Common Material Uncommon Form

May 1, 2004
Design FlashCommon Material Uncommon FormExploring the versatility, strength and potential of common concrete.Concrete is easily taken for granted as the stuff of sidewalks and roads, or even actively disparaged because of its close association with many cheap, poorly-constructed buildings of the mid- and late 20th century. But concrete is also a favored material of talented architects and engineers who value its versatility, strength and almost unlimited potential as a medium for highly imaginative forms and surfaces. To highlight the uncommon uses of this seemingly common material, The National Building Museum will present an exhibition entitled, "Liquid Stone: New Architecture in Concrete," which will feature nearly 30 very recent or current architectural projects that have derived their character from concrete. Complementing these beautiful and innovative works of contemporary architecture will be a variety of stations describing the technology of concrete that makes them possible. Visitors will have the opportunity to learn about concrete's fascinating scientific properties, unusual finishing techniques and advanced hybrid versions of the material. The exhibition, sponsored exclusively by Lafarge, a world leader in building materials, will be on view from June 19, 2004 to January 23, 2005. The featured works in "Liquid Stone" will be divided into several categories: "Structure," "Surface," and "Sculptural Form." The "Structure" section will include projects such as the Longitudinal House(s), by Vincent James Associates Architects, a connected pair of vacation houses for twin brothers in which the individual spaces are defined by an undulating ribbon of concrete, which alternately serves as floor, wall and ceiling. Another project, the Torre Agbar in Barcelona, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, is a skyscraper whose skin is conceived as a built version of a pixilated digital image, with an irregular grid of concrete panels forming unexpected geometrical shapes and framing views in surprising ways. Also included will be a new bridge by Norman Foster, which spans a broad and deep valley with remarkably slender concrete structural elements—some of its svelte piers are taller than the Eiffel Tower. The "Surface" section will feature a complex in Japan by Tadao Ando, in which the signature design gesture is a large, shallow pool lined with an impeccably ordered array of seashells embedded in concrete. Also presented will be a Visiting Artists House, by Jim Jennings Architecture, a small structure defined primarily by two very long concrete walls, slightly out of parallel. Working in close cooperation with the architect, artist David Rabinowitch etched the walls with a flowing, abstract pattern of curves in bas relief. Yet another project, a Technical School Library in Eberswalde, Germany, by the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, takes advantage of an astonishing new technique in which photographic images are engraved directly onto concrete panels, creating a surface that is simultaneously building skin and artist's canvas. The final curatorial category, "Sculptural Form," expresses most dramatically the great potential of concrete in cutting-edge design. Richard Meier's new Jubilee Church in Rome is distinguished by three self-supporting, concentric arcs, each of them a section of a perfect sphere, made, in effect, of giant concrete blocks. The curving slivers of skylit space between the arcs lend an element of mystery to the experience of the building's interior. Another project, the new Auditorio de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, by architect/engineer/sculptor Santiago Calatrava, is crowned by a soaring "wing" of concrete that seems to defy gravity. Taken as a whole, the sensuously curvilinear concert hall strongly evokes a bird or a flower, and creates an instant landmark for the island territory. The exhibition will conclude with a section called "The Future of Concrete," which will examine concrete technologies and hybrids that are just now on the horizon. For example, self-reinforcing concrete, which so far has been used in only a small number of structures of significant size, will facilitate the creation of long-span concrete shells of incredible thinness. Also to be examined is the prospect of translucent concrete, now under development by several researchers in the United States and Europe. These walls would offer the security, strength and fire protection of concrete block, but also transmit light. "Liquid Stone: New Architecture in Concrete" is being designed by the firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA). Graphic design for the exhibition is by the New York firm of Pure + Applied. It is curated by G. Martin Moeller, Jr., senior vice president for special projects at the National Building Museum, with assistant curators Alisa Goetz and Lana Gendlin.

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