Surface, texture and light – or creative concrete therapy

As well as reconnecting with old friends and making some new ones, I got the chance three weeks ago to revisit some work from my previous life as an architecture student. It was emotionally taxing to go back to that period of my life, but I feel like I was given a chance to take something that was painful and turn it into a positive. When I left architecture 4 years ago, it had been a long time coming. There were many other things wrong in my life at that point, but leaving that course/career became the symbol of it all for me. It was very hard to do and it involved some very lonely times, watching friends pass by and graduate, and often questioning if I had done the right thing (I still do, but less and less). I eventually found my way into textiles and to a happier place, and here I am now, still working on it but I feel I am moving forward – hats, prints and all.

Anyway, the last architectural project I completed, in 2008, was a module exploring the capabilities of fabric-formed concrete, which I really enjoyed. (Generally, if I can get my hands dirty just playing and getting to know materials and testing what they can do, then I’m happy. Textiles offers this direct interaction with materials in a way that architecture, on the whole, does not. The concrete work was an exception to the otherwise abstract and concept-driven style of drawing and research.) My team’s project went on to win 1st prize in the Building Element category of the 2008-9 ACSA competition ‘Concrete Thinking for a Sustainable World’. My name isn’t on the website because by this point I had left the Masters course and thus wasn’t involved with the actual competition submission, but I still feel a proud ownership over the finished work and it was lovely to be remembered by the tutor who led the workshop and to be invited back to be involved a second time round.

The Surface, Texture and Light project began with a field trip to St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross in Argyll and Bute (near Glasgow in the west of Scotland). This building has been left to fall into complete ruin since its last reincarnation as a rehab clinic ended in 1986, and it is in a sorry (and rather dangerous) state. (Use rollovers to find out a little more about each image.)

In this former ecclesiastical building, one senses the contemplative quality of the light and the spaces even in this ruinous state. The small details captured my eye, such as the rows of calcified water droplets where leaks have sprung in the concrete, or the way the light fell into the ‘practice chapels’ (see above, with the ‘Game On’ graffiti) to either side of the central hall. I felt that manipulating the light from above would be an appropriate way to create a piece in response to this once striking building, and pay homage to its origins. A first test panel explored the effects of different printed fabrics on the surface of the concrete, as well as the idea of embedding a ‘bulb’ into the panel which could then become a light channel into a space. Think ceiling panel with a daylight bulb embedded – the amazing Liter of Light project, which is lighting up homes in the slums of the Philippines, was a big inspiration for this idea as well.

After completing the test pieces in this first week, we formed up into groups to develop a bigger final piece. Ideally there was a mix of architecture, glass and textiles students within each, as far as numbers would allow. In my group were Francis from architecture and Juli from glass (see her blog here), Saba from textiles, plus myself with my odd mix of architecture and textiles.

We brainstormed a bit and this idea crystallised out of the things we’d been struck by on our site visit: the quality of light as it trickles down through the building, the detail of tiny calcified water drops that accumulate over many years of neglect, and the frozen motion of a building in decay. The solid drop of glass would emerge from the downward-moving concrete, creating a juxtaposition of these two different materials that to us was evocative of the feel of St Peter’s itself as well as of our own working process, combining several distinct disciplines to create a unified whole.

Some other glass experiments alongside, just for fun:

Back to the main event: we cast a small scale test piece to help us iron out any problems. This was about 1/3 sized, using a drop shaped piece of glass that we happened to find on the spares shelf, and which was hollow inside compared to our solid drop pieces.

The glass bulb in the test piece unfortunately snapped, probably from the stress created when using the vibrating rod to compact the concrete. Our final glass pieces were thicker, and solid rather than hollow, so this was an issue we felt would be resolved in the final piece. A sticking point however was the juncture between glass and concrete. In tapering the concrete down to nothing to meet the glass, we did not have enough hold to support the glass bulb and the concrete just flaked off the surface of the glass neck. We revised this join in the final piece to give the concrete a thicker neck to support the glass adequately.

This small test piece above was created just to see the surface texture we could create by stitching. As we had decided by now to etch into the glass, using Juli’s speciality to create a surface that would manipulate and play with the light, we felt that it would be more in keeping with the project to use stitched embroidery and textural relief rather than printed fabrics, which would transfer colour to the concrete surface.

The final pieces could now be assembled to build the final formwork:

The foam cone was made to prevent the concrete from covering up the glass, as the hollow inside the piece should allow light to be funnelled down through the bulb. The timber collar would serve as an attachment point for the fabric around the neck of the glass, rather than tying the fabric in directly to the glass itself.

With fabric-formed concrete, it is good practice to rub the surface of the fabric while filling the formwork. This draws out any excess water, which would weaken the concrete from within, and also serves to agitate the mixture so that any air bubbles rise up and out of the concrete, further compacting and strengthening it. This was especially important as we did not want to use the vibrating rod for fear of breaking the glass.

The team with the finished cast, l to r: Juli, myself, Francis and Saba. This was Friday evening, and as concrete takes a few days to cure sufficiently for stripping, we all came back in on the Tuesday to find out what the end result was. I was most worried that the concrete would snap the glass or that the bulb would have slipped out of the end of the cast.

This is what we found…

This part was incredibly fiddly. Next time I would avoid duct tape as much as possible – it doesn’t like being hoiked out of such tiny spaces, and we all ended up with a few grazes to testify to that.

Now the piece just needed to be flipped back over and hung. For this we used the workshop crane to winch it up into position.

Ta-da! And that is our finished piece. Once the overhead fluoro lights were turned off, and we got the strong spotlight in above, its intended effect really came into its own. The photos taken from below help to visualise the intended use of the piece as a hung installation, potentially with a number of them at different heights within a space. We were relieved that the experiment worked, and I definitely felt that I would love to continue exploring this and so many other great ideas that came out of this two-week workshop. (There is a whole other post that could be written about all the other projects, but I hope that they will be written up by their respective creators so that I can link to them from here also.) There may well be an opportunity to go back and play, which you can be sure I will document if it happens 🙂 I would love to hear of similar experiences or projects – have you worked with unusual combinations of materials and gotten some exciting or maybe even unexpected results?

Further reading:

Fabric-Formed Concrete at the University of Edinburgh

CAST (Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology) at the University of Manitoba


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