Suburban modernists and concrete domesticity

With the easy format of the ‘show and tell’, and the imagery of suburban dwellings, it would have been easy to miss the charming strangeness of the work under discussion at The Building Centre’s Concrete Elegance event.

Three different London builds were discussed: McLaren Excell’s work on a house in Shepherd’s Bush explained by Luke McLaren; Pedro Gill from Studio Gil and Isaac Tucker from Solid State Bespoke Concrete reflected on the RIBA-shortlisted Concrete House in Mile End; and David Hills, DSDHA and Anthony Thresh of Whiterock engineering unpacked their vision of The Covert House in Clapham, also RIBA-shortlisted. Indeed, the very name The Covert House, which alludes to the site hidden away in a garden behind a house in Clapham, is reference point for the way in which each of these architects and contractors smuggled concrete material, forms and monumentalism into a domestic setting.

Luke McClaren noted that while it was a ‘normal’ house, they, “wanted to do something that is risk-friendly, and though it was unusual to get a client like this, working with concrete makes it riskier.” 

(Ingersoll Road, Shepherd's Bush, McLaren Excell)

Each of these suburban houses challenged ‘normal’, the normalisation of domestic space. Champion of suburban surrealism JG Ballard would surely have approved of the weight of this material, its unforgiving opacity brushing up against the soft, pliable etiquettes of middle class life. The architects worked to emphasize these discontinuities – of soft and hard, of smooth and edge, of light and dark. Using PSA (waste product from burning coal) in the concrete gave it “a warm, dark feeling. A marbled texture.”

I was reminded of sociologist Manuel De Landa’s 2007 essay in Architectural Review on Material Elegance, where he attempted to grab the idea of elegance back from personal tastes or preference, and wrote, “we may use the word [elegance] to refer to objective processes, whether natural or human, in which there is a measurable economy of means to achieve a certain outcome. It is in this latter sense that we may speak of ‘material elegance’.” - material elegance which De Landa traces back to 17th Century mathematician Pierre de Fermat and mathematician Henri Poincare on ‘elegant complexity’ in the 19th Century. 

In each of the projects, the material and production of the concrete allowed for variation. Luke McLaren highlighted a concrete column whose discoloration amongst the pure grey surfaces of the room meant “the column can stand alone, onyx-like. Something goes wrong, but it works.”

(Ingersoll Road, Shepherd's Bush, McLaren Excell)

Just the fact of Pedro Gil and Isaac Tucker (architect and contractor) speaking highlighted the parallel disciplines of design and making at work, Gil explaining that Tucker helped generate the design. The materiality of the model was also crucial picturing shadow, the play of light and dark.

(Studio Gil, Concrete House, Mile End)

Tucker has been doing decorative concrete since 2002, and they mixed all the concrete on site, pouring when needed. Pedro Gil highlighted the material as a design element that was both a wayfinding feature and made more (elegantly?) complex the relationship of spaces –  “we used concrete as a surface that begins on the inside of the house.”

(Studio Gil, Concrete House, Mile End)

Playing with the continuity and discontinuity of space and the way a variation emerges from given forms is also obvious in DSDHA’s Covert House – the building is lined with mirrors on the outside, making the house dematerialise and re-materialise, a building that alters and adapts, revealing and concealing (see feature image). 

While Hugh Pearman described it as “an exercise in monolithic in-situ cast concrete and the play of light,” it’s arguable that The Covert House is a rapturous expression amidst the monolithic ecology of Victoriana that is the neighbourhood.

They bought the site in the back garden of a retiring Tory peer – planning permission in a community with its share of well-heeled barristers was a challenge. David Hill explained that they first worked with Anthony Thresh 15 years ago, a creative relationship which helped them resolve the issue of Thresh having limited tools to work with yet having to dig so deep – all machinery coming from the road into the back garden. 

(DSDHA, The Covert House, Clapham)

The building was inspired by a favourite lecture theatre in Cambridge, with its swell of light flowing from the ripped ceiling framework, and bouncing from the white finishes and the white concrete stairs.

(DSDHA, The Covert House, Clapham)

They asked themselves "how harsh would it be to live in a concrete house?" Aside from designing with light and mirrors they furnished it with vintage, softer materials, and most of all they allowed themselves (like Luke McClaren) not to be constrained by an idea of perfection. 

(DSDHA, The Covert House, Clapham)

After being seen in Wallpaper magazine the building was used in a fashion advert, which is perhaps the ultimate accolade of modernity.

(DSDHA, The Covert House, Clapham)

Indeed, whilst each of these projects were designing the client’s house of their dreams, one wonders what Ballardian imaginings one might have in these elegant, rather than beautiful, visions of concrete domesticity.

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