Concrete Quarterly

Lasting impression

David Hills

London's very early adventures in concrete, and a wall to remember

I lived in the Barbican (1) (1965-76) for ten years, and it gave me a real respect for concrete. It’s pick- and bush-hammered, so you know that every square inch has had the same care and attention lavished on it as a stone building. Barbican concrete is also the toughest stuff you can imagine – the difficulty of putting up shelves was quite incredible.

As a conservation architect, I’ve taken that respect for concrete into my work. One project I really enjoyed was at London’s Royal Albert Docks, the last vestiges of which are the Dock Manager’s Office and Central Buffet (2) (1882), designed by William Lascelles. Lascelles patented this extraordinary prefab system, which involved nailing reinforced concrete panels to a timber frame. He even teamed up with the eminent architect Norman Shaw on a pattern book of 50 or so buildings – offices, houses, village halls – using the system. The panels are 3ft by 2ft by 1.5in, and the ornamentation is all attached in the same way. They are basically arts and crafts buildings made from concrete, and there’s an interesting contemporary review in The Builder lamenting that this new material is rehashing existing aesthetics rather than expressing its own unique qualities.

Half a century before Le Corbusier, they were already having this conversation. The Mission Church (3) in Dilston Grove, Southwark (1911), comes just 30 years later, but is unashamed to celebrate the rawness of concrete. It was designed by Wembley Stadium architects John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton, and while it’s still evoking a historical style, it embraces the textural qualities of concrete in a way that few architects did until much later. The interior has this austere feel, like a Franciscan friary – when you’re up close, you can see the day joints and the burnt spar aggregate in the concrete, which gives it a very particular grey colour. It’s a very direct evocation of the material.

Another work I came across professionally is the Ramsden Memorial (4) in Aldershot. When they replaced the Victorian barracks in 1962, William Mitchell (see below) created a garden wall incorporating pieces of the demolished buildings, so there are bits of brokenup brick amid these bush-hammered and grooved cast-concrete surfaces – a linear pattern that’s reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica. It feels imbued with the spirit of all the people who have been through the barracks, and the lives lost in various campaigns. Now it’s languishing in the middle of a housing estate – it needs a bit of recognition.

David Hills is a partner at Purcell

Photos 1. Dennis Gilbert / VIEW ; 2,3,4. David Hills