Reflections on Concrete Elegance - Attention to Detail

6 Dec 2018

‘Attention to detail’ was the title given to our most recent Concrete Elegance lecture, featuring projects by architectural practices well versed in detailing concrete. Tom Herre and Matt Ball of David Chipperfield Architects (DCA) presented Inagawa cemetery chapel and visitor centre, a thoughtful series of structures and spaces embedded into a Japanese hillside.

Here the concrete is treated as a natural material, its aggregates revealed by grinding and sand-blasting the surface to create texture within muted earthen tones by the use of carefully selected pigment and grey cement. The architects explained that along with materiality and texture, concrete was chosen for its ability to be cast as a monolithic structure for floors, walls and roof to create a sense of permanence and longevity.

Hannah Fothergill and Rob Bearyman of Bennetts Associates and Barry Dobbins from Waterman Group presented their soon to be completed Royal College of Pathologists Headquarters in Aldgate, London. Here permanence and longevity were also an aspiration, along with other sustainability targets including material efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of the building for construction and occupation. Long coffered concrete slabs are a striking feature of the interiors, with ceiling profiles carefully detailed for integral lighting, optimising the surface area for thermal mass.

The reduction in weight of the new structure allowed the existing raft foundation of the previous building to be reused. Such practical considerations also underpin the sensitive use of space, light, materials and texture, where rough-sawn board-marked concrete, brick walls, walnut and blackened steel fixtures happily combine.

Large scale models informed the design development of both projects, as well as full scale mock-ups of concrete on-site; the attention to detail continued through the construction process.  I was interested to note how each project developed a solution for controlling the appearance of the tie bolt hole in collaboration with their construction team. DCA employed an innovative narrow bolt system with a shallow recessed head, the impression of which was then sand-blasted away.

This left just a small hole to be filled and finished with a piece of aggregate to ‘lose’ its appearance within the texture of the final surface. Bennetts Associates worked closely with their concrete contractor O’Connell to align, where possible, the tie bolt holes centrally in the narrow horizontal timber boards, establishing the optimum layout of the fixed-pan formwork system and in places adjusting the size of the pine boards to suit.

Each building illustrates a practical and poetic approach to the use of concrete, and good understanding of its potential. The projects demonstrate concrete’s ability to be a material of both efficiency and honesty but also to create high quality spaces, that can enrich not only their environment but those that experience it. Both illustrate the lecture series title perfectly.

By Elaine Toogood - Senior Architect, The Concrete Centre

Concrete Elegance is a series of lectures that celebrates recent, exemplary, concrete architecture, chaired by Elaine Toogood and produced by The Building Centre and The Concrete Centre.

Our autumn Concrete Elegance lecture featured two buildings from practices well known for attention to detail in concrete design. Bennetts Associates’ HQ for the Royal College of Pathologists is a flexible, highly efficient building that will feature in CQ Spring 267. Meanwhile, David Chipperfield’s Inagawa Cemetery (CQ Autumn 265) is a contemplative space of earthy red concrete.

Quarterly Winter 2018 available online at www.concretecentre.com.cq and previous issues will be added to the CQ Archive at www.concretecentre.com/archive

The next Concrete Elegance event will be held on 19th March 2019.