Contrasts, calatrava and cornish blue



I was born and brought up just by the Thames in SE1, so my introduction to concrete was watching the construction of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre [1] (1976). As a 13-year-old, I hadn’t yet thought of becoming an architect but even then I could appreciate that something special was being revealed. I loved the contrast of that Brutalist concrete with the very high-quality materials of the interiors and the colours. There’s no airs and graces about Brutalism, but the way the concrete sets off other materials is a wonderful thing. It’s like ambergris – it enhances their qualities and allows them to shine.

At architecture school, we went to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater [2] and the Johnson Wax Headquarters (both 1939). There you can see the versatility and the beauty up close. In Fallingwater, again it’s the concrete in contrast with the other materials, particularly glass, that’s wonderful for me. The beautiful ribbed arched structure of Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia [3] (1998) also stood out for me. It clearly shows what a dream material concrete is for an engineer – the structures it can produce are so impressive, in terms of the elegant shapes and the gymnastics they can perform. It’s painted white, which looks absolutely amazing against the Mediterranean sunlight – like something out of this world. You can see why it was chosen as the backdrop for a recent episode of Doctor Who.

More recently, the practice was fortunate enough to extend Powell and Moya’s in-situ and precast Wolfson College [4] (1971) in Oxford. I liked the unpreciousness of the in-situ concrete. There’s discoloration, and the holes where the panels were removed are not perfectly round, yet they didn’t feel the need to touch them up. Sometimes I think concrete is almost artificially touched up today, which seems a shame. In-situ concrete is what it is. But I also appreciate the refinement that’s possible with precast. At Wolfson, the panels are perfectly assembled and inset with Cornish blue granite, which gives the building a timeless quality. It looks as good now as it did in the 1970s.

Marion Brereton is a director at Berman Guedes Stretton

Photos: 1. Douglas Miller / Getty Images; 2. Nick Higham / Alamy Stock Photo; 3. Marion Brereton; 4. Quintin Lake Photography