Concrete: a Cultural History – RIBA talk, 7 July 2015

Last week I went to another event in RIBA’s Brutalist Playground season:

“Concrete polarises opinion. Used almost universally in modern construction today it is a material capable of provoking intense loathing as well as stirring passions. Its development can be traced as far back as Roman times, however it was in the twentieth century that its full capabilities became realised. Over the past 100 years architects and engineers have seized upon the possibilities of concrete enthusiastically. Its widespread use in almost all building types we experience has given it a significance and meaning that has – for better or worse – leapt beyond buildings into politics, film, literature and art.

“RIBA hosts a discussion exploring the world’s most emotionally loaded material charting a global love/hate relationship with Adrian Forty (Prof. Emeritus of Architectural History,The Bartlett & author of ‘Concrete and Culture – A Material History’), Elain Harwood (Historian with English Heritage & author of ‘Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975) and William Hall (William hall Design & author of ‘Concrete’). Chaired by Adam Kaasa (RCA School of Architecture).”

“Concrete ______” and Brutalism

Adam Kaasa was unwell so Catherine Croft, Director of the 20th Century Society, stepped in to chair at the last minute. She started by saying that ‘concrete’ is often followed by ‘jungle’ or ‘monstrosity’ when referred to by the public or in the media. She also said she felt that Brutalist buildings don’t have to be concrete at all. I suppose it depends how strictly you define it as being derived from the French ‘beton brut’ for ‘raw concrete’ – I have always agreed with that definition but more recently the term seems to have been expanded in popular use to include any striking, massive or sometimes rough-around-the-edges concrete (and sometimes brick) buildings. The Wikipedia entry for Brutalist Architecture summarises this diluting and confusing of the term:

“‘Brutalism’ as an architectural critical term was not always consistently used by critics; architects themselves usually avoided using it altogether. More recently, ‘brutalism’ has become used in popular discourse to refer to buildings of the late twentieth century that are large or unpopular – as a synonym for ‘brutal’ – making its effective use in architectural historical discourse problematic.”

Adrian Forty

Professor Forty spoke first, on the history of concrete and on some of its meanings and associations. He explained that concrete was first developed as a commercial building material in the 1830s to 1840s but wasn’t used much until the late 19th and early 20th century, when Belgian builders did experimental work, including sandbag loading to test the strength of concrete beams.

In the 1900s architects and engineers became more interested in the material. Auguste Perret in France designed concrete buildings that started the debate on whether to show or hide the material, including the Rue Franklin apartment building in Paris and Notre Dame du Raincy church just outside the French capital. Forty said that Perret set out to make concrete a noble material, not just for foundations. I did remember Perret from when I did my Architecture degree (and this talk reminded me a bit of my university lectures) but it was still striking to see the Raincy church, with its heavy ceiling seeming to rest so lightly on walls of glass, and I imagine it must have been even more remarkable to viewers at the time it was built.

Also in the early 20th century, Rudolf Steiner designed the Second Goetheanum – an early use of cast concrete in building – in Dornach, near Basel, in Switzerland. In the mid 20th century, Le Corbusier designed the monastery Sainte Marie de La Tourette, built outside Lyon in reinforced concrete.

Forty described how in the 20th century, the majority of the public steadily became disgusted by concrete, and this revulsion was in contrast to the passion of architects and engineers for the material. He quoted Ove Arup as saying he “couldn’t understand why architects continued to use concrete when they knew so little about it and other alternatives were available”.

Forty himself said that “for many architects, concrete stands for or represents all matter”. He referred to Martin Heidegger’s concept of ‘fourfold’ in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’: Earth, Sky, Mortals and Divinities as the four elements that complete dwelling. Forty said that a similar model for concrete specifically would be Humanity, Nature, Matter and Non-matter (or Space). In this context, “Matter is a generic substance, stuff without distracting evidence of construction – matter in its pure state – transcends individuation of other materials. Grey blankness is a virtue, a quality … it shows off the soul of the project”.

There is a bit of a contradiction here, as much concrete architecture, especially Brutalism, actually shows and celebrates the method of construction – as, for example, in the wood textures on the concrete surfaces of the National Theatre in London. (One of the speakers showed a slide with a close-up of this concrete and I recognised it immediately – it’s such a distinctive feature of that and many buildings that had an element of craft to the shuttering the concrete was poured into.) This was also raised as a point by someone in the audience – Forty responded that it is a somewhat double-edged sword, and while I’m not quite sure what he meant by that, I can see there is an inherent contradiction in concrete both having a fluid, plastic quality but at the same time sometimes requiring some quite traditional materials and methods, such as timber and carpentry, to mould them.

Elain Harwood

Elain Harwood is Senior Architectural Investigator at Historic England (formerly English Heritage) and familiar to me from architectural history TV programmes, English Heritage videos and exhibitions, books and events such as this (and the excellent Barbitopia, which she co-curated with David Heathcote). Her new book, Space, Hope and Brutalism, is published in September and looks interesting.

To be concluded… I will return to this post and complete it shortly, with Elain Harwood’s wide-ranging examples of concrete buildings from history, and William Hall’s equally diverse and often more obscure present-day examples.

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The Rise and Fall of the Council Estate – RIBA talk and debate, 23 June 2015

It’s clear that the question of the future of social housing is reaching a critical stage at the moment, with lots of news coverage of protests against forced evictions, the failures of the system, funding shortages, and basic lack of political will to address the lack of genuinely affordable housing. And if the show of hands at this recent talk is indicative, the subject is of equal interest to the wider public as it is to people working in architecture, social policy or urban theory. It was even speculated that 10 or 20 years ago we might not have seen RIBA running an event with this theme – and even if they had, there might have been a lot less interest than there is now.

It was part of a season of events inspired by ‘The Brutalist Playground’ installation currently in place at RIBA in London. The event was chaired by Daisy Froud, with Finn Williams (Common Office), Andrea Klettner (Love London Council Housing), Simon Terrill (Artist, Brutalist Playground and Balfron Project), Tony McGuirk (Architect/urban designer & former Chairman of BDP) and Paul Karakusevic (Director of Karakusevic-Carson Architects) each giving a 10-minute talk about one social housing development before fielding questions from Froud and the floor.

Here’s how RIBA billed the event:

“Since the completion of the first council estate in 1900, mass housing in the UK has taken on many forms. From tenements, garden suburbs and high-rises, volume building has encouraged architectural innovation and experiment. For some, council estates remain the embodiment of progress while for others they are derided as failures. Regardless of perception, millions today call them home and estates are a crucial part of the UK’s total housing supply.

“Against the backdrop of a growing housing crisis, RIBA hosts an evening charting the evolution of the Council Estate and debates the highs and lows of a century of development, innovation and shifting attitudes, and asks: Do they have a future? Can they be adapted? How can they evolve?”

Daisy Froud

Daisy Froud introduced the event and the theme for the evening, noting that architecture and social housing are not just about design but also economics and politics. She also mentioned Anne Power’s book, Estates on the Edge (covering social housing till 1997) by Anne Power, and Private Island by James Meek, which I’ve added to my reading list.

Finn Williams (Common Office. also GLA Regeneration Manager, Novis founder, and Trustee of Arnold Circus)

Finn Williams spoke about the Boundary Estate, also known as Arnold Circus – the first council estate, designed by Owen Fleming and team at the London County Council (LCC) ‘Housing of the Working Class Branch’ and opened in 1900, inspiring many future developments such as the Millbank estate.

The development saw old housing demolished through slum clearance and the rubble used to create the earth mound at the centre of the development, a landscaped park from which the new homes radiate. (I hadn’t realised until I saw ‘A Clockwork Jersualem’ recently just how much 20th Century British public architecture had included these mound forms.)

The reason for ploughing the remains back into the new development was to save on the costs of removing and disposing of them. With strong echoes of today’s political situation, the ethos was described as “design driven by austerity” but, unlike today, this solution (including building at almost three times the density of the Abercrombie Plan density) was motivated by the belief that “society is obliged to house people in need” – the priority was to house people who needed homes, rather than to make developers profit while providing minimal (if any) genuinely affordable housing.

However, even with the motivation to house people most in need, it doesn’t always quite work out that way – at the newly created Boundary Estate, only 11 of the original residents moved back in. Rents were too expensive for the neediest people, so instead the equivalent to today’s ‘key workers’ moved in, people working in local trades and industry.

The estate and wider area saw a change in residents over the 20th Century – more Jewish communities in the first half of the century, with Bangladeshi families post-WW2, before a decline in the 1980s saw the common trend of artists moving in where property was undesirable and costs were low. At the turn of the century, East London became very desirable again and, in 2004, residents formed the friends of Arnold Circus – restoring the gardens, involving the local school and even excavating some of the mound to uncover some of its history.

Andrea Klettner (Love London Council Housing)

Andrea Klettner’s presentation was on the Becontree estate in the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham. Built as “Homes for Heroes” in 1919 following WW1, they were made for more affluent working-class people. The development consists of 91 different house typologies but they are all built from brick and largely look the same… possibly one reason why Pevsner said “A tour of Becontree is demanding, even for the enthusiast”!

The estate was designed to be family-friendly, including more open designs for pubs, and, at 600 acres, it was the biggest council estate in Europe by area. It doesn’t seem to have aged well, partly because it understandably wasn’t designed for modern-day needs such as car parking and wheelie bins – with the latter especially crowding many of the pathways.

Simon Terrill (Artist, part of Assemble, Brutalist Playground and Balfron Project)

Simon Terrill spoke about the Brownfield Estate in Poplar, East London, in his capacity as one of the artists-in-residence in its Balfron Tower building. It was interesting to hear a resident’s view (following my visit and further reading last year), albeit one of the artists rather than one of the long-term social tenants who have been displaced.

He mentioned Glenkerry House on the estate, which has successfully used a different model, of forming a housing co-op, to protect its future from commercial redevelopment.

He said that the estate’s architect, Erno Goldfinger, was said to be the inspiration for the architect in J G Ballard’s 1975 novel, High Rise (as well as his more famous association with the Bond villain). He described Balfron Tower as “a Modernist kind of fortress” but one designed to encourage encounters with neighbours, with communal laundry-drying space and corridors shared by three floors of flats.

Simon Terrill took a famous photo of the tower where he told all the residents the time of the shoot and asked them to appear in their windows or balconies to show the life inside the building. This 2010 artwork coincided with the announcement that, despite earlier promises, the social tenants would not be rehoused in the tower they had vacated for refurbishment work. This removal of the right to return means there is now a single social tenant in the tower and Terrill said that the planned privatisation will leave the tower as “a spectacle with no substance”.

Paul Karakusevic (Director of Karakusevic-Carson Architects)

Paul Karakusevic spoke about Keeling House in Bethnal Green, also in East London – a tower block designed by Denys Lasdun and opened in 1955. He noted that this was a more radical time with little nostalgia for older housing stock, mentioning an LCC plan, which eventually came to nothing, to replace most of Canonbury, Islington and New North Road with megablock housing.

For Keeling House, local two-up-two-down houses with pavements in front became the inspiration for the units of accommodation – four wings of maisonettes around a central core. Decks were designed for “conversation and clothes drying” but higher decks were said to be too windy for the former.

The angles of the plan of the four towers were to maximise daylight and minimise overshadowing of neighbouring homes. Although the system (and the appetite for towers with it) later fell out of favour following the Ronan Point disaster in 1968, Keeling House was a successful example of panelised precast construction, keeping building costs relatively low.

However, within 20 years Keeling House faced issues of decay as well as crime and security. Despite some repairs, it was placed under a Dangerous Structure notice in 1991 and closed in 1992. Tower Hamlets council planned to demolish it but public protest led to listing – and an offer to Peabody Trust housing association to take it off the council’s hands for £1, which was turned down, before it was sold off to private developers for £1m.

He said the area was described as recently as 15 years ago as “edgy” with an “air of decay”. The private developers soon surrounded Keeling House with a fence and turned into a gated community. Neighbouring council housing Bradley House was demolished and Karakusevic-Carson Architects worked on the replacements – community housing trusts, providing and managing homes inherited from Tower Hamlets council, with many paying social rent, including key workers.

Tony McGuirk (Architect/urban designer & former Chairman of BDP)

The final speaker was Tony McGuirk, talking about his time working with Ralph Erskine to design the Byker Estate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The same social group of people had lived in the area of Byker for 100 years, with many working in the shipbuilding industry. When the council proposed redevelopment in the 1970s, the residents resisted being moved to other estates across the city – of around 14,000 residents, 8,000 were rehoused in the eventual new estate designed by Erskine’s practice.

Erskine met the residents and lived in Byker for a while before planning any redevelopment. The design is primarily for the pedestrian and retained many pubs, social clubs, churches, schools and other community building such as pools. Residents were rehoused incrementally, rather than having to wait for the entire redevelopment to be done.

McGuirk described it as a “tapestry of durable, common materials such as brick”, with the north face or “Wall” designed to protect from the cold north sea winds, while the south side is more residential with all buildings orientated to maximise sunlight.

Homes are 80% low-rise, in smaller groups of seven to ten residents, with relatives housed together and access through verandas – rather than more monumental massing with ‘streets in the sky’. Erskine drew and sketched a lot during the design process to show residents low-rise terraces of houses and flats grouped around courtyards, with private and semi-private spaces throughout for children and adults. Some north-facing walls were black while south-facing walls were white – reflecting the black and white stripes of Newcastle United football club. And to deal with the sloped site, terraces were embedded in the hillside.

Questions and debate

After the presentations, Froud invited all the speakers up for questions and comments. During this part of the event, some figures were mentioned to put the current social housing situation in context: up until 1980 and the introduction of council housing sell-off through right-to-buy, 250,000 homes were built each year, of which half were social, public housing; we need 250,000 new homes a year now, but only 110,000 are being built.

If any social housing were to be built under the current government, Williams joked that “they might end up being called Homes for Hard-working People”.

McGuirk commented that he doesn’t see the same solidarity in today’s communities that he saw in Byker, to resist being rehoused and fragmented.

Karakusevic said he now saw a renaissance of local authority housing projects – 30- to 40-year programmes – but they have to be cross-funded to avoid those local authorities going bankrupt.

Froud mentioned social schemes that have been helping communities to build their own housing, including Community Land Trusts and Community Right to Build.

Berlin was mentioned by a couple of panel members as providing a good model for sustainable social housing, where in the past 20 years 30% of housing has been built through housing co-ops.

And the key term ‘affordable housing’ was explained as being 80% of market value – which of course, throughout the UK but especially in London, is not going to be affordable to many people, especially people in most need. Developments with affordable housing can include some social rent, or some part-rent-part-purchase or ‘intermediate tenure’.

I had been wondering how ‘affordable housing’ ever got to be defined this way, and exactly how such a system could have been allowed that failed people in need of genuinely affordable social housing. In the same week as this event, Olly Wainwright answered my question in horrifying detail in a brilliant piece in the Guardian.

I was pleased to put a face to a blog when the first audience comment came from John, who writes the excellent Municipal Dreams blog – he noted that council housing pays for itself over 30 years, so essentially there isn’t really an argument for it not being affordable for local authorities.

Williams responded that there has been a move back to more of a philanthropy model now – quotas for social housing and a percentage of costs from private development cross-subsidy, and that is now all about economics and procurement rather than a design solution.

Karakusevic made the point that the local authorities he’s worked with still control decisions on the master plan, along with architects, before developers are ever involved.

But Williams countered that many other local authorities base their plans on the financial value of land alone, and not on their potential social value – compared with the Berlin model, where land price is fixed at the start before the tendering process.

Karakusevic’s final point was about social housing in London – he said that local authorities own about 40% of London – and they could therefore solve the housing problem.

But so much of this depends on social housing policy at a national government level – and the latest moves make for depressing reading.