Monday, 25 April 2011

What are buildings made of?

Had one of those moments when you’re pulled up short by realising what you don’t know. Walking up Adelaide Road from Claremont Crescent to St Mark’s Hill I passed from a few lovely Regency houses...

and, looking back to the sunny side of the street, this: modern low-rise blocks of flats in brick with white wooden window frames...

...and was trying to pin down what was so objectionable about the flats.

It's their pusillanimity.  Although they're Modern in being rational and functional -- no frills, no ornament -- they're Modern without panache, machines for living in without brio, built of bricks and wood with their only modern material, concrete, concealed in floor slabs and staircases. Though modern in their use of concrete, electricity and provision of plumbing in bathrooms and kitchens, there’s nothing about them that celebrates modernity. Rather, the visible materials suggest banal and unscary conformity with traditional domestic norms. Its elevation may have been drawn with ruler and set square eschewing any variation that might add interest or create satisfying proportional relationships, and avoiding the rhetoric that in older buildings marks entrances as special and suggests the relative importance of the internal spaces, what we get is an ordinary brick house wall only bigger and ordinary windows and frames only more of them.  It even has a hipped roof like a semi.

(This one’s a bit better, on the sunny side -- the sun certainly helps -- volumetrically satisfying with some interesting massing -- a bit more than just an ordinary house on steroids:

) (How do you 'close brackets' after a picture?)

Then I thought, what could have been used instead of brick? That's what I realised I didn't know.  Very recently it’s been possible to use an inner and outer skin, the outer perhaps of wooden strips or laminate and the inner of plasterboard, separated by a wide cavity filled with insulation, and triple-glazed windows that in the interests of insulation try not to be bigger than they need to be. But what about when these flats were built, which I image was in the 1980s?

Come to that, what did Corbusier use for his walls in his Unités d’Habitation flats in Marseilles? presumably he didn’t pour concrete for his walls, though he might have. Perhaps he too used brick, covered with white stucco?

After the war there was talk of turning the vast apparatus that had produced matériel -- tanks and planes -- over to housing. I'm not sure what came of that, but steel- or aluminium-plated houses never appeared and prefabs were made of asbestos -- weren’t they, or was it plywood? -- and not in aircraft factories?

You note I could find all this out with a minimum of research, but I'm choosing to write out my ignorance first.  The information I'm lacking will come along some day soon without my having to look for it -- as indeed it must have done plenty of times in the past, without my paying attention.  But writing this will make me take notice when it arrives this time (a 'language and learning' or 'language across the curriculum' point, for those in the trade).

Prefabricated concrete panels, of course, were one possibility, as used, notoriously, in tower blocks and slab blocks -- and sometimes looking great -- as in Park Hill at Sheffield and in Robin Hill Gardens in London (these two):

and sometimes, in fact usually, awful as in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s blocks you see from the inner motorway in Leeds. Perhaps prefabricated panels were precluded by cost from use in the odd single low-rise block. So can’t low-rise blocks, being condemned to brick, look daringly modern and exciting? I'll have to pay attention to them as I walk around.

Back at the start of architectural modernity you had skyscrapers -- Chicago and New York. Steel structure, of course, and steel-reinforced concrete floor slabs, but what, before glass walling was possible, were the walls made of? My impression is that on the Chrysler Building and the Empire State they were made of stone -- how modern is that?

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