Concrete thinking

Above: Attic black figure Amphora by Exekias: Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice, c530 BC

Concrete, as the Romans knew it, was a new and revolutionary material. Laid in the shape of arches, vaults and domes, it quickly hardened into a rigid mass, free from many of the internal thrusts and strains that troubled the builders of similar structures in stone or brick. Its widespread use was termed the Roman architectural revolution.

Reinforced concrete was invented in 1849 by Joseph Monier and the first house was built by François Coignet in 1853. The first concrete reinforced bridge was designed and built by Joseph Monier in 1875.

In 1868 Sir Arthur Blomfield (see post of 24/9/19), by now settled in a home designed by himself in East Sheen, built another next door but one, called The Halsteads (from the Old English for “place of refuge”). At No 3 Fife Road, it is the first known architect designed house in England to be made of concrete: mass concrete walls, concrete internal walls. Joseph Tull, the inventor of standardised concrete shuttering, was the contractor.

Arthur was the fourth son of Charles, Anglican Bishop of London, who himself began a programme of new church construction in London.

Arthur’s nephew, Sir Reginald Blomfield (1856-1942) apprenticed under him, went on to design numerous buildings, public works, and sculpture. As noted in my post of 9/5/2019, Reginald was born at Bow Rectory, Devon. His father, the Reverend George Blomfield, and his mother Isabella (second daughter of Bishop Charles) were cousins – some say “first”, some say “distant”.

The heyday of Blomfield’s practice lasted from 1885 to 1914. Blomfield married a Miss Burra of Rye in 1886. That same year, Blomfield and the printer T J Cobden Sanderson (see post of 3/11/18) built themselves a pair of houses in Frognal, Hampstead; 51, Frognal remained Blomfield’s London home, and he died there at the end of 1942.

From his uncle’s office Reginald gained site experience and valuable mechanical skills of draughtmanship. However, he found the practice’s output of traditional Gothic Revival uncongenial, hard, and soulless. He fared better at the Royal Academy Schools, though he later felt ashamed of his prizewinning design for a Town house in the fashionable Queen Anne Revival style. He developed an enthusiasm for classicism.

At the beginning of 1884, Reginald spent four months travelling in France and Spain. On his return to London, he established a practice at 17, Southampton Street, off the Strand (two minutes’ walk from where George G Harrap would set up in 1901). E S Prior had an office in the same building. Through Prior, a former pupil of Richard Norman Shaw, Blomfield met others of Shaw’s circle; and, while he never worked in Shaw’s office, was henceforth a great admirer of his. He played a major part in the completion of the Quadrant on Regent Street, London when Shaw withdrew from the project. Shaw’s last work was Portland House, London (1907–8—one of the first buildings with a reinforced-concrete frame in England).

According to the late Henry-Russell Hitchcock:

“An architectural Picasso, Shaw had many divergent manners which he developed successively, but of which none – except the High Victorian Gothic – was ever entirely dropped.”.

In her short story “Monsieur Mallarme Changes Names” Michele Roberts takes the poet Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898) as a character:

“…He sat down at the table set in front of the window and began to write.

“A Throw of the Dice”, Mallarme’s extraordinary experimental concrete poem, in which the text is flung and scattered and repeated in different type sizes over successive pages, is universally recognised as his masterpiece, the patterns of dancing words evoking both chaos and a new order, the dawning of modernism, the creation of difficult beauty in the void left by God’s exile…”.

Referring to the same poem (published 1897), a critic has written more recently: “It has been suggested that “much of Mallarmé’s work influenced the conception of hypertext, with his purposeful use of blank space and careful placement of words on the page, allowing multiple non-linear readings of the text. This becomes very apparent in his work Un coup de dés.”.

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