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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Book review: Raw Concrete, Barnabas Calder (2016)

This is an enticing book about brutalism but despite its promise you often wish that Calder had had a more urgent or persistent editor sitting behind him with his or her hand on his shoulder asking him firmly at key points, “Why?” And then, even more firmly, “How?”

Calder is an architecture lecturer, so he is a person with unique insights into his chosen craft and discipline, but his method in this book is unfortunately that of the teacher in front of a classroom full of informed and intelligent students, people already inculcated with a substructure of data about the matter at hand. For the layman or neophyte, the outcome is less than entirely satisfactory.

What is the scope of the book? Calder summarises part of it in the epilogue:
Not many will shelter from the coastal Scottish wind in the beautiful Hermit’s Castle, but huge numbers have daily views of [London’s residential] Trellick Tower or Balfron Tower, or find themselves threading their way through the futuristic cityscape of the Barbican [in London] for a concert or exhibition. Dozens of students every year live in [Sir Denys] Lasdun’s New Court [at Cambridge University], and hundreds study in Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester [University] Engineering Building. Millions of people from all over the globe walk, cycle, drive of bus past the National Theatre over Waterloo Bridge or along the [nearby] South Bank pedestrian path [in London]. Millions more have frequent interactions with thousands of other Brutalist buildings up and down the country.
Another development he discusses in the book is Glasgow’s Anderston Centre designed by architect Richard Seifert. It is signal that this one misses out getting a mention in his otherwise comprehensive epilogue because Siefert was a developer’s architect and seems to be not held to the same aesthetic standards as the other professionals profiled in the book. You suspect perhaps unfairly that there is a degree of classism at work in excluding Siefert’s building here.

He sketches out a manifesto of sorts in his epilogue:
Although some still see in the architecture of the 1960s a moment of madness of malign conspiracy, it makes far more sense to view it as a glorious celebration of new technologies, new cheap energy, new opportunities to enhance all human activities.
The impetus for the explosion of raw concrete construction in the era under discussion is given a go in the early part of the book also, but it falls somewhat short of requirements. What Calder says is this:
By the 1960s the exploitation of fossil fuels had given every British citizen access to more energy than was available to anyone in the pre-modern world. Architects were freed by unprecedented energy wealth from the age-old structural limitations of clumsy stone and brick, and weak, flammable wood. The total amount of architectural activity shot up, with ordinary working-class people getting more living space, new mod cons, new educational opportunities and new health facilities, each housed in new buildings. They travelled more, using upgraded roads, updated railways and new airports; they had more leisure time to spend in the increasingly diverse facilities built to entertain them. 
Cheap energy made concrete and steel available in quantity, and engineers’ understandings of reinforced concrete developed rapidly. For the first time in history the weight of very large structures did not need to travel down in vertical walls and columns, or follow the inflexible lines of arches and vaults. Architects could slide the constituent parts of their buildings around at will, massively increasing the range of ways they could arrange rooms and routes, bringing outdoor space to any part of the building they chose, escaping the architectural restrictions of ground-level the way sci-fi fans hoped rocket-packs would one day enable pedestrians to do, and opening up completely new shapes of building to the designer. 
Cheap energy also reconfigured Brutalist architects’ attitudes to the design of interiors. To be a comfortable temperature in winter, British buildings had always needed to be divided into cellular rooms small enough to reduce drafts, each with its fireplace to warm it, served by thick clusters of chimney-flues. Daylight was the best and cheapest illumination, requiring relatively thin buildings so that light could penetrate to the back of each room, and higher ceilings for tall windows. If artificial lighting was needed it came with noxious gasses until the advent of electric lighting, and from then with the surplus heat of incandescent bulbs. In the 1950s and ‘60s all this changed. With cheap, cool electric lighting, mechanical ventilation, central heating, and the versatility of concrete structure, rooms could be whatever size and shape was needed. The building could fit round the functions rather than the functions having to accommodate themselves to the normal strictions of buildings.
But there had been steel-framed buildings in the United States since the 1870s that had used pneumatic lifts and electric lighting and ventilation. Something about the post-WWII period was different in signal ways in terms of structural design. There was something about the concrete construction methods that appeared in this new era that was different from what had gone before, but Calder seems to me to pull up short of putting his finger on it in a precise manner.

He fails to convey target meanings in other places in the book as well, such as where he tries to explain how the financial system worked in the 1960s British commercial building boom. Despite his attempt, the message just does not get across because the author goes too fast. He does much better when he attempts to convey the method of using wooden formwork to build the raw concrete finishing for the National Theatre in London. This turns into an inspired piece of writing about an important craft with technical elements provided to enable you to understand its intricacies.

Calder is clubby and tends to use localisms and technical terms without any amplification however. When you come across the word “dodo” in one part of the book you have to rush to Google to find quick answers. (It’s a rail that is installed on walls at a certain height from the floor to stop chairs from damaging the wall.) He also uses the word “bodge” (make or repair something badly or clumsily) several times but it’s a word he unfortunately seems to think has currency outside Britain. Another example where Google alone can bring relief. He somewhat curiously capitalises “Welfare State” furthermore as though it were a proper noun when it was in actual fact just an expression of Keynesian economics.

In short, this is a tantalising book that falls short in many ways but that nevertheless gives you an informed shot of good information in many others. It is a must-read for those who are interested in brutalism, but its uneven finish might have been remedied by a more assiduous editor. You find this kind of problem in other places where architects write about their craft. There is a lack of dedication to the selection of the right word in this realm of knowledge, where people might possibly feel more at home explaining what they want to say using a quick sketch or using mathematical exegesis. Words tend to fail such people, it seems, at critical junctures.

You wonder how architects convey their ideas to their clients. Or perhaps their clients just go along with the fashion of the time believing that credit will thence accrue to them by some sort of organic process like osmosis.

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