AIA San Francisco, January 23, 2014
Review by Paul Dillingham 

In this lecture, three local designers presented their experiences and perspectives on the use of concrete in shaping the historic and present-day landscape.

Gary Strang, Architect and Landscape Architect, GLS Landscape|Architecture observed how landscape architecture commissions are shifting from suburban projects to urban infrastructure projects, such as the Seattle Art Museum, that require intense design and engineering. He noted that just as Corbusier looked to the design of machines to see the future of architecture, we must look to our grand infrastructure projects to see the future of landscape architecture. According to Strang, the principle role of the designer is to find ways to apply the lessons of infrastructural design to site scale projects. Strang then discussed the structural advantages of catenary arches and Cantilevers, seen in the St. Mary’s Cathedral and the San Francisco Art Institute, and recommended investigation into the works of French architect Auguste Perret and Italian structural engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi.

Willett Moss, Landscape Architect of CMG Landscape Architecture, finds interest in concrete for myriad reasons, from its perpetual presence in the 21st century and its contrasting uses in both architecture and landscape to its gravity and ruinous quality. Moss noted that concrete’s use in the landscape presents us with a counterpoint between the sense of permanence that buildings provide and the dynamic, shifting quality of nature. With the addition of graffiti and vandalism concrete takes on a new life. This can be seen in the evolution of the Brutalist buildings of London’s Southbank Centre into a gallery, graffiti target, skateboarding attraction and lively civic center. Moss discussed the role of concrete in artist David Ireland’s work Dumb Balls, in Anselm Kiefer’s Jericho; and recommended investigation into the works of Richard Serra and Italian architect Carlo Scarpa.

Mark Rogero, Principal at Concreteworks design and fabrication studio discussed structural advantages and design possibilities of several pre-cast technologies, including glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) and ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC). GFRC can be thin, textured, and high in compressive, flexural and tensile strengths, a combination that provides many uses and possibilities, including acid staining, dying, integral pigmentation, decorative aggregates and veining. It can also be etched, polished, sandblasted and stenciled. Ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC), a steel fiber-reinforced composite, is still evolving and has enjoyed more use in Europe thus far than it has in the US. Rogero demonstrated possibilities for new materials with numerous examples, including many of his own projects, and recommended viewing the installation by Andrew Kudless for SFMOMA titled P_Wall.

During the Q and A session, the discussion included why pre-cast concrete is relatively competitive, due to the high cost of labor, in expensive regions such as the Bay Area; why the problem of high carbon-dioxide pollution from concrete construction has yet to be solved and why geo-foam is a big contributor to construction waste; and how research is making new concrete technologies available, while professionals in the construction field are finding new ways to make these technologies scalable and economical. The panelists all agreed that the fickle nature of temperature, drying times, humidity, and consistency make experience with concrete construction invaluable in building successful projects.

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