Lasting impression

From City Streets to Celestial Structures


I grew up near Lake Constance in southern Germany, a beautiful area full of cutesy medieval towns. So when I visited the Kunsthaus Bregenz 1 (1997) in Austria by Peter Zumthor for an Olafur Eliasson exhibition, it wasn’t something I had ever seen before – concrete was something to be hidden or rendered. But here, these meticulous in-situ concrete spaces were absolutely celebrated – it’s all the building is. I was about to move to Sheffield to study architecture, and seeing this beautiful concrete and the amazing synergy with the exhibition left a real impression.

In 2014, when we were working on Bethnal Green Mission Church, we visited Le Havre to see Auguste Perret’s post-war reconstruction of the city centre 2 (1945-64) – this very well-considered background architecture with beautiful concrete details everywhere you look. Perret only designed a couple of buildings, while his workshop did an array under his supervision, so they’re all slightly different – there are endless variations of precast concrete elements and panels. It was built as fast and as cheaply as possible, but it is a very coherent cityscape.

Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion in Venice 3 (1962) is a pivotal reference point for our practice. Again, it is a celebration of structure. The roof is relatively deep, but it is made from incredibly thin concrete lamella, which have a strong material quality and modulate the light from above. We took a similar approach at Bethnal Green, as we needed a transfer slab with deep beams.

We decided that if you’ve got a structure, you don’t hide it, you make it a key part of the space. The ceiling is an important part of a space of worship – the way it emphasises the volume, the height, the sense of being immersed in that space – and Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral 4 (1956-62) is a beautiful reinterpretation of a vaulted ceiling. Churches are incredibly traditional spaces, and Spence found a way of bridging that without simply copying from the past.

Stefanie Rhodes is a director at Gatti Routh Rhodes Architects

Photos 1.Markus Tretter; 2.iammattdoran/Adobe Stock; 3.Hundven-Clements/VIEW; 4. maartenhoek/Adobe Stock