I received a box of concrete samples from Get Real Surfaces recently. Small, 3"x3" squares of varying finishes and color mixes. Perfectly sized to fit in your hand, for sharing with a client in a meeting, or for toting around to the job site to imagine them in a finished space. The samples themselves are beautifully rendered objects in their own right. For an architect, materials are the cooking equivalent of ingredients. Just as a chef enters the pantry to select ingredients for an entree, the architect consults their sample library. For me, this happens throughout the design process. In the very beginning a material concept informs the building concept. As we move deeper into the design that concept is shaped by the building layout, the client and the site. Together it evolves.
Stone, concrete, wood, tile, glass, metal - the raw materials of building can be chosen for their reference to particular place, one's taste or just because of their beauty. But I have favorites and they're a narrow few.
The paradox of choice is such that having more options doesn't actually yield more freedom to choose; rather it makes it even more difficult to feel like any selection you might make is 'correct'. Having a few favorites means the project quickly can focus on the features inherent to the design - its form, light and the environment all of which the material selection can highlight and not simply on using the most fashionable faux pebble tile.
The Japanese Pritzker prize winning architect, Tadao Ando's work offers a rather extreme take of this position. His material of choice is reinforced concrete and he uses it everywhere, in every project. It's weighty, but there are moments of extreme lightness too in the scale of the volumes. The gray of concrete is a canvas upon which light softly renders form and space. The earth and weather develop a patina on the concrete that helps to fold it into the site, it's rugged and supple at once. I admire the stillness of his work and his ability to achieve such depth of emotion from a singular material. Less, in fact, is more.
Focused choice in material selection allows this kind of a simple dialogue to take place. It allows the place and the building a voice. Solid and void. Weight and weightless. Dark and light. Warm and cool.
I love concrete as a building material deeply. Not only for its color and its tone, for its feel and its weight; but also because it's expressive of the process by which it was created. The form-work permanently reveals the skill of the craftsman who built it and the subtle markings of the ties and the aggregates that comprise its mass.
For me, concrete also needs the warm counterpoint of wood. The informality of Douglas fir, the ruggedness of Red Oak, the refinement of Maple, the tailored appearance of Mahogany, the evenness of White Oak. Each of these pairs beautifully with concrete and elicits different emotions. Like concrete, wood can be subtly effected by the way it's finished or cut: plain sawn, rift-sawn, or quartersawn; each reveals a different graining pattern and tonal character. Subtle but wholly beautiful.
These are effects that are heightened and only appreciated when there's little other noise to drown them out. Just as the tenderloin requires salt, concrete requires wood. Nothing more.
...except perhaps a side of glass?