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Architecture Week: Concrete as Earth

A few weeks before its closing date in June I visited ‘Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945’ at the Barbican. The exhibition eloquently told the story of post-war architecture in Japan, focussing on the interface between houses and their inhabitants. Whilst retaining more typical components of architectural culture, such as models and photographs, the exhibition’s curators also took the audacious step of recreating a full scale building at its centre - the Moriyama House (2005) designed in Tokyo by Ryue Nishizawa. Visitors could walk through the open spaces of the house, observing its idiosyncrasies and viewing the building as a lived-in architectural space - or at least a facsimile of one.

It was not, however, the experience of walking through the open spaces of the Moriyama House, or the intricacies of the architectural models, or the images of peculiar vertical houses, which are about four times as high as they are wide, that captured my interest. It was one concept, nestled into one of the wall texts as part of a discussion of the legacy of Antonin Raymond: the idea of “concrete as earth”.

Concrete was introduced to Japan in the early 1900s and its resilience against earthquakes made it a popular building material. The architecture of Japan however was largely based in wooden frame construction and the aesthetic discord between timber and concrete presented initial difficulties in integrating the material. In response to this, post-war Japanese architects reinterpreted the material, conceptualising concrete not as a material concomitant with industrial severity, but rather as a composite of natural elements. Considering concrete in these terms made it a product of the earth and therefore organic.

The images that follow are responses to the idea of concrete as earth and as a natural material, rather than an industrial one. I was interested in the idea of viewing concrete as a composite of natural parts, and the interaction between these parts once combined and natural forms which are in unaltered states. A further interesting aspect is the transformative processes these natural parts undergo and how it is comparable to the processes of transformation of other building materials — e.g. glass making processes, planing wood, firing bricks — which are also traceable to natural elements.

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