Published on 8/16/2017
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Architects, designers and the public are rediscovering concrete and finding a new appetite for it
Concrete is starring in contemporary design in Australia and all over the world
Tasting Australia creative director Simon Bryant in his concrete house, which draws inspiration from Soviet-era architecture.Ben Liew
Concrete throws off its brutalist image to star in authentic contemporary design
by Paul Best
Concrete is unapologetic.
Ask Simon Bryant, the creative director of South Australia's annual food and wine festival, Tasting Australia.
His house in the inner-northern Adelaide suburb of Brompton isn't just head-to-toe concrete. It's concrete in your face: raw and aggressive, inside and out.
As the chef and one-time mechanic puts it: "It's a little bit 'get f---ed'."
For a Melbourne bayside residential extension, architectural firm Hayball used timber formwork – the mould into which the concrete is poured – to embed a very fine grain into the surface, softening its appearance supplied to AFR
It isn't just the facade that's intimidating.
Everywhere inside, the concrete is scarred and weathered, and the steel structural supports have been left exposed.
On the open-plan ground floor, the material's industrial strength and hard looks allow the garage and car to nestle with the kitchen and lounge.
Upstairs, it means architect John Eckert could get away with a stark, prison-like washroom with a "cattle grate" drain, right where Bryant hoses down his motorbike.
"I could hang a pig in there," the chef says.
Sydney architect George Livissianis used concrete in The Apollo restaurant in Potts Point. Christopher Pearce
Unsurprisingly, Bryant drew inspiration for his award-winning house from Soviet-era architecture – of which brutalism was a prominent style – during a stint cooking in Moscow: "I loved that brutal, authoritarian architecture that says, 'We're looking at you, don't you dare.' "
Certainly, brutalist architecture – from the French beton brut, meaning raw concrete – is arguably what most people still identify concrete with today: stark and unsentimental edifices thrown up mainly from the 1950 to 1970s.
They included government buildings, universities, cultural centres and car parks.
We imagine them in communist settings but they flourished the world over, including Australia.
An interior in SJB's Tapestry apartments. supplied to AFR
Buildings like the Barbican and Trellick Tower in London, Boston City Hall and the Russian embassy in Havana as well as, closer to home, the National Gallery of Victoria and Sydney University's Biochemistry and Microbiology Building.
While Bryant adores its harsh look, as do architects, public sentiment has over the years been more pejorative, giving concrete a bad name. In recent years, though, concrete has staged a revival.
Architects and designers are rediscovering the material and a more sophisticated public is finding a new appetite for it – particularly given our wont to take cues from hospitality.
Sydney architect George Livissianis' use of concrete in The Apollo restaurant in Potts Point is an example.
For its Melbourne boutique apartments Tapestry, SJB used using form liners on a precast mould to give the facade a more sculpted and decorative look. supplied to AFR
"Concrete has a confident, ageless look," says architect Ian Freeman, reminding us that forms of the material can be traced back beyond Roman times.
Miriam Fanning, principal of the multidisciplinary practice Mim Design, sees the renewed interest in concrete as part of a broader resurgence in using authentic materials.
"Even though it comes from man-made materials, I put it in the same category as stone, that timeless robust finish."
Tristan Wong, director of SJB, agrees: "You can see the grittiness of the constituents (sand, stone and mortar) in the concrete, see its imperfections, like brick and timber."
Angular brass detailing by Mim Design in concrete surfaces at AU79 cafe in Abbotsford. Supplied to AFR
In this respect, concrete doesn't need to be painted or protected and has excellent thermal mass.
"It's not like other, lightweight building materials that flake, peel or delaminate," Wong says.
"It barely changes over decades."
But beyond its honesty, durability and naked monolithic beauty, concrete is finding favour with architects and designers for its versatility and fluidity in projects large and small.
Its tone and texture can be played with, as can its shape and form.
"Concrete can be used in highly tailored ways," explains Sydney architect Nick Tobias.
New skills and technologies help.
Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Centre in Azerbaijan exhibits grace and fluidity. Vastram / Alamy Stock Photo
Tobias says additives enable concrete to perform better and alter its appearance. Used in a North Bondi project, they helped the house blend into its rocky landscape.
"We wanted this smart, luxurious finish," he says.
But old school works equally well.
For a Melbourne bayside residential extension, architectural firm Hayball used timber formwork – the mould into which the concrete is poured – to embed a very fine grain into the surface, softening its appearance.
It was given warmth, too, after rain leached colour from the timber, unintentionally staining the concrete during the pour.
"While the owners wanted spans of concrete to create large spaces that felt solid and permanent, they also wanted something ancient and old, the slow handcrafted way of using concrete," says Hayball senior associate Thomas Gilbert.
Developer-designer Neometro employed planked timber to achieve a similar look at the apartment development Nine Smith Street, in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood.
"It's what Le Corbusier did," says Neometro's Jeff Provan, referring to the early 20th century's pioneer of modern architecture and master of concrete.
The Trellick Tower in London was designed in the brutalist style and completed in 1972. stockeurope / Alamy Stock Photo
"From such banal ingredients you can achieve this amazing texture and colour that works so well with light and shadow.
"Concrete can look like glass or as soft as velvet in the right light."
Mim Design used architectural concrete former Keenan Harris to create a bubbled effect for the counters of Melbourne's Hunter & Co Deli to mimic, says Fanning, "the architectural structure of a piece of cheese".
Provan singles out the work of Japanese architect Tadao Ando for its refinement and detail – the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis and Museum of Literature in Himeji among his finer examples.
"He has the best concrete finishes I've ever seen," Provan says of Ando, who won architecture's highest honour – the Pritzker Prize – in 1995.
But he praises Valerio Olgiati and Luis Barragan as other leading exponents.
The late British architect Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku shows how graceful and fluid concrete can be, while Japanese architect firm ARTechnic's Shell house illustrates structure as sculpture.
For its Melbourne boutique apartments Tapestry, SJB used form liners on a precast mould to give the facade a more sculpted and decorative look.
The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis is one of Japanese architect Tadao Ando's designs. VIEW Pictures Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
"It gives [the concrete] a bit more detail and finesse," explains Wong.
For the same project, it used concrete "veils", hanging down the building's sides, to suggest lightness.
"As a feature material, concrete is quite organic," says Andrew Parr of SJB Interiors, citing a residential project in which a kitchen island bench of black concrete appears to flow from a white ceiling.
On a smaller scale, designers are using concrete to create moveable pieces of furniture and stores are selling concrete homewares, including vases and vessels, light fittings, candlesticks and side tables.
"Small concrete objects are in huge demand," says Fanning.
Architects also love concrete because spans of it are a blank canvas for artwork and designer furniture.
More than this, it works so well with other materials, like stone, timber and metal.
In Bryant's Adelaide house, stainless steel and the greenery of the kitchen garden offset the rawness of the concrete.
A high-angle view of Boston City Hall, Massachusetts. Huntstock, Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Mim Design uses elegant brass detailing against the "beautiful ground canvas" of concrete in its residential and commercial projects.
In NSW's Blue Mountains, Peter Stutchbury Architecture complemented the raw off-form concrete walls of Invisible House with spans of glass, a sinuous timber ceiling and stacked stone.
In Hayball's bayside residence, the concrete plays off spotted gum, stained timber, travertine and Castlemaine dry stone walling.
"Concrete is very singular," says Gilbert.
"By offsetting it against warmer details, you humanise it."
NGV International is a classic Australian iteration. Ken Irwin
Read more: http://www.afr.com/lifestyle/home-design/concrete-throws-off-its-brutalist-image-to-star-in-authentic-contemporary-design-20170811-gxu6e8#ixzz4pxHnx21A
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