All about Concrete: from the Pantheon to the Present

Last week we held the workshop All about Concrete: from the Pantheon to the Present, the second in the BSR’s series of interdisciplinary research study days in the UK on the historicity of materials and the work of the BSR. This event was generously sponsored by the Concrete Centre and hosted by the University of Liverpool in London. 

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The day, organised by BSR faculty members Vivien Lovell, MaryAnne Stevens and Marco Iuliano, comprised a series of presentations on the use of concrete over two millennia. Speakers highlighted the extreme versatility, strength and plasticity of the material.

Alan Powers (London School of Architecture) opened the day with a keynote presentation exploring ‘Cult Contrete’, which provoked lively debate.

The first panel session, chaired by MaryAnne Stevens, explored the history of the use of concrete. Presentations encompassed over two thousand years of use from ancient Rome to Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978). Janet DeLaine introduced us to the seven virtues of concrete in ancient Rome, while Joseph Rykwert touched on the Renaissance ‘rediscovery’ of ancient concrete techniques. Richard Murphy closed the session, bringing us forward into the twentieth century, with his discussion of Scarpa’s use of water in his architectural projects – an analogy for concrete.

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Giovanni Paolo Panini,
Interior of the Pantheon, Rome
c. 1734

After lunch participants were split into three groups and were treated to a study visit to to the Barbican Estate and Centre. These groups were led simultaneously by Catherine Croft (C20 Society), Dave King (Architect and Barbican Resident) and Vicky Richardson (Writer and Curator, of architecture and design). Even those who thought they knew the Estate well, were surprised to learn that there are over 100 different property types on the estate; that all of the concrete was hand chiselled (including the towers!); and that the water features were dyed to reflect depth.

We reconvened after the visits for the second panel session chaired by Vivien Lovell, which covered the contemporary use of concrete. Artist, Florian Roithmayr presented current work and described his process. Participants were able to see first hand concrete sculptures which Florian had on display throughout the day.

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Concrete sculptures by Florian Roithmayr

Following this, organiser Marco Iuliano was in conversation with photographer Helene Binet, discussing themes in her architectural photographs of concrete structures. Finally Jo Melvin introduced us to the concept of concrete poetry and how it is produced in contemporary art practice.

The afternoon was concluded by two readings. Organiser Vivien Lovell read a poem entitled ‘Times New Roman’ by Pele Cox (written especially for the event) and Vicky Richardson read a passage from J G Ballard’s ‘Concrete Island’.

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Concluding remarks were given by architect Eric Parry who succinctly synthesised the presentations and the interdisciplinary conversations of the day.

Text and photographs by Natasha Burbridge and Alice Marsh, BSR London Office.