Concrete has never had any appeal for me – and I could express it more strongly than that. It has noble and necessary uses: Norman Foster’s astonishing Millau viaduct, for example, curving on its slender pillars a thousand feet above the Tarn. But in its brutalist heyday in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s the cult of concrete usurped the place of brick and stone. I can’t wait to see some of its worst outrages demolished.
The Household Cavalry barracks in Knightsbridge is one of my pet hates: horses in a tower, indeed. The old barracks was a dashing brick range festooned with trophies and helmets, with a stone ball on each buttress. I bought one from the demolition people for the garden at Saling Hall, but I can’t forgive the dingy grey intrusion on the views in Hyde Park. You could argue that the Hilton Hotel is worse – or at least taller, but the barracks is ours, built with our money, which makes it a self-inflicted wound. The Knightsbridge side is appalling, too; an immense length of grubby grey wall.
This is concrete’s shame; its grubby grey, inevitable as rain-streaks and made far worse by rough-shuttering. Architects would probably say (indeed, have said) that it demonstrates their honesty to show the grain of the timber they use. All it does is to collect even more dirt. The National Theatre on the South Bank is a dreadful example – in this case, of the grain of Douglas fir). Its architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, said ‘there is something aphrodisiacal about the smell of wet concrete’. The Economist’s architectural correspondent described it as ‘an aircraft carrier in collision with a Norman keep’. It’s fine at night, when all you see are the lighted windows. By day it is the epitome of dinge.
Concrete in gardens, once it spreads from the paving up the walls, or into a brutalist pergola, brings drabness into what should be light, elegant and gay. Of course there are exceptions. Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s house astride the river at Bull Run, Pennsylvania, balances concrete slabs on a composition like a mobile, airy and graceful. Its concrete, though, is smooth, clean and not remotely brutal. Even so, Wright once said he would prefer it covered in gold leaf.
Concrete is fundamentally a cheat. You can pour it into any shape (as Zahar Hadid does in the absurb white wave of a café, like something from Moby Dick, in Hyde Park). It never shows you how the building works, where the weight falls, or how the structure supports itself. Timber, bricks and stone do that; concrete is carving in blancmange.