concrete evidence

Memories pour from 43 year old chairs like sweat from a glass blower’s arse. Used wisely they are tools for dislodging anecdotal diamonds from the deepest mines of architectural history. Returning from the book shop at lunch, clutching my RIBA bag containing William Curtis’ book on Denys Lasdun, an unattractive degree of smugness causes me to once more bring up the topic of the chair.

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Tony once went for a job interview. I remember visiting his office in a terraced house and waiting in the hall on a collapsable chair – it almost did collapse! – and then I went into Lasdun’s drawing room, which actually was his drawing room with a couple of boards that he worked on, there was a desk and sofa – perhaps it’s yours now – and he said that he was sorry but he didn’t have any work for me, so I asked him why he’d agreed to see me if that was the case and he just said he was interested in seeing what I had – who else had I had offers from he said, John Madin I said, then I should go and work for him he said, he knows the business.

So that’s what he did. John Madin’s office turned out some of Birmingham’s finest post-war architecture and then after a while Tony left, won a competition and built the Ballymena County Hall. You can see it in a 1971 issue of the AJ.

Brutalism doesn’t do ornament. Ornament hides a multitude of sins. Like rain streaks that piss down the surface of concrete and cause you take your eye off the ball. What ball? The volumes, the solids, the voids. I remember, suddenly, as Tony flicks past the images of his era, lifting my camera to point at the underbelly of the National Theatre as a fresh faced clueless undergraduate and being, for the first time, moved. And relieved. Relieved that I’d filled my 35mm with black and white film.

There was a guy says Tony, called William Mitchell, who did sculptures in concrete for the facades of buildings. All I can think of is the guy at MIT, but for the moment I keep that to myself. I once went to a lecture he gave and heard him talk about the first time he started thinking about ornament and facades. He was on a train and as it passed under a bridge the history of the smoke patterns billowing over the surface above had brought the surface of the wall into greater relief. That’s when he first got the idea. He told us about failed experiments with mangles where they would put concrete on boards and feed it between rollers with patterns cut into them. They got in a mess until they realised it was better to keep the concrete still and move the rollers.

We Google for him. It turns out he has his own dot com: william-mitchell.com.

Lunch ends. I sat on the 43 year old chair this evening and ate chicken and noodles whilst memories poured from the leather like sweat from – no, wait, I said that already.

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