Saturday 25 November 2017

Why concrete is having a moment (again)

Aideen mcCole

'It's been hiding in plain sight," says Donal Hickey, architect and lecturer at the Dublin School of Architecture at DIT, of a much-neglected material. "It is both surface finish and structure. It can span great distances and be moulded to almost any form. Advances in sustainability, colouring agents and finishes mean it has a chameleon-like quality."

What is this wonder material? Concrete. Whether it is to create smooth countertops, cool flooring or in a quirky tabletop, concrete is back and having a moment. Even if it has actually been in use for a very long time.

"Concrete is one of the oldest construction materials," says Donal. It was used by the Romans and in the construction of the leaning tower of Pisa. The modern form of concrete, however, traces its roots back to the Eddystone Lighthouse built in 1755 by John Smeaton. In Ireland, it was used in the National Gallery and at Dublin Port to construct precast concrete foundations.

By the turn of the 19th Century reinforced concrete was becoming an architectural staple. By embedding other materials in concrete - often steel bars - the malleability of the material is combined with strength and durability. This development has transformed architecture in the last 150 years, enabling architects to construct stronger and more spacious buildings. It has also created entirely new, previously unimaginable, architectural forms.

In the 20th Century concrete became associated with Brutalist architecture, from the French for raw concrete, béton brut. This form of architecture was particularly prevalent in Britain after the devastation caused by World War II, when the welfare state of the 1950s and 1960s placed a great emphasis on creating homes for the masses as well as giving all of the nation's citizens access to healthcare, culture and recreation.

It is a period of architecture that British heritage organisations are looking at afresh, something which Dublin City Council Heritage Officer Charles Duggan applauds. "If you look at organisations in the UK such as English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, they are finally celebrating and protecting the buildings of this period."

Here in Ireland, the use of concrete architecture had similarly aspirational aims, though its goals may have been slightly different. Its use signalled a break away from the country's past. Modern architecture and advanced construction were a means of creating a modern and advanced country moving onwards and upwards. As Donal Hickey points out: "In the 1930s it became State policy to create concrete plants in order to maximise use of this new material in the building of the State.

"Thanks to the Cement Act of 1933, Ireland had secured a supply of cement which was to transform construction in Ireland. It is this history and output which my colleagues and I wish to shine a light on." Donal is passionate about concrete - he used it in building his own house and home office in 2007 and is increasingly designing with it.

Next Saturday, September 26, Donal and fellow concrete fans - including architectural historian Dr Ellen Rowley from UCD and Charles Duggan from Dublin City Council - will lead a bus tour to explore the concrete buildings of 20th Century Dublin.

Organised by the Irish Georgian Society (IGS), the tour will take Brutalist beginners and concrete connoisseurs alike to some of the key buildings of the period in the city, taking in educational campuses, churches, factories, commercial spaces and more, in keeping with the society's broad remit to respect and preserve Ireland's architectural heritage from the post-medieval period right up to recent times.

The day begins in Trinity College, a showcase of many periods of architecture - one of its highlights being the 1960 Berkeley Library by ABK Architects. The winner of an international architectural competition, the building's design uses Portland stone and curved windows in a nod to its surroundings. A bold and blocky presence on the campus, it puts concrete and modernity right on show. It was controversial when it was first unveiled in the historic location, but it is a great example of concrete's ability to make an aesthetic impression. In fact, concrete's plasticity means other materials can make an impression on it. "If you look at Berkeley Library and see the board marks on the concrete, that's the shuttering used to cast it. The concrete remembers that texture," explains Charles Duggan.

The tour moves on to the Irish Life Building, Liberty Hall and Busaras, with a stop at Dublin Airport Church, before heading back to the city centre via Northside Shopping Centre and the former Tayto Factory in Coolock.

The Irish Georgian Society's 20th Century Architecture Tour takes place on Saturday September 26 from 10.15am-4pm. Tickets, including a packed lunch, are €45 and can be booked online at

Sunday Independent

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