20 September 2017

Gavin Miller in Concrete Quarterly's Lasting Impressions

The Romans built some amazing concrete buildings, but the best Roman concrete is underwater, used to form breakwaters for harbours. Researchers at the University of Utah have found that it’s superior to most modern concrete in terms of durability. Instead of using Portland cement, the Romans mixed baked limestone and seawater with volcanic ash, which reacts with seawater to become stronger – another example of Roman innovation that could inform more environmentally friendly mixes today.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct in north-west Scotland was completed in 1901, but it’s also Roman in the sense that it’s mass concrete rather than reinforced. I love the solidity of the arched forms, and the curve gives it a real presence in the landscape.The Rue Franklin apartments in Paris by Auguste Perret (1903) was one of the first uses of a concrete frame. It’s quietly beautiful, the way it integrates the structural frame with the infill panels, and the contrast with the decorative elements. I like the innovation of the building plan, with flexible spaces and an inverted bay window that brings light into the rooms. It’s a very humane and urbane use of concrete.

For me, Oscar Niemeyer’s Casa de Canoas (1954) in Rio de Janeiro is the original plastic use of concrete. It has a free-form oversailing roof slab, which provides shade to the spaces below, but the glass doesn’t follow the form of the roof above and it integrates with the landscape, so you get a wonderful merging of inside and outside.

A lot of people think that Richard Seifert’s Centre Point (1966) is a Brutalist building, but it’s much more luxuriant than that – it’s more in the vein of Niemeyer or Pier Luigi Nervi. There’s only board-marked concrete where you’re not meant to see it, otherwise there’s a deliberate treatment to it. Sometimes concrete is used daringly, pushing it to the absolute limits, and in other areas it’s quite flamboyant. The more I’ve got to know the building as we’ve led its refurbishment, the more I’ve appreciated it.


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