Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

In from the cold: how concrete is becoming a design trend

The boss of the Finnish company Graphic Concrete, which made its UAE debut this month, explains how it’s attempting to raise the medium’s profile.
An example of Graphic Concrete’s work in Belgium. Courtesy Graphic Concrete
An example of Graphic Concrete’s work in Belgium. Courtesy Graphic Concrete

Concrete plays a prominent role in the built environment, but it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Despite the efforts of the brutalist architecture movement, which championed the development of structures with raw concrete as its primary medium, concrete work is often derided as ugly or disregarded as plain.

But as architects have explored the material’s functional versatility, so too have they sought out ways to make it decorative. Whether trialling the rough textures of concrete cast in situ or using chemical washes to erode a finished surface and expose aggregate, designers have been experimenting with ways to add polish to the raw material.

One such experimentalist, the Finnish interior architect ­Samuli Naamanka, has had more success than most. Naamanka wanted to do more than take the rough with the smooth, so in the late 1990s, began to develop retarders and printing methods to produce individual artworks and repeated patterns on concrete surfaces. Setting out to scale-up the results gained through more traditional methods of etching patterns into concrete, his ambition was to create a real industrial product for large-scale surfaces. Eventually, he developed a tool through which architects could be more visually creative, patenting the techniques and leading to the idea’s commercialisation through a company called ­Graphic Concrete.

“Our product – we call it Membrane – is like a coated paper, and we print the image designed by an architect, or chosen from our own collection, with a special chemical surface retarder,” says Harri Lanning, the chief executive of Graphic Concrete. “The concrete is cast on that membrane and that creates the pattern on its surface.”

The deceptively simple process can produce some stunning results on precast concrete surfaces, from wallpaper-like patterns covering entire buildings to ­photorealistic images reproduced in a supersize grey scale. Shifts in shades and colour come from the contrast between the smooth finished surface of the cement and the aggregate exposed when the surface retardant is washed away.

“The pattern comes from the concrete’s raw materials, nothing is added afterwards,” explains Lanning. “It is very durable as well, since the pattern is not attached to the surface [after casting]. This smooth surface and exposed ­aggregate are two very traditional ways of presenting concrete surfaces, so it’s just a combination of these traditional techniques that creates the pattern.”

This durability could give the technique added appeal in the Middle East, where Graphic Concrete has just launched its product in conjunction with its ­Dubai-based partner, Versatile BMT. The techniques and tools could soon be seeing application on prefabricated concrete surfaces such as facades, walls, pavement slabs and ceilings, all of which have already been seen in the company’s collection of more than 700 international reference projects.

Architects and designers wanting to put the technology to the test in residential or commercial settings have a few options to hand. They can choose from a catalogue of more than 100 existing patterns developed by Graphic Concrete, including some new additions to the range developed specifically for the tastes of the Middle East. Other options include the creation of individual unique images, such as the reproduction of photographs.

The techniques come into their own, though, when a customised design is needed to form a repeating pattern on a large set of surfaces. Here, the benefits of scale create cost efficiencies, much the same as they do in the printing industry, as much of the cost lies in the initial set-up. Lanning cites an example of a project the team is currently working on in India, where some 10,000 square metres of surface area will be covered with a unique pattern.

“Basically, whatever you can print on paper you can imprint on to a concrete surface,” says Lanning. “If the pattern is repeating, the more you order, the more cost efficient it will be.

“For designers, when they are starting to use our graphic concrete techniques, there are some minor details they need to know to make it easier and more cost-efficient, with regards to our production, so that’s what the architects in our Helsinki headquarters are here to help with. When you know some simple facts and guidelines of how to do it, for architects and designers the job is very easy.”

The level of detail achievable may seem surprising given the materials involved, but images with just a few millimetres of tolerance can be created. This means surfaces can carry a lot of fine image detail leading to a high-resolution look, especially when a facade is seen from even a small distance.

With plenty of international experience behind it, the top priority for the local venture is to get some project references under its belt. Taking on a local partner was a natural part of this process, not only because business in the region is heavily based on relationships, but also because much of the work is about consultancy during the design phase, and that needs boots on the ground.

“It’s important for us that we are not just selling a product,” says Lanning. “Service is always connected with the sales we do, so if an architect needs help with a design and how to apply it with our technology, then we have designers in our headquarters ready to help other architects bring their vision to life with graphic ­concrete.”

Graphic concrete has been used to decorate public buildings, schools and even motorway sound barriers, adding a decorative touch to spaces often considered too utilitarian for attention. The simplicity of the method – precast factories require little in the way of trained men to master the process – means it could readily be considered as an alternative method of decoration to more traditional surface coatings or paint.

“We already have some factories in the Middle East that have used our sample products and they find it very easy,” says Lanning. “If needed, we can also train new factories, but it’s basically the same process as casting a normal ­panel.”

Lanning sees a bright future for graphic concrete in the region, thanks to the ready availability of large building projects, the widespread use of pre­fabrication and the Middle East’s appreciation for decorative ­details. “Architectural ornaments are used quite a lot, compared to Scandinavian countries where ornamentation has not been that [prevalent] in the past,” he says. “With prefabricated [building elements], the cost structure of graphic concrete is very competitive compared to other surface treatments or alternative materials.”

With plenty of potential application opportunities across the region, everything from urban spaces to private residences may soon have a more visual story to tell thanks to a graphic technique that will let people scratch below concrete’s seemingly simple ­surface.

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Updated: June 25, 2015 04:00 AM

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