Concrete – the new material of postwar architecture

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In the 1950s and 60s Government tax incentives encouraged many building groups to establish Research and Development divisions. John Laing opened such a department at Boreham Wood in London. ‘Faircrete’ was a product which resulted from this effort. This was an air-entrained cement and sand mix, which remained stable – in trade terms, a ‘no slump’ concrete.

The Cement groups got together and opened a magnificent research centre at Wexham Springs, utilising the grounds of a splendid Victorian house. Superb lecture facilities were available and were surrounded by workshops run by skilled building operatives. Equipment was not spared and the end result was some of the finest building experimental laboratories in the world. Architects, structural and civil engineers – surveyors and manual operators each spent a week or more in very good accommodation with the requisite areas for recreation catered for.

The facilities therefore were first class and very little excuse therefore can be offered for the eventual visual results offered by architects during the 60s and 70s in terms of State housing and estate developments executed in concrete, both in the system building form and individual structures.

The competition between various authorities for building land was no help. Several authorities in the London area could enter a Dutch auction for the same plot. This resulted in escalating land costs, which meant closer building and higher densities. These errors are still with us today, and have resulted in the idealistic, evangelical approach to housing in the 60s being in such disrepute today. The aspirations of Le Corbusier were indeed brought low.

I believe that the Royal Institute of British Architects should have brought pressure to bear, during the period in question. They were a powerful and influential group. Very much the same thing is happening in the year 2000. Personality cult architecture is once again overtaking good sense – allied to arbitrary planning decisions resulting in monstrous protrusions along the Thames and dubious material usage in the city.

Other areas of building in the sixties were not so unfortunate. The Herfordshire School projects were the envy of Europe – well designed, imaginative, and well built. They exploited the new building materials of the day in innovative ways. Parents were optimistic when viewing these schools.

As part of this experimental period, I was encouraged to produce all manner of strange things to show the potential of various materials – concrete, wood, plastics, bricks, glass, metal and so on. It was an exciting and wonderful time. I believed that the Festival of Britain of 1951 had never received the credit it was due. Today’s meagre efforts pale before the outburst of artistic and creative ideas that were to be found at the Festival. I am sure that the Sixties were given a kick-start by the sheer exuberance of it all. The Dome is as much a washout as the Festival was a success.

FAIRCRETE

During the late 50s-60s and the early seventies, companies were encouraged to invest in Research and Development and were given extensive tax incentives to do so. This led to many innovative techniques and a resurgence in the crafts.

One such invention was “Faircrete”, produced by John Laing, the builders.

Faircrete, a form of concrete, could be cut and formed whilst in a wet state, and retained its shape whilst in the process of drying.

It occurred to me that if an image could be transferred to wet finished flat surfaces, and one was quick about it, a carving could be executed in a fast, economic manner.


Thus, a drawing in soft charcoal could be spread over the wet surface, pressed into the surface (fig 1), and removed, leaving behind an inlaid line, which could act as an outline for carving (fig 2 and 3). When I did this, I was tempted to not carve it at all, as the drawing transferred perfectly and presented a “there for ever” fossilised look!

With thanks to William Mitchell.com

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