Beyond its practicalities, concrete can be a highly sought-after look, from Bucharest’s old brutalist architecture to the modern industrial aesthetic of a kitchen floor or worktop in a London townhouse. And concrete’s diversity translates to its reception too, with opinions divided on its appearance.
Concrete is used in buildings all over the world, but you can’t miss the ones where the concrete is exposed to the elements. The intentional use of such a building material created angular geometric structures that sit boldly on the skyline, with some seeing a raw beauty and some seeing something cold, ugly and brutal. And that’s the question. Concrete architecture—beauty or beast?
Dr Paiola Favaro of UNSW Built Environment says that there is much to love about buildings that are tarnished as ‘brutalist’, and though the name denotes something serious and harsh, concrete buildings aren’t the monster we may think they are.
“It’s not a case that a concrete building is always ugly, and if you look closer, you will see there are some very beautiful buildings designed in concrete,” she says. “If the architect can express the building well and it works within the context of other buildings in the same area, it can really add something to the urban fabric.”
Dr Favaro says that the term ‘brutalist’ is often used to simplify concrete buildings, and that we often unfairly group all concrete buildings together with the very worst examples of brutalist architecture, confusing the carefully considered concrete structures with ones made purely for practicality.
“Some have good composition, good sense of materiality, good logic and proportion… so to call every example of exposed concrete architecture ‘brutalist’ is a mistake,” she says. “Also, thinking purely about brutalism as a style is very simplistic. I prefer to think about the quality of concrete as a material with infinite possibilities.”
One of the most iconic and famous concrete buildings is the Sydney Opera House, which Dr Favaro says is proof of the possibilities of concrete beyond just ‘holding things up’.
“Suddenly, rich, plastic, spatial organisations with curved textured walls and ribs—unimaginable before this time—were visible to professionals and the general public alike,” she says.
And now we see many public and commercial buildings, like universities, schools, hospitals and other government buildings, using concrete as the primary material—and not just because the concrete material is a practical choice for such vast structures.
According to Dr Favaro, concrete is the material of choice as a statement of strength in the permanence of public institutions:
“They have a very enduring presence. Concrete itself gives institutions a gravitas, solidity and presence, she says. “You can appreciate the nuances of the light and the shadow on the façade, and it emphasises the other particularities of the building,” she says.
While there may always be those who regard concrete as a brutalist aesthetic, Dr Favaro says that any developer with enough credibility and sensibility would be able to “maintain not only the existing structure and construction system, but the building’s expressive rough concrete exterior, its aesthetic and texture quality, and possibly adapt it to a new life.”
We need to reconsider the value of concrete buildings, as the way that we treat buildings labelled ‘brutalist’ today will shape our architectural history.
“We need to appreciate that these buildings have aesthetic qualities which will continue to tell stories about a particular time and place in history,” Dr Favaro says. “We must reconsider concrete’s legacy and rely on architects, engineers and construction to find new expressive, structural and sustainable uses of this versatile material in the future of our cities.”
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