The Expressiveness of Concrete
By FuTung Cheng
We were born to make things, not just have things made for us. It makes us happy, to make things.
Timeless design grows on trees, or as the song goes, “under the rocks and stones, in the silent water.” It can be hidden, pressed under tectonic plates, locked down for eons. We quarry these natural, dormant, design treasures and process them into granite tops and marble floors to embellish our buildings and houses.
With modern concrete, we compress this natural process into a 10-day event. Cement, graded aggregates, sands and pulverized minerals can become timeless, sculptural treasures of our own making.
What makes concrete work so satisfying in my life is that from that humble first concrete countertop, those design principles that I applied decades ago are the foundation for my firm’s architectural design work today—designing entire homes embedded with concrete artistry and practicality. I am as creatively satisfied designing a sink and countertop for the homes I design as I am designing the walls and floors for the house itself, as if they were seamlessly intertwined.
For a number of architects, in fact, there has been a marked Modernist tendency to turn buildings inside out and use steel, glass and concrete as (sometimes ironic) aesthetic elements in their projects. Although I believe this has resulted in a number of wonderfully expressive applications of these materials, I still see them as representing only a slight scratching at what still remains to be achieved.
Happily, lots of today’s designers, artists and craftspeople are getting more and more involved with concrete’s expressive potential. Just a brief tour of internet sites shows that amazing things are being done—and what I love most about what I see is that lots of it defies being put into easy categories.
Take my own work as an example. It would be easy to file it in the Modernist category, but I don’t see it that way because my designs step away from Modernism’s tenets having to do with the use of patterns and geometry. There’s also a naturalistic bent to what I do that conflicts with Modernist principles. Basically, lots of us are doing things that really haven’t been seen before as we work to exploit our medium of choice and its ability to confound or transcend design styles and elements.
As it turned out, my work with these utilitarian details was a perfect means of demonstrating how concrete could be used as artistic medium—and how, in doing so, ordinary objects could be transformed into works of art. From that point onward, as they say, the sky was the limit.
Power of Flexibility
Once you recognize that concrete can basically be anything, you start to gain access to its big advantage—especially when you compare it with natural materials including granite, limestone, marble, slate or any quarried material.
The inescapable fact is that those stone materials must be cut out of the ground into specific and (mostly) modular shapes. It’s not unlike sheetrock, for example, which is going to have specific dimensions. Quarried stone blocks of any kind will have particular lengths, widths and depths—the exception being stone pieces collected uncut from the surface that are natural and random in their forms. As a mainstream building material, however, stone must be removed and cut to consistent, workable sizes. It may be a necessary consistency, but I also see it as limiting and even sterilizing, because the only point of uniqueness is in subtle variations found from place to place in a quarry.
With concrete, by contrast, you know going in that you’re working with a sculptural material that can take any form. This means that it’s up to the designer, artist or craftsperson to manipulate the material into a form that is appropriate for the particular application. So the possibilities with concrete vastly outnumber those available when you’re working with natural or preset materials.
As is true of most any other art or craft, the creative possibilities of concrete expand as you become more familiar with the techniques required to control the material’s aesthetic and technical elements. Part of that is learning how to control and manipulate shapes, which is where forming comes into the picture.
Forming can be something as simple as a box, but it can also involve sets of shapes so exceedingly complex that only a few carpenters are capable of doing the work as specified and can work with schedules that will occupy them on a single project for weeks or months at a time. Molds can be used as well, and the material can either be poured in place or applied one trowel at a time and worked like clay.
Concrete and Water
One of my all-time favorite projects is also one of my first. Completed about 15 years ago, it both challenged and excited me because of its inclusion of water.
The curving structure is 22 feet long and features a narrow watercourse placed atop a low interior wall. The water is controlled by an electronic gate that opens and closes, thereby creating waves that surge down a narrow, copper-lined sluice every 10 seconds or so before easing and gently flowing to a basin that recirculates the water.
I have always appreciated the fact that, although water is the humblest of materials, it is also, for the designer and builder, the most humbling. But when you figure out how to work with it, the effects are animated, almost mesmerizing, while the pieces that contain it can function as sculptural element that either stand-alone or can be integrated into other structures. In this case, the water feature functions as a massive room divider and serves as a subtle focal point for the entire interior design.
These and other projects make me proud to be part of a movement toward more creative uses of concrete, no matter what the industry surrounding what I do is called. I am especially proud of the fact that others have taken up the challenge and are now pushing the material to greater and greater aesthetic heights while pushing our collective awareness of what is possible.
Still, I think we have a long way to go. Cross-disciplinary expertise of the sort mentioned above must be encouraged, with designers and artists pushing installers, and, installers pushing back to encourage more ambitious concepts. In these collaborations, we’ll see palettes expand and more chances being taken.
About Fu-Tung Cheng
Fu-Tung Cheng founded Cheng Design in Berkeley, California, in 1986. Learn more about his award-winning concrete designs and books at chengdesign.com.
This article originally appeared in our August/September 2017 issue.