Lasting impression

Completely rational, completely mysterious

Normally if you’re asked a question about your favourites, it’s difficult to answer. But with buildings, there is an easy one: the Pantheon in Rome [1] (c.120AD). I find it fascinating, that perfect dome. On the one hand, it’s completely rational, and on the other hand, it’s very atmospheric. Maybe the most interesting moment is the hole in the centre, where it is completely open.

I just visited the Oscar Niemeyer buildings in Brasília, and the Itamaraty Palace [2] (1970) is one of the most striking pieces of architecture that I’ve seen. Again, on the one hand it’s very rational and on the other completely atmospheric and mysterious. There’s a prejudice that concrete is cold and has no atmosphere, but in those buildings the intensity comes from the structural possibilities of concrete. That large span, 30m without columns, is only possible because of the concrete structure.

Modern brutalist buildings need to be different to their surroundings – they need something to be modern  against. In Brasília, it’s the tropical nature against the concrete that is just incredible. Or it could be the traditional city fabric – we built our office in Berlin [3] (2013) as four simple concrete volumes on a gap site from the Second World War. This narrative is very enjoyable but absolutely dependent on its setting of brick buildings and rendered buildings.

Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh [4] (1950-60) are completely fantastic. That’s how poured concrete should be. I find it intriguing to see how these modern ideals were fulfilled against this striking nature. There is a very easy relationship between outside and inside that’s more difficult to achieve in northern European countries.

Somehow in-situ concrete is one of the last remaining romantic materials. It’s an opportunity to create an architecture that talks about building and not something else. We are always captivated by architecture that doesn’t mean anything beyond what it is.

Alexander Schwarz is partner and design director at David Chipperfield Architects Berlin