Alex de Rijke's first impression of the Owen Williams-designed Boots D10 factory in Nottingham was of a 'fantastically confident and ambitious building'. De Rijke admits he was struck by the effect as a whole - the impressive scale, the 'very direct and large frame and curtain walling' and the 'wonderful transparency' of the glazed facade.
Widely regarded as the most significant icon of British Modernism, the Boots factory is an unpretentious, no-nonsense construction, typical of the North American factory genre within which its origins lie - in Williams' own words, it is merely 'the shell surrounding a process'.
While de Rijke observes that D10 'has no rhetoric, [it is] built as a system which facilitates certain requirements', he finds the use of concrete inspiring. His favourite element, the loading bay, he deems elegant in its huge scale but 'without brutality'. The enormous cantilevers and huge columns are 'daring' and de Rijke compares the haunches, which support the roof canopy, to a pair of 'enormous concrete hands'.
For de Rijke, the building is vast without being intimidating or arrogant. 'We live in a routinely over-built culture, ' he says dryly. 'D10 hovered right on the edge and got it right. Williams had the confidence to take calculated risks.'
Boots' decision to undertake a refurbishment of the Grade I-listed D10 building in 1989 was a contentious one. For commercial reasons, the building needed to be brought in line with EC performance standards, while still maintaining the integrity of Williams' original design. De Rijke finds the result a disappointment - 'it detracts from the transparency, which is one of the whole points of the building'.
And, in spite of the care taken to match the original curtain walling, de Rijke observes that the depth of the glazing is very different, 'a facade which once revealed the interior now reflects the sky'.
De Rijke would like to do more with concrete. Having won awards for No 1 Centaur Street, the prototype housing project in south London acclaimed as a 'mini-masterpiece', de Rijke says he has learnt a lot and would like to try something more 'structurally ambitious'. A large-span exhibition space or car park would be 'ideal', a stadium would be 'wonderful'. With a wry laugh he admits that a small bridge 'would certianly do'.
As Centaur Street demonstrates, good buildings don't have to be about 'big' and, for de Rijke, the interpretation of materials is key.He uses Schindler's slab tilt as an example of how concrete is 'fantastically variable, even on a small scale'. In Schindler's own cooperative residence/studio on King's Road in LA, concrete was poured into flat trays to produce walls as an easier alternative to vertical shuttering. In de Rijke's opinion, this produced a very 'simple but elegantly done' single-storey building.
The manipulation of concrete forms has always interested him.
His interest in the material began while working in Amsterdam, and he especially admires the work of concrete shell expert Felix Candela. In Britain, however, Williams is his favourite concrete pioneer - 'the man made a concrete church, even a concrete boat! He knew the material inside out and loved it.'
In common with elements of the Boots factory such as the concrete purlins, Centaur Street's interior is of in situ mould-cast concrete. The experience allowed de Rijke, a self-confessed prefab junkie, to experiment with shuttering to achieve contrasting textures and more fluid, sculpted construction. De Rijke aspires to an ideal of joint-free construction, or 'less-joint' construction as he calls it.
So what does he say to Centaur Street's detractors?
'With that project I wanted to achieve material and space continuity. I got told off for the lack of obvious joints, which was never the point anyway.
One material was made into a flowing, expressive, warm environment without brutality. It is rough but intimate.'