Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: Architectural Concrete in Detail

Architectural Concrete in Detail: Four Buildings by Miller & Maranta edited by Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Design and Building Construction Chair Michael Loudon, Florian Kirfel and Daniel Reisch
Quart Publishing, 2011
Paperback, 88 pages

My initial familiarization with Basel, Switzerland's Miller & Maranta -- the duo of Quintus Miller and Paola Maranta -- was ten years ago with their Market Hall, a wood building inserted into the urban fabric of Aarau. The simple open-air building is defined by a repetitive grid of tightly spaced wood fins, but the structure and overall form inflects to follow the street it occupies. The site and program make it a unique piece of architecture, but the blending of simplicity and contextual response is found in other Miller & Maranta buildings as this excellent book with case studies of four concrete structures attests.

The four buildings are: Volta School Building, Schwarzpark Residential Building, Villa Garbald, and Spirgarten Home for the Elderly. Each project is explained through photos, drawings, and text from the larger contextual picture down to the layout of spaces, the construction system, and the technical composition of the exposed concrete. Full-page, close-up photos are an important element that allows the finish of each exterior surface to be easily compared and grasped in their small-scale intricacies.
At first glance each building exhibits a simplicity that is off-putting, as if their grids and flat surfaces are devoid of character and life. But the presentation of each project reveals the careful work of the architects in not only crafting the concrete but in creating some remarkable spaces within forms strongly linked to each site. The conviction of each building also stems from the clarity of the presentation; the text, photos, and drawings (all in a consistent format) work remarkably well together to tell the story of each building in a way that understanding of them in the book's context of concrete is maximized.

The Volta School Building is a cubic form with regular horizontal openings that express the grid that pervades the whole structure. But it does not reveal the four courtyards that punctuate the top four floors, nor the below-grade gymnasium that the classrooms and courts site above. An elaborate structural system with tensioning cables enables load-bearing concrete walls following the grid to define the spaces above the long-span gymnasium. The Schwarzpark Residential Building also features a pervasive grid, but it is one that is kinked in two directions in response to its siting at the park's southern tip. Volta's flatness gives way here to deep areas where the balconies sit; all openings are also marked by operable shades that give the exterior a variable appearance. Dark-gray concrete is used throughout, most spectacularly in the stairwells which feature beautiful steel railings (primed with zinc dust and painted) embedded in the concrete treads.

Villa Garbald is a freestanding building that extends the programming of a 19th-century villa designed by Gottfried Semper and run by Fondazione Garbald. The five-sided building, in plan, was erected walls first, followed by the inner structure. But what is most remarkable is the rough finish achieved by high-pressure water jetting the in-situ concrete walls. A very different appearance is achieved on the facades of the Spirgarten Home for the Elderly, which were sandblasted. Oversized aluminum frames around the continuous windows accentuates the light color of the concrete. Located in the Altstetten area of Zurich, the building inflects in response to its corner site and to green spaces at the perimeter, another example of Miller & Maranta's sensitivity to site in a minimalist palette.

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