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Concrete contribution to making public space

CONCRETE QUARTERLY - LANDSCAPE STUDY - A series of European projects illustrates how concrete in hard landscape can provide more than toughness and durability, its expressive use contributing to the quality and attractiveness of public spaces

The role and design of public space has become an increasingly important topic, and we see a shift in lottery funding from structure to infrastructure.

In research by CABE, 85 per cent of people surveyed felt that the quality of public spaces and the built environment have a direct impact on their lives and the way they feel. Our public spaces, both new and refurbished, are viewed as the potential saviours of our civic society. There is an increasing pressure for public spaces to work harder and achieve new goals - which may seem rather ambitious for a herbaceous border or two - such as making us fitter and increasing life expectancy, encouraging interaction and social inclusion and appealing to the widest cross-section of the public, while at the same time being low-maintenance, safe and vandal-proof.

This new attention could be seen as a boost for the use of concrete in public space, as the material's robustness and flexibility are two of its main attributes. Quality is the key feature, and high-quality hard landscaping of public spaces can offer many of the benefits green spaces do. The difficulty for concrete is that the public still does not associate it with quality projects, a problem that lies with its unimaginative use in the past and some poor results. More inventive approaches are possible. These recent innovative projects show high-quality concrete making a positive contribution.

The first of these is Anchor Park, a canal-side project designed by Danish landscape architect Stig Andersson of SLA.

It is located in Vastra Hamnen, a new residential area of Malmö, Sweden, which was developed for the 2001 Housing Expo. The biomorphic canal-bank walkway has been constructed from high-quality in-situ concrete, and undulates for more than 1km alongside a canal. It is both a dramatic and graphic design;

the white concrete contrasts with the hues and zones of coloured grasses and the oak and beech groves that make up the majority of the park. It might have been thought that the natural material of choice for this project would have been wood, or even steel, but Andersson wanted the space to be 'a celebration of change as a basic condition of life and a collection of elements that constantly morph from one state to another', and used concrete to create a flowing design.

One of his 'vessels for change' is the impressed circle motifs on the surface of the concrete, designed to transform into regular puddles in the rain, reflecting the sky and helping to create an ever-changing surface.

'We often use concrete in our work, ' says Andersson. 'We don't believe good urban spaces need to be expensive. Often clients, when they think of quality in public space, believe it means using expensive materials, which use up most of the budget, while we are thinking about spatial quality, which isn't the same thing.' The 50,000m 2 South Eastern Coastal Park in Barcelona, by Foreign Office Architects (FOA), is basically an enormous outdoor performance space hosting large-scale rock concerts. It is part of a major scheme for the area for UNESCO's Forum 2004, which included projects by Herzog & de Meuron and Abalos & Herreros. The site has an 11.5m drop from the main esplanade to the shore, and FOA developed a design that bridges the level difference. The main requirement was that the park should be totally accessible to vehicular traffic as well as pedestrians, so that heavy equipment for concerts could be brought onto site. To avoid the earth being ploughed up by wheels, making a muddy mess, it was decided that the whole space should be composed of hard landscaping. To shelter visitors from sea breezes a series of artificial 'dunes' was created. These have another function too - three 'burrows' within them provide storage space for furniture and lighting. They can also be used as cafés.

FOA's main construction elements are bold, moon-shaped concrete tiles, designed to be strong enough to withstand the weight of trucks passing over them. The tiles are 55cm in diameter - smaller tiles were rejected as being too labourintensive to install, while larger ones would have been too heavy for the requisite two workers to carry. The shape of the tiles makes them extremely flexible to lay around planting and drainage points because they can adapt to different lines and geometries and can be used vertically to create embankments and walls. This flexibility also reduces the need to cut the tiles.

The coloured stripes of the tile rows flow from east to west and lead the visitor from one area into another. Altogether it is an ingenious solution, which has deliberate references to the traditional use of mosaic and tiling in Barcelona's public spaces and in the work of Antoni Gaudì in Parc Güell in particular.

In the Norwegian city of Bergen a new public square has been created from a former car park beside the United Sardine Factory, which is now home to a cultural centre. Because of its steep terrain, Bergen is full of stepped public spaces, usually constructed from granite.

The architect for this project, 3RW, wanted to create a different aesthetic and persuaded the doubting client that an undulating slope would work just as well as steps. Concrete was the natural choice for its construction, its cost-effectiveness also helping to persuade the client to accept the idea. Given Norway's climate this might have seemed risky, but the cast-in-situ concrete was surface-brushed before it set to create a textured surface, which is less slippery in wet or icy weather. Heating elements were also laid under a section of the concrete to create a clear path in winter down to the entrance of the cultural centre.

The concrete was laid out on a regular 5 x 5m grid, each section edged with Corten steel to create divisions and shadow gaps.

These divisions made the contractor's job far easier and it was able to complete the square in just three months.

The same practice is also responsible for a series of viewing platforms along some of Norway's tourist roads, where it has used concrete to great effect.

These spaces are usually rather depressing, consisting of a bit of asphalt, a picnic table and an overflowing bin, if you are lucky. At Eagles' Turn (currently under construction) above the Geiranger fjord, 3RW is creating stepped concrete seating at the edge of the road, which leads down to a 400m 2 concrete viewing platform. The steps have a dual function: because the bend in the road can be icy in winter, they also act as a crash barrier out of season. On the platform three yellow tubes protrude from the surface of the concrete; these are rubbish chutes to a huge bin situated beneath the surface, all helping to keep down clutter on the surface and providing minimal visual distraction from the view and glorious natural surroundings.

A glass ledge is also laid into the edge of the platform, affording giddy vertical views straight down the 1,400m mountain.

3RW is using concrete on its other viewing sites, including a platform at Kjeksa on the Atlantic road - a popular photoopportunity spot. Here, tourists trample across the wild flora in their eagerness to take photographs before reboarding the bus to move on to the next location.

The practice's new design not only provides a seating and viewing area, but a clearly defined, winding concrete path that leads tourists down to the sea for that perfect shot, while keeping them away from delicate plants. This all happens without creating a major intrusion into a protected landscape, and it manages to be overtly contemporary, without any apologetic faux nature-trail overtones.

These projects have used concrete authentically as a prime construction material, which is still rather rare in public-space design. Evidently attractive, the material contributes to well designed, high-quality and lowmaintenance public spaces.

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