Monstrosity or masterpiece? Modern concrete houses are resurfacing

Few other building materials are more defamatory than concrete. The philosopher Roger Scruton believes that after the war, Britain was almost “wiped out” by ugly deposits of concrete and steel.

And even the revolutionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright recognized that concrete had an image problem that he once called the “gutter rat” of the construction world.

From the man on the street snorting and puffing at the latest eyesore of modernity, to Prince Charles, who referred to the planned expansion of the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle”, the world is full of people who cannot look at concrete construction without injuring themselves to feel.

Easy on the eye: outbuildings in the Forest of Dean

But now one of Australia’s leading architecture critics, Joe Rollo, who writes for The Age newspaper in Melbourne, has decided that enough is enough. In Concrete Houses, a richly illustrated book published later this month, he defends concrete with missionary zeal.

“The concrete houses I included in the book are beautiful – each one takes the art of house design to another level,” he said last week.

“Concrete has conviction, strength and directness.

“It also has plasticity, which makes the possibilities for shaping almost unlimited.”

Some of the houses chosen by Rollo, such as the Casa Plana in Porto Feliz, Brazil designed by the Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan, are spectacular.

The 68 x 17 million slab roof that appears to float above the building’s glass walls is sown with grass that keeps the building cool in summer and warm in winter.

Then there is The Pierre in the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, USA, designed by Tom Kundig, which appears to be squeezed between a ledge. Only concrete would allow such stunningly strange shapes.

“You can build concrete structures pretty much anywhere,” says Rollo.

Concrete houses have their supporters in this country too – particularly in the Concrete Center (, an organization that provides guidelines for design, use and performance.

They want to promote examples of concrete houses that sit well in the UK countryside – houses like Outhouse in the Forest of Dean. This building addressed a problem that plagues architects: how to get planning permission to build in a picturesque landscape.

Her solution? Dress up the house with natural camouflage. The low, 490 m² building, which was nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2016, protrudes from just one facade and is barely visible from a distance. It has wonderful views and its cover of thick green grass flows naturally into the surrounding hills.

However, as Rollo says, you don’t need a stunning open landscape to frame a concrete structure. Hill Top House, an angled patio infill in Oxford, is another award-winning property. The entire structure was prefabricated off-site and completed in less than a week.

So why the seedy reputation? There have been cases where people have struggled to secure funding for non-standard Bauhaus insurance, including concrete. There were also horror stories of post-war concrete houses broken with poor quality steel bars used in their construction.

There is also the thing that when you build a house out of concrete, pipes and wires have to go into the wall, which means that you have to break through it.

And don’t concrete buildings cost more than traditionally built houses?

Elaine Toogood, Head of Architecture at the Concrete Center, ignores these so-called problems.

“The topics you all mention go back 60 years – concrete houses are very different today,” she says. “Your senses are immediately aware of the superior performance of a concrete house compared to a traditional building.

“It’s quieter with no creaking floorboards. It is pleasantly heated – not too hot or too cold – because concrete acts as an energy store. You get a sense of solidity. Most of all, concrete looks so good. ‘

Concrete Houses: The Poetics of the Form by Joe Rollo is published January 23rd by Thames & Hudson, £ 39.95.

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