Solid thinking

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 July, 2005, 12:00am

DRAB, GREY, DEPRESSING: these are the kinds of insults we throw at concrete. With the possible exception of plastic, no material has such an image problem, its name suggestive of estates and grimy monstrosities. But this urban-jungle picture no longer tells the whole story.

Some of the world's most striking modern structures make stylish use of the substance: the Tenerife Opera House designed by Santiago Calatrava; the Federal Chancellery in Berlin; and the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul, among others.

In Hong Kong, structures that boldly celebrate the power of concrete range from the Chinese University campus to the Science Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Concrete is the material of the moment, says Dallas-based architect and concrete evangelist Chuck Armstrong. 'It's been getting more use in the past five years than in the 25 years prior,' he says. 'It's tough, timeless and cool.'

Hong Kong PR consultant Esther Ma, of Prestique, agrees, describing it as cool, serious and chic. Ma injected its influence into her eclectic Repulse Bay apartment by mounting a concrete feature wall onto an existing brick wall.

Polished with a matte lacquer surface to spare the clothes of visitors who might brush against it, the $25,000 feature blends well with Ma's wenge wood surfaces. It inspires much admiration, she says.

Doubtless, the same goes for the floor of an apartment beside Star Lake in Zhaoqing, Guangdong. Alex Ha, the co-director of local firm A-01 Design, which designed the apartment, says the clients didn't want anything fussy.

'Purity and simplicity were the main themes for the overall design,' Ha says. Concrete appeared to be the answer, providing 'a neutral backdrop and a monastic touch'.

To strengthen the connection between the apartment's interior and the surrounding environment, A-01 polished the floor. As a result, it resembles a lake with light washing across it - a hypnotic, ingenious effect.

Ha says concrete's main virtue is its honesty. 'Raw, natural, authentic, imperfect, brutal is the story it wants to tell us,' he says.

Wong Wah-sang, an associate professor at Hong Kong University's department of architecture, says concrete's appeal is its sheer physicality. 'People use this to show the original nature of things, the sense of materiality for architecture.'

Concrete appears to be a reaction to the fake finishes used for so long. Think: sponging techniques, Pergo laminate flooring and tiles made to look like slate.

Concrete is what it is. Pour it, sand it and use it for your floors, counters and columns. It's the perfect medium for making a low-key statement.

New York City architect Evan Galen says it's wonderfully versatile. 'When solidity is desired, it's the best,' he says. 'When you need unusual shapes or textures, it's hard to beat.'

Better yet, it can withstand the elements without necessarily being dour. 'Colour? Whatever you want - natural patina guaranteed,' Galen says. It's surprisingly individual. As with a fingerprint or iris, every slab in every home or office in the world is unique, he says, from the mixture of the materials, to how it was poured, how it was trowelled, and even what was in the concrete truck before.

Ha agrees that workmanship is crucial, especially in determining the cement mixture and final coating, which is why, concrete flooring may be only slightly cheaper - at $40-$50 per square foot - than regular tile or teak.

Concrete has a deep and colourful history. Twelve million years before the birth of Christ, reactions between limestone and oil shale during spontaneous combustion occurred in Israel, resulting in a natural cement compound deposit.

Enter the ancient Egyptians who mixed lime, gypsum and water. The resulting murky cocktail was used as a bonding agent between the stone blocks of those monuments to good building practice, the pyramids.

The ancient Chinese exploited its lasting power, too, using concrete in the construction of the Great Wall. The Greeks, Babylonians and Assyrians also experimented with the substance before the Romans went to town, enlisting cement in the construction of the Appian Way, the Coliseum and the Pantheon. During that backward period we call the Middle Ages, the secret of cement was lost, then rediscovered, the formula set to change little for centuries.

Fast forward to 1824, when Englishman Joseph Aspdin invented the first true artificial cement by burning ground limestone and clay together.

The process changed the chemical properties of the materials, resulting in amazing resilience. Aspdin's invention, Portland Cement, is the dominant cement used in concrete production today.

The substance's heyday was that era of 'build 'em fast, build 'em high' architecture, the 1960s. As the decade wore on and gave way to the next, many of the monoliths degenerated into eyesores prematurely ripe for the wrecking ball.

In the 80s, anxious to avoid a repeat of the ugliness, architects increasingly embraced the charms of polished concrete, preventing new skyscrapers from starting to look like tombstones.

The American trends analyst Marian Salzman says concrete is the last word in chic when treated and offset with style. 'Brushed concrete, glossed to a serious shine, and covered by an antique area rug is the height of urban fashion,' she says. Adding soft furnishings serves to counterpoint concrete's inherent masculinity.

However, concrete can be made to look feminine. Consider the line of lightweight concrete pieces produced by the French glassmaker Lalique with the fine art and furnishings house Ascete.

Guaranteed to generate fascination and conversation, the furniture was developed through a procedure that reduces the material's weight tenfold before it's waxed and polished.

Lalique acknowledges that untreated concrete is diametrically opposed to its stock-in-trade material, crystal, but says that, in its trim, processed form, it enhances the beauty of glass.

Concrete appears to have everything except perhaps inherent sophistication and beauty. The grimy flyovers, bridges and grisly high rises that linger from the 60s and 70s demonstrate this deficiency.

Nevertheless, we should be wary of dismissing concrete as some kind of jaded throwback to the era of the permissive society, good only for the construction of eyesores. In modern usage, it exudes a stern kind of glamour.