Re-thinking the concrete jungle

Think concrete; think drab 1960s tower blocks? Think again.
Think concrete; think drab 1960s tower blocks? Think again.

University of Leeds engineers are working with the artist Victoria Ferrand Scott to exploit the untapped potential of architecture's 'ugly duckling' as a versatile and even sensuous sculptural material.

The year-long project will allow the 'Artist in Residence' to spend two days a week working with researchers, technicians and project students at the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure (iRI) at the University of Leeds. The partnership is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Together, project members will investigate alternative 'mixes' of concrete that can be used for artistic sculptures. Concrete is essentially any material that uses cement to bind together crushed stone, rock and sand, so the starting 'recipe' can vary considerably. A mixture that is perfect for making long, supporting concrete beams for a residential building may be quite different to the recipe that is mixed together in a bucket in an artist's studio.

The project will also explore how high-tech processing methods might be used creatively to make extremely large sculptures. One solution may be to add strips of cloth to the starting 'mix' of concrete that is then poured into flexible moulds. This could reduce the weight of the finished solid, forms without reducing their strength or making them more likely to crack.

The results of the work will be shared through the website of NACNet - a network of scientists, engineers, social scientists, industrialists and artists exploring novel uses for cement, from musical instruments to wind turbine blades.

"This is all about knowledge transfer between both parties," said materials engineer Dr Phil Purnell, Director of the iRI. "As engineers, we have considerable expertise in the material properties of concrete that should help artists, like Victoria, extend the scale and complexity of their sculptures."

"At the same time, we hope to learn more about our favourite material by hearing the artists' perception and approach to concrete. For example, artists strive to create detailed and quite intricate surface finishes and these are not always fully exploited by engineers and architects when designing concrete buildings," he said.

"This is a truly valuable opportunity and I plan to use the time to push the accepted boundaries of process," Ferrand Scott said. "Working with concrete is similar to working with plaster in that you are pouring fluid into bound moulds. The difference is that you have more time to manipulate the forms that are being created, greater potential strength, and more scope to increase the scale of sculptures."

"Forms made using fluid materials, such as concrete, can be quite organic, even visceral in nature. Yet concrete has for so long had a reputation as being an ugly, brutal material. I am hopeful that this collaboration will bring about a reappraisal of the creative possibilities of concrete and reveal its inherent sensuous qualities."