Concealed or Exposed? Ireland and Concrete.


Session Chair: Elie Michel Harfouche

Elie Michel Harfouche is a practising architect, heading Elie Michel Harfouche Architects, an Assistant Professor at the Lebanese American University in Lebanon, and the Editor-in-chief of ArchiLeb: the Lebanese architecture online portal. His interests revolve around the particularities of contemporary architectural practice in the Lebanon vis-à-vis the west as well as a historical research in local expressions of modernity mainly in residential and religious architecture. Based on a previous investigation into British ‘Brutalism’, he is currently extending the research into the noticeable extensive use of ‘béton brut’ in Lebanon and its associated culture. In parallel, he is concluding a chapter on housing in Lebanon to be part of an upcoming book covering the history and current state of housing in the Middle East.

Concrete and culture in mid-20th century Ireland: A Liminal Space.

Ciara McCurtin, University of Oxford.

The establishment of the Irish Transport Authority, Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) in 1944 saw the provision of a regulatory framework for a burgeoning transport industry in Ireland.  CIÉ, commissioned a number of buildings in the early 1950’s that included Inchicore Chassis Factory (1950), Donnybrook Garage (1953) and Store Street Bus Station (1954) . These buildings were designed by architect Michael Scott and his practice in collaboration with Danish engineer Ove Arup. They remain important examples of Irish modernist architecture to this day. Of particular interest to this paper are Donnybrook Garage and Store Street Station (Busáras) due to their concrete construction. The technical innovation displayed in the use of concrete was integral to the  international success of both buildings. In Donnybrook it was the achievement of the world’s first continuous light across the entire length of a concrete shell. In Busáras it was the realisation of a concrete cantilevered frame and curved concrete canopy. Built in the context of 1950’s Ireland, a decade characterised by austerity and cultural conservatism, here are two buildings that stood as symbols of modernity. Buildings that emphasised internationalism, scale, openness and light. Looking specifically through the lens of concrete construction, this paper seeks to understand the dual role that concrete played in the simultaneous articulation of tradition and progress in postcolonial Ireland.


The Fair Face of Brutalism: Examination of Ethics and Aesthetics in an Irish Context 

Sarah Newell.

The architectural movement, Brutalism (or New Brutalism), promoted the notion of materials ‘as found’ and the virtues of the ‘ordinary’ (Banham, 1966). Establishing the historic premise of the movement, this paper explores the inherent properties of Brutalism and its influence on buildings in Ireland with particular reference to the Ulster Museum extension in Belfast. The public confusion and vilification of the movement and its vague application to other architectural styles of the 20th century is evidenced in a host of online fora and media platforms. This arguably questions the need for a more systematic definition of the term ‘Brutalism’. As Curtis (1996) notes, the only thing which links Brutalist architectures is captured in a “cliché’ namely that of “an exposed concrete surface, obtained with the help of rough timber formwork.” The paper therefore suggests an application of a spectrum of Brutalist characteristics to counter the conceptual vagueness by categorising Irish Brutalist architecture researched as part of a previous Heritage Council funded project. Examples of works to the low end of the spectrum with a light aesthetic influence sharing similar formal and surface characteristics are characterised in addition to those works at the high end of the spectrum with strong aesthetic and ethical considerations in the spirit of Banham’s definition1 . As a case-study, the Ulster Museum extension is identified as a truly Brutalist building and the paper discusses how architect Francis Pym masterfully articulated in section, plan and elevation an extension that according to architect, David Evans embodies “barbaric power of its great cubic projections and cantilevers, brooding over the conifers of the Botanic Gardens like a mastodon” (O’ Toole, 2007). The paper elaborates on the influence of Le Corbusier, in his Expressionistic and Brutalist phase from 1945-1965, on Pym’s extension with an emphasis on surface, which can be read as being in line with the broader tenet of Brutalism and the ‘as found’.

1. Memorability as an Image, Clear exhibition of Structure and Valuation of Materials ‘as found’ (Banham 1955).


Transitional Moments in Concrete Maritime Structures.
Dr Elizabeth Shotton, University College Dublin.
By the mid-nineteenth century concrete was being explored by engineers for use in maritime structures, the most well known being Bindon Blood Stoney’s radical use of precast concrete quay wall elements in the extension of the north quay in Dublin in the 1860s. Though quite unlike what would be understood as concrete today, this experiment nevertheless galvanized the interest of engineers across Ireland and Britain, leading to a seismic shift in the accepted constructive techniques for harbour structures.
Of the thirty odd harbours built or rebuilt during the 1880s by the Commissioners for Irish Fisheries, designed by their Chief Engineer Robert Manning, the harbours at Cheekpoint,
Boatstrand, Carnsore and Liscannor were built between 1884-86 by Thomas Ingham Dixon. In all cases a standardized specification was used, which, though it contained provisions for stone construction, predominantly had clauses detailing the use of concrete blocks and in situ concrete.
The development and use of such a document is evidence of a shift in attitudes towards this new material that had, prior to Stoney’s work, simply not been considered as a credible material for maritime applications.
More revealing are the handwritten amendments to the standardized form made by Manning and Dixon for these harbours. Although precast concrete ‘blocks’ for the foundations below low water were used consistently, the manner in which the cast-in-situ work was undertaken above the waterline undergoes an evolution as the men grapple with how this material should be best deployed. The adoption of earlier stone-based forms and construction techniques are evident at the two earliest harbours, Boatstrand and Carnsore, where  cast-in-situ concrete is used for the outer walls of the pier in the same fashion that stone was earlier deployed and, like these predecessors, the heart of the construction is in-filled with hand-packed rubble stone. Similarly, Cheekpoint harbour pictured above, which appears to be a stone construction, is built as Boatstrand and Carnsore, save for the facing stone cast into the concrete wall, a nod perhaps to prevailing aesthetic concerns. The inherent contradiction of infilling a concrete construction with rubble stone is finally acknowledged in the last harbour at Liscannor, Co. Clare, where amendments to the clauses ensure that it is neither stone faced, nor rubble filled, but cast in its entirety of concrete.
Housing, Landscape and Concrete: Denis Anderson’s Castlepark.
Brian Ward.

In 1975 the Cement and Concrete Association published a booklet entitled Housing, Landscape and Concrete. According to its author, George Perkin, it addressed a ‘welcome’ ‘shift of emphasis’ in architectural production towards low-rise housing deliberately integrated into its context and providing a ‘friendly environment’ for its inhabitants. Giving examples of such housing constructed in concrete, it represents an attempt to de-couple concrete’s relationship with tower blocks and beton brut in the public’s mind. Acknowledging the ‘popular prejudice against the material on the grounds of its supposedly dreary appearance’, Perkin asserted that ‘it seemed desirable to show the reverse side of the coin for a change’.

The projects in Housing, Landscape and Concrete were selected from across ‘the British Isles’. However it is Castlepark by Denis Anderson, the sole Irish scheme, which was chosen for the booklet’s cover. A scheme of twenty five houses developed as holiday homes on a site near Kinsale, Castlepark was promoted by the concrete industry in 1975 as a project that was emblematic of a contextual use of the material: it was commended in that year’s Cembureau (European Cement Association) Award Scheme for outstanding concrete buildings in old or historic surroundings.

Castlepark drew ingeniously upon traditional Irish settlement patterns and architectural forms while being tightly detailed in a modern idiom. Constructed from concrete blocks and roofed in asbestos cement slates, it was also built from the same materials as the typical Irish bungalow that Anderson denounced in an article in Concrete Quarterly for its destructive role in the landscape. This paper situates Anderson’s use of concrete within 1970s architectural discourse, moving away from the heroism of brutalism and searching for regionally–inflected architectures while trying to maintain a distinction from the quotidian buildings of the period.