New life to concrete heritage

Time passes.

This may seem obvious but it isn’t when speaking of buildings. We are used to thinking that any structure will forever retain one or more functions, without ever changing, but it cannot be that way. In this article we’ll take a closer look at concrete buildings which changed their function across their history. Concrete buildings, in particular, are very versatile and can change their role in a quick and effective way. It is true that we have to distinguish case by case, partially because not every building (whatever the material used for the construction) can cover other roles, but we have to consider that, in the majority of cases, concrete offers large geometrical internal spaces easy to allocate for other uses.

HfG – Archiv, Ulm (Germany)

The complex is characterized by organizational, formal and constructive rationality, with concrete being the dominant material, both outside and inside. A simple and rational structure, based on  columns and visible concrete beams, achieves an optimal aesthetic result while lending unity to the whole; it is articulated with solid concrete walls and wooden joinery that follows an exact repetitive modulation.

In the 1950s, a group of artists and designers led by Max Bill and Otl Aicher decided to found a school that would take over from the defunct Bauhaus and contribute to the reconstruction efforts in a nation devastated by war. Like the case of its predecessor, the curriculum was characterized by the desire to integrate the different artistic disciplines, the applied arts and design. In the Ulm school, however, the relationship between technology, science and design was emphasized. Max Bill himself, who had been a student at the Bauhaus, designed the building for the school. After the college was closed in 1968 the building was used and converted by Ulm University. A renovation and restoration was undertaken from 2010 to 2014, and since 2011 it has been used by the HfG-Archiv.

Credits: @2.0 modernist design

Burgerweeshuis, Amsterdam (The Netherlands)

When speaking of orphanages, we are likely to think of a sad building, imagining that its role affects what happens inside and around it, but Burgeweeshuis’ case is different. Aldo van Eyck built this orphanage with room for 125 children and on the one hand, an abundance of interior and exterior spaces is alternated to create complexity and variability in the architecture, to make it easier for the children to make themselves at home in a building that was, to a large extent, their world. On the other hand, the building was meant to dissolve its boundaries with the city, to become open and inclusive: just the opposite of the isolated spaces associated with orphanages of the past in the collective consciousness.

The resulting building feels more like a labyrinth or a Kasbah. Each of the modules is covered with a prefabricated concrete circular dome that rests directly on a series of beams; in turn, the beams are supported by circular columns, all made of reinforced concrete. Today it is a museum and a cultural centre.

Credits: @BY-SA 4.0

Kulttuurisiilo / Kulttuurivoimala, Oulu (Finland)

This paper mill for the company Serlachius is a little-known work by the renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and one of his first commissions for an industrial building. The complex, built in the early 1930s, included all the buildings and facilities necessary for the manufacture of cellulose. Some of them, of little architectural value, were torn down after production was halted in 1980. Fortunately, others, such as the building for drying wood chips pictured here, have survived to this day. The shape of the steep gabled concrete roof, truncated at the top, satisfies the functional needs of the industrial production process, while generating a characteristic profile: its form – which Aalto called “organically functional” – is emphasized through the expression of the constructive and structural geometry, taking the form of delicate concrete ribs on the exterior surface.

Today it hosts many cultural activities dedicated to inclusive projects and children care, with many shows, exhibitions and community activities.

Credits: @Michele Merckling '80s, Alvar Aalto Museum

As seen in these three examples, concrete doesn’t represent a material worthy only for a certain type of activity. As it was born to build almost everything, it can also turn to be whatever a community needs in a particular moment of its history.

Now, try to think of how many concrete buildings are at risk of demolition when they could be easily turned in something useful and enrich culture, develop tourism or boost economic or social activities.

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