Architects learn to make the hard stuff soft
Published in: Interior Design
Date: November 2014

“Concrete is very much an art,” says Eric McCauley Lee, director of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum. These days, Lee knows about as much about concrete as he does about the painter Titian, the subject of his Yale doctoral dissertation. That’s because the Kimbell’s new building, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, makes extensive use of exposed concrete; some of the museum’s most important paintings now hang on concrete walls so smooth and white, they could almost be marble.

To get a surface polished and pale enough to serve as a backdrop for Titian and Michelangelo required a partnership between the museum, the architect, and various consultants, including several who specialize in concrete. Piano had visited the Punto della Dogana, the contemporary art museum in Venice designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, where the smoothness of the poured gallery walls is almost legendary, and wanted a similar effect. So it made sense for the Kimbell to bring the Dottor Group, the Venice-based concrete consultant that had satisfied Ando and his client, the collector Francois Pinault, to Texas. But concrete is a local material, says Andy Klemmer, whose firm, the Paratus Group, was the Kimbell’s project manager. “The sand is local; the gravel is local.” In fact, creating the Venice look in Fort Worth required more than a year of experimentation (on which the Dottor Group collaborated with the consultant Reg Hough of Rhinebeck, New York, and the concrete-pouring experts Capform Inc., of Carrollton, Texas).

The museum created dozens of mock-ups, Lee said, before settling on a formula that contains not only the right amounts of sand, water, gravel and Portland Cement, but also 2% titanium dioxide, for just the right degree of whiteness. And for the right degree of smoothness, the Kimbell had its formwork made of FinnForm, a white birch plywood with a phenolic coating, ordering the material in custom sizes so the tall walls wouldn’t have horizontal seams.

In the end, Lee says, the concrete cost “far, far more” than it would have cost to use travertine (a stone employed extensively in the original Kahn building). But the Kimbell is hardly the only institution to make a big investment in exposed concrete, which seems to be enjoying a renaissance as a material not just for support. One reason may be the ascendance of architects from Japan (including Ando) and Switzerland, who have long used concrete as a canvas, and renewed interest in the Brutalist architecture of the 1950s and 60s, including Paul Rudolph’s expressive concrete masterpieces.

If raw concrete isn’t usually paired with old master paintings, it certainly isn’t associated with luxury condos. But at 345 West 14th Street in Manhattan, on the edge of the Meatpacking District, concrete with the texture of rough boards helped sell 37 units for an average of $2,300 per square foot. Above the entry, serving as a kind of marquee, a canopy made of concrete formed against swoopy sheets of plywood is nothing short of stunning, with so much grain that you initially think you’re looking at the actual plywood. Inside, concrete provides as much texture as the wallpaper or wainscoting of a Park Avenue lobby, but with a downtown vibe. DDG’s co-founding partner and head of design, Peter Guthrie, says he chose board-formed concrete for its “refreshing honesty” in revealing how it was made.

A few blocks away, the new David Zwirner Gallery (in a 30,000-square-foot building that also contains the company’s offices) makes spectacular use of raw concrete, both for the façade and for the dramatic skylit stairway that links all five floors. Instead of plywood sheets, the concrete was poured against eight-inch slats of southern white pine. “We did many mock-ups, to determine the best width of the boards,” says architect Annabelle Selldorf. The number and placement of knots was also carefully considered.

As at the Kimbell, getting the concrete right required teamwork. According to Selldorf, who was born in Germany, “Everyone said you can’t get good architectural concrete in New York City, and it is a big challenge.  But we hired a great consultant, the ‘concrete guru’ Reg Hough, who developed the specifications for the concrete and trained” the subcontractors who mixed and poured it.

For the Parrish Museum, in Water Mill, New York, the architects Herzog and de Meuron designed a barn-like structure that recalls the modest studios of many Long Island artists. That meant roofs of corrugated metal, and walls of board-formed concrete. Ascan Mergenthaler, the firm’s partner in charge of the project, says it wasn’t until he saw the basement of the contractor’s house that he knew how the concrete should look. It was poured against sheets of plywood so rough that bits of wood stuck to the concrete when the formwork was removed. These walls aren’t neutral backdrops for hanging art (as at the Kimbell); instead, they practically are art, reminiscent of collages by Robert Rauschenberg and the gray paintings of Jasper Johns. From Texas to Long Island, concrete isn’t hiding anymore.