Liquid Stone; innovations and artistry in concrete / from the archive / issue 4

Just behind Chorlton Street bus station on Richmond St, sits an unprepossessing, derelict building with a most significant place in Manchester's 20th century architectural history – as possibly the earliest surviving completely concrete building in the city centre dating, thanks to a date stone (cast in concrete obviously) at the apex of the building, from 1911.

Concrete is nothing new. The Romans used it to great effect but it fell from grace alongside the collapse of the empire, and only in the 17th or 18th centuries, with examples in France, Finland and Britain all laying claim to being the first post Roman usage, did it revive as a building material. It has one inherent flaw - and watch out, here comes some science! - despite being

good in compression, supporting great weights in a solid block, it is liable to crack in slender structures. Steel on the other hand is weak in compression but strong in tension. Combine the two, as Frenchman Joseph Monier did in 1849, and you have almost the perfect building material, one that can in theory be moulded into an infinite range of forms and shapes. Francois Henibique perfected the technique in 1892, exported the license to use it around the world, which was picked up by L G Mouchel, who promptly set about reshaping our buildings, most famously the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool, its structural frame constructed out of reinforced concrete. Meanwhile, in Manchester, the architects of the YMCA building on Peter Street used a similar system developed by the American architect and engineer Albert Kahn, which, like the Royal Liver Building, is merely a concrete frame clad in more traditional materials. At Richmond Street, the building's exterior is concrete, making a strong case for declaring it Manchester's earliest surviving Brutalist building.

Yet for the next fifty years concrete was rarely used as an aesthetic outer treatment, instead relegated to construction material, favoured in utilitarian and industrial buildings. Manchester City Football Club had concrete terraces built by Mouchel, and the huge concrete Grain Elevator 2, built in 1915 at Salford Docks at Dock 9, proved so resilient that when demolition contractors tried to demolish it in 1983, it refused to fall and lay at a precarious angle for months. Wythenshawe Bus Garage, built in 1939, is another excellent example of pioneering concrete construction. Its daring reinforced concrete barrel roof, now recognised by a Grade II listing, creates a huge span of 165ft predating the perhaps more famous Stockwell bus garage in London.

The immediate post war period saw what little construction there was maintain a pre war palette of materials - Peter House (1958) is clad in Portland stone, typical of the well mannered almost Classical type of modernism that prevailed in the 1950's - but shortages of timber, steel and brick inevitably helped push concrete from being a rather mundane, if useful, material into becoming an architectural statement in its own right. Manchester’s City Architect, L C Howitt, began to push the boundaries of both the materials used and the form of some of the city’s more prominent buildings. Just one year after Peter House, the Toast Rack, designed for the Hollings College, appeared in Fallowfield. Like many of his contemporaries Howitt was beginning to use concrete in a bold and radical new way, with the soaring parabolic arches that give Hollings its unique shape, speaking a whole new architectural language, whilst advertising on a huge scale concrete’s unique qualities.

This golden age boasts numerous examples of innovative concrete technology, with Manchester based architects Leach, Rhodes and Walker at the forefront. Highland House on Victoria Bridge Street (now Premier Inn) used pre cast concrete panels, built off site and attached to a concrete frame. Supposedly the first time a tower crane had been used in the city, its appearance caused quite a stir. Even more radical, at Manchester House on Bridge Street, concrete floor plates were cast on top of each other in situ, and then jacked up into their eventual positions.  Ahead of its time and prohibitively costly, it was to be decades until this process re-emerged, facilitating the global construction of very tall skyscrapers.

Meanwhile architects and artists were testing its versatility and malleability to create sculptural forms within the architecture itself or as stand alone works, such as the gable end of City Tower at Piccadilly Plaza, said to acknowledge Manchester's history in computing and representing electronic circuitry, giving relief and texture to what otherwise would have been a plain, flat wall. Likewise the concrete gable of the Humanities Building at the University of Manchester has a pattern designed by the sculptor William Mitchell (see the modernist issue 3). Concrete also makes a strong architectural and artistic statement at the wall running along London Road which delineates the UMIST campus. Designed by the artist Anthony Hollaway, it uses the material’s robustness and subtly to create a functional yet intrinsically sculptural structure.

More a passionate fling than a full on affair, this interlude soon waned, and as the spectre of Post Modernism reared its head,  concrete returned to its former role – as a ubiquitous but functional and largely hidden material. Recently Manchester boldly attempted to rekindle that old flame when the Japanese architect Tadao Ando was given the job of remodelling Piccadilly Gardens. Renowned for his minimal, beautiful, and invariably raw concrete structures, Ando leaves the impressions of the form work (the 'moulds' that the concrete is poured into to create the structure) intact, a ‘signature’ style designed to showcase the material whilst simultaneously celebrating its construction method. Such has been the controversy and criticism of the resulting pavilion it is clear that the British public is still not ready to embrace concrete, and so it shall again remain hidden away – holding our buildings up whilst quietly and bashfully being beautiful.

© Eddy Rhead  

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'