrete homes are very different today,’ she says. ‘ your senses are immediately aware of the superior performance of a concrete house compared to a traditional build. ‘It’s quieter, with no creaking floorboards. it’s comfortably heated - not too hot or too cold - because concrete acts as an energy store. you get a sense of solidity. Above all, concrete looks so good.’

Concrete Houses: The Poetics Of Form by Joe Rollo is published by Thames & Hudson, £39.95, on January 23.

By Fred Redwood

Contributor - Elaine Toogood, senior architect at The Concrete Centre