Concrete Ideas

TEXT Alessia Soppelsa

The images I had excitedly anticipated in Nervi’s organic lines, Kahn’s monumentality, and Scarpa’s details quickly dissipated as we were asked to respond to the virtues of 1960s and ’70s Brutalist buildings in Toronto. Had not the presence of these dull, grey masses slipped into our urban subconscious? Why now shine the proverbial spotlight on them? 

To question and evaluate the current cultural status of concrete in light of technological advancements in the material would be a valid reason. Toronto’s stock of Brutalist buildings became the backdrop and context against which–as an architectural design studio–we would hypothesize and experiment. Could a more self-conscious aestheticization of concrete as a material used in infrastructure, building, or simply surface, break down our preconceptions about the value of this useful substance? 

Solid. Real. Definite. These words define and describe concrete as both material and adjective. How could something evoking a strong physical presence simultaneously represent visionary ideals? The rawness of the Brutalist buildings we studied exposed themselves for what they were: dependants of their formwork. With curious eyes, we set out to photograph, document and capture this concrete aesthetic by focusing on particular details. Through our ensuing exercises in visual abstraction, these buildings underwent a transformation where heavy masses became expressive fields. 

What would happen if we exaggerated some of the visual aspects of the seemingly banal concrete details to question, challenge and inspire new potentials for this humble material? For example, the precast panels of the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Toronto fascinate me. The unrelenting ribbed vertical panels of this hotel dutifully fulfill their task of shedding water, yet the fine-grain texture of the concrete, coupled with the corduroy-like quality of the panels, acquire a real warmth upon closer inspection. When I used Photoshop to visually introduce a horizontal set of ribs, a woven surface began to emerge, which instantly attained a hand-crafted appearance. As others in the design studio similarly discovered, these investigations were not intended to restore or improve, but to inspire us to rethink the value of concrete for future projects.

The concentration of Brutalist buildings in Toronto thus became the testing ground for visual experimentations through Photoshop manipulations. The visual documentation, questions and speculations that were produced in the studio were assembled into a school publication entitled Concrete Ideas: Material to Shape a City, which contains essays from notable architects and theorists that challenge us to reconsider the cultural status of concrete–once considered cold and inhospitable–as a much more supple material. CA

Alessia Soppelsa was one of the managing editors of Concrete Ideas: Material to Shape a City, a book produced alongside the similarly named design studio led by Pina Petricone at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. The book is available though Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers.