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Concrete Architecture: A Lost Opportunity?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 December 2020

Abstract

When reinforced concrete was first used in Britain for framed buildings, it was treated in the same way as steel — that is, in terms of a simple grid of columns and beams. It took some time for one of the advantages of reinforced concrete to be realised, namely that it could be handled as a series of planes with walls and floor plates, which overcame the problem of intrusive beams and columns in domestic interiors. This essay explores the causes of this delay, as well as the work of the engineers who introduced architects to the architectural possibilities of reinforced concrete. In the immediate postwar years, when reinforced concrete was favoured over steel, there was a return to simple grid structures.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 2020

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References

1 Weaver, Lawrence, ‘Exhibitor's Architecture’, Architectural Review, 55 (1924), pp. 222–29Google Scholar (p. 222). Weaver had been appointed the director of the United Kingdom exhibits at the exhibition and the following year published the substantial book Exhibitions and the Arts of Display (London, 1925). On the exhibition more generally, see Woodham, Jonathan, ‘Images of Africa and Design at the British Empire Exhibitions between the Wars’, Journal of Design History, 2.1 (1989), pp. 1533CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and John McAleer and John M. MacKenzie, eds, Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display and the British Empire (Manchester, 2017). Also see Adrian Forty, Concrete: A Cultural History (London, 2012).

2 Harvey, W., ‘The British Empire Exhibition and Its Concrete Buildings’, Concrete and Constructional Engineering, 19 (1924), p. 414Google Scholar.

3 Abstract of Williams's paper to the Institution of Municipal and County Engineers in Concrete and Constructional Engineering, 19 (1924), p. 421.

4 Marian Bowley, The British Building Industry: Four Studies in Response and Resistance to Change (Cambridge, 1966).

5 Jonathan Clarke, ‘The Exception Not the Norm: Pre-1940 Concrete Framed Commercial Offices in England’, Further Studies in the History of Construction: The Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Construction History Society (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 357–70.

6 Jonathan Clarke, Early Structural Steel in London Buildings: A Discreet Revolution (London, 2014). See also, J. C. Lawrence, ‘Steel Frame Architecture versus the London Building Regulations: Selfridges, the Ritz, and American Technology’, Construction History, 6 (1990), pp. 23–47.

7 RIBA, Joint Committee on Reinforced Concrete, Second Report (London, 1911). The committee's first report was in 1907.

8 Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Report of the Reinforced Concrete Structures Committee of the Building Research Board (London, 1933).

9 David Yeomans, Construction since 1900: Materials (London, 1997). See also Frank Newby, ed., Early Reinforced Concrete: Studies in the History of Civil Engineering, Volume II (London, 2001)

10 Council for Research on Housing Construction, Slum Clearance and Rehousing (London, 1934). The illustrations were a series of coloured drawings showing the process of erection of a steel frame.

11 The results of the competition were extensively reported in ‘Working Class Flats, Competition Report’, Architect and Building News, 22 March 1935, pp. 367–77.

12 For Turner's work, see D. A. Gasparini, ‘Contributions of C. A. P. Turner to Development of Reinforced Concrete Flat-Slab 1905–09’, Journal of Structural Engineering, 128.10 (2002), pp. 1243–52.

13 There is no evidence that Maillart was aware of developments in the US, so this seems to be an example of what S. C. Gilfillan in The Sociology of Invention (Chicago, 1935) called ‘simultaneous invention’.

14 Moritz Kahn, The Design and Construction of Industrial Buildings (London, 1917).

15 A. E. Wyn, ‘The American “Flat-Slab” Type of Building, Its Advantages and Design’, Concrete and Constructional Engineering, 16 (1921), pp. 95–102.

16 A simple explanation can be found in David Yeomans, How Structures Work, Design and Behaviour from Bridges to Buildings (Oxford, 2009), chapter 7.

17 On the Paddington warehouse, see Andrew Saint, ‘Some Thoughts about the Architectural Use of Concrete’, AA Files, 21 (Spring 1991), pp. 3–12.

18 H. A. N. Brockman, The British Architect in Industry, 18411940 (London, 1975), p. 114. On Bryant and May specifically, see Dominic Wilkinson, ‘The Significance of the Former Bryant & May Match Factory, Garston, Liverpool’, in Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Construction History, 4 vols, ed. Malcolm Dunkeld (Cambridge, 2006), III, pp. 3357–78.

19 Joan Skinner, Form and Fancy: Factories and Factory Buildings by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1916–1939 (Liverpool, 1977), pp. 37–109.

20 A. E. Scott, Arrol's Reinforced Concrete Reference Book (London, 1930).

21 Or, more likely, by Maxwell Ayrton, who was a partner in the firm. See David Yeomans and David Cottam, The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture: Owen Williams (London, 2001).

22 Brockman, The British Architect, p. 103.

23 Brockman, The British Architect, p. 103.

24 Andrew Saint, Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry (London, 2007), p. 268.

25 The Daily Express appointed Williams as architect as well as engineer for its Manchester and Glasgow buildings, but apparently used Ellis and Clarke's details for the glazing. See Yeomans and Cottam, Owen Williams, pp. 67–79.

26 The alternative is that he designed them as cantilevers, but without the calculations or reinforcing details we cannot know.

27 London Metropolitan Archive, LCC, Town Planning and Building Regulations Committee, Minutes of Proceedings, 1931–32, p. 341. Designers hired by contractors tendering for work would use the most basic structural arrangements, as they required least design effort.

28 David Yeomans, ‘Collaborating with Consulting Engineers’, Twentieth-Century Architecture and its Histories (London, 2000), pp. 125–51.

29 William E. A. Brown, ‘The Architect and Structural Engineering’, Concrete and Constructional Engineering, 9 (1914), pp. 482–84.

30 Yeomans and Cottam, Owen Williams, especially chapter 2 on ‘The British Empire Exhibition’.

31 David Yeomans, ‘The Welded Structure of the De La Warr Pavilion’, in Studies in the History of Construction: The Proceedings of the Second Conference of the Construction History Society, ed. James W. P. Campbell et al. (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 235–40.

32 John Faber, Oscar Faber: His Work, His Firm and Afterwards (London, 1989).

33 Lawrance Hurst, pers. comm., [date unknown]. Hurst did not make clear whether this was the original John Lewis or his son — I'm grateful to one of the peer reviewers for clarifying this detail.

34 London, Hurst, Peirce and Malcolm Archive, Job book of B. L. Hurst.

35 ‘A New Factory in Ferro-concrete’, Architect and Building News, 117 (1927), p. 444.

36 For Universal House, see Architectural Review, 72 (1932), p. 264. For Peter Jones, see Building Research Station, A Qualitative Study of Some Buildings in the London Area (London, 1963), p. 20, and T. Calladine, ‘“A Paragon of Lucidity and Taste”: The Peter Jones Department Store’, Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, 45 (2001), pp. 7–28.

37 Clearly illustrated in Rosemary Ind, Emberton (London, 1983), plates 72 and 73.

38 Alan Powers, ed., H. S. Goodhart-Rendel: 18871959 (London, 1987).

39 Ove Arup, ‘Planning in Reinforced Concrete’, Architectural Design and Construction, 5 (1935), pp. 297–307, 340–43. The second part of this article deals only with Highpoint I and the use of climbing shuttering, and includes an illustration of a silo being constructed. On Arup generally, see Peter Jones, Ove Arup (London, 2006).

40 Architects’ Journal, 17 February 1935, p. 114.

41 Ove Arup, ‘The Engineer Looks Back’, Architectural Review, 166 (November 1979), pp. 315–21.

42 F. S. Snow, ‘Modern Methods of Flat Construction’, Structural Engineer, 13.5 (May 1935), pp. 230–38. Snow was only the checking engineer for these flats; he had not designed them himself.

43 Ove Arup, ‘The Engineer Looks Back’, in Ove Arup, Philosophy of Design: Essays, 1942–1981, ed. Nigel Tonks (Munich: Prestel, [c. 2012]), p. 209.

44 A pamphlet entitled ‘Diagrid’, in the Institution of Structural Engineers, London, describes the system in some detail.

45 ‘Reinforced Concrete at Brighton — Embassy Court’, Architectural Design and Construction, 5 (1935), pp. 314–15.

46 F. R. S. Yorke and Frederick Gibberd, The Modern Flat (London, 1937), p. 79.

47 Yorke and Gibberd, The Modern Flat, p. 79.

48 The structure is illustrated in detail in ‘Flats at Golders Green’, Architectural Review, 78 (August 1935), pp. 47–52.

49 Yorke and Gibberd, The Modern Flat, pp. 67–69.

50 ‘Boarding School for about 100 Boys, Preston Park, Brighton; Designed by: A. V. Pilichowski’, Architectural Review, 79 (June 1936), p. 275. In my article ‘Collaborating with Consulting Engineers’, this building was mistakenly attributed to Ove Arup.

51 ‘Boarding School for about 100 Boys, Preston Park, Brighton; Designed by: A. V. Pilichowski’, Builder, 31 July 1936, pp. 206–09.

52 On balance, the evidence points to Samuely as the engineer of Highfield Court, although a handwritten list of his pre-war jobs does not include this building: London, Institution of Civil Engineers, Frank Newby papers.

53 R. B. White, Qualitative Studies of Buildings, National Building Studies Special Report 39 (London, 1966). See also Architects’ Journal, 15 July 1937, pp. 98–108; Architect and Building News, 30 July 1937, pp. 149–54; and Architectural Review, 82 (July 1937), pp. 11–12. On Chermayeff generally, see Alan Powers, Serge Chermayeff: Designer, Architect, Teacher (London, 2001).

54 W. Noble Twelvetrees, Concrete Steel Buildings: Being a Companion Volume to the Treatise on ‘Concrete-Steel’ (London, 1907), pp. 142–45.

55 ‘YMCA Building. Manchester’, Concrete and Constructional Engineering, 6 (1911), pp. 368–77.

56 See David Yeomans and David Cottam, ‘An Architect, Engineer Collaboration: The Tecton Arup Flats’, Structural Engineer, 67.10 (1989), pp. 183–88. Also see Graham Harris, ‘Ove Arup and Box Frame Construction’, Construction History, 22 (2007), pp. 61–73. On Lubetkin more generally, see John Allan, Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the Tradition of Progress, 2nd edn (London, 2013).

57 Randall Bell, ‘Wells Coates’, in Wells Coates: Architect and Designer 18951958, exhibition catalogue (Oxford, 1979).

58 ‘The Small Flat in Germany’, Building, 12 (March 1937), pp. 111–14. Scharoun's flats were also illustrated by Yorke and Gibberd, The Modern Flat, pp. 118–20. On the exhibition, see Jadwiga Urbanik, Wroclawska Wystawa Werkbund WUWA 1929 (Wroclaw, 2002).

59 Sherban Cantacuzino, Wells Coates, A Monograph (London, 1978), p. 64.

60 ‘Flats at Palace Gate, Kensington; Architect: Wells Coates’, Architectural Review, 85 (April 1939), pp. 173–84 (p. 173).

61 Cantacuzino, Wells Coates, pp. 64–75. See also Elizabeth Darling, Wells Coates (London, 2012).

62 See J. E. Quinn Tullgren, ‘Duplex Unit Increases Rentable Area in Milwaukee Apartment’, and Wells Coates, ‘“3-Dimensional” Units Yield Flexibility in London Apartment’, Architectural Record (November 1939), pp. 28–33, 34–37.

63 Randall Bell, ‘Mechanism of Design: The Client Looks Back’, Architectural Review, 166 (November 1979), pp. 312–13.

64 Bell, ‘The Client Looks Back’.

65 Cohn, Laura, The Door to a Secret Room: A Portrait of Wells Coates (Aldershot, 1999), p. 217Google Scholar, includes a photograph of Bell and Coates sailing together.

66 Banham, Reyner, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London, 1966), p. 16Google Scholar.

67 ‘Thomas Linacre Technical School for Boys at Wigan’, Builder, 22 October 1954, pp. 651–62.

68 Samuely, Felix, ‘Space Frames and Stressed Skin Construction’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 3rd ser., 59 (1952), pp. 166–78Google Scholar.

69 Faber, Colin, Candela the Shell Builder (London, 1963)Google Scholar.

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