The art of casting sculptural architecture from liquid stone: concrete

Best of 2022: STIR's selection of sculptural concrete architecture built this year, that created contemporary forms of fancy, at once poetic, fluid, theatrical, and powerful.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Dec 17, 2022

Structures in concrete today are often dismissed as grey, soulless, rigid and boring, apart from being majorly repetitive, mass-produced, and miles away from its almost heroic, iconic nature deemed in its early days of experimental usage, as a favourite of modernist architects. Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, and urban planner Le Corbusier’s love affair with concrete is evident and known to all, as are the celebrated, lucid works of industry stalwarts such as Frank Lloyd Wright (Falling Water, the United States), Tadao Ando (Church of the Light, Japan), and Alvaro Siza (Expo'98 Portuguese National Pavilion, Portugal).

These architectural authors, along with a few others in recent times like Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, have seemingly, painstakingly, struck gold with this liquid stone—casting sculptural structures that surprise and enthral with their modern geometries and brutalist forms in béton brut or finished concrete, replete with undulations and fluidity as well as strict and flowy personas. These structures are made magnanimous, forgoing concrete's seemingly unforgiving, rigid materiality, by swerving, surging, bending at mad angles, burrowing underground, or soaring to the heavens, displaying its rigorous acumen of casting forms of poetry, resilience, and drama.  

Best of 2022: Sculptural Concrete Architecture | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
Curved concrete walls define The Wandering Walls designed by XRANGE Architects in Taiwan Image: Kuo-Min Lee, Lorenzo Pierucci Studio, Studio Millspace

As the year comes to a close, STIR rounds up a fascinating mix of sculptural concrete architecture that wowed in 2022, with architects and designers from across the world experimenting with concrete’s materiality, pouring it into stunning forms of imaginative prowess and brimming with theatrical capacity.

1. Miller & Maranta crafts 'poetry in stone' with the Gletschergarten Museum Extension

  • Slight contrasts in the stone and concrete materiality define the contemplative mood of the internal caverns of The Gletschergarten Museum Extension | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    Slight contrasts in the stone and concrete materiality define the contemplative mood of the internal caverns of The Gletschergarten Museum Extension Image: © Glacier Garden Lucerne
  • The Gletschergarten Museum Extension by Miller & Maranta | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    The Gletschergarten Museum Extension by Miller & Maranta Image: © Ruedi Walti, Courtesy of Miller & Maranta

Sculptural geometric forms in exposed concrete are built into a landmark sandstone rock formation in Lucerne, Switzerland, as part of this organic architecture, narrating a tale from the geological period's past in this theatrical project conceived by Miller & Maranta. The Basel-based architecture practice carried out the conservation and extension of the Gletschergarten Luzern in Denkmalstrasse, located at the foot of a large sandstone rock that dates back to a marine beach formed over 20 million years ago. Accompanied by nude stone architecture, massive pieces of concrete are arranged in the direction of the geological layers of the area where visitors enter the labyrinth-like interiors with an exhibition space from a depth of 30 metres from the garden outside, ascending towards the light in an experiential, gracefully brutalist setting.

2. MAD Architects complete sci-fi inspired Quzhou Stadium as constructed nature

  • The Quzhou Stadium is supported by 60 sets of concrete columns, with exposed wood-grained concrete walls
    The Quzhou Stadium is supported by 60 sets of concrete columns, with exposed wood-grained concrete walls Image: Courtesy of CreatAR Images, ©MAD Architects (L); Tian Fangfang, ©MAD Architects (R)
  • The Quzhou Stadium is designed to blur boundaries between the built and the landscape | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    The Quzhou Stadium is designed to blur boundaries between the built and the landscape Image: Courtesy of Aogvision, ©MAD Architects

MAD Architects led by Ma Yansong conceived the first completed public building of the Quzhou Sports Park in China as constructed nature and a "piece of land art", made largely of concrete. The Chinese architects describe the site where the sci-fi-inspired stadium design was unveiled—"Quzhou is a historic city 400 kilometres southwest of Shanghai and surrounded by dense forests to the east and west. Its sinuous exterior profile reflects the mountain ridge within distant view of the site while its landscape evokes those of planets imagined by visionary science fiction authors." The sports architecture emerges sans boundaries between its built layers and the surrounding, volcano-like, natural landscape. The undulant topography also informs the organic shape of the Chinese architecture, appearing as a "halo hovering gently above the landscape" when seen from afar.

3. Smriti Van by Vastu Shilpa Consultants in Bhuj, Gujarat conveys resilience & reverence

  • Smriti Van by Vastu Shilpa Consultants in Bhuj, Gujarat | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    Smriti Van by Vastu Shilpa Consultants in Bhuj, Gujarat Image: Vinay Panjwani, Courtesy of Vastu Shilpa Consultants
  • At the zenith of the site, the memorial’s Sun Point is a near spiritual experience | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    At the zenith of the site, the memorial’s Sun Point is a near spiritual experience Image: Vinay Panjwani

A contemplative memorial for the victims of the 2001 Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat, India, a terrible tragedy, the Smriti Van by Vastu Shilpa Consultants (founded by Pritzker Prize laureate and RIBA Gold Medal awardee, BV Doshi) is spread across volatile Kutchi terrain and uses natural channels to transcend monumentality. The monumental concrete architecture in its resilience and soaring being looks hopefully to the future with remarkable sensitivity, while reminiscing its site’s dark past, with a steady and gentle influx of water local to the region.   

4. Junya Ishigami reinvents “building into the earth” with a House & Restaurant in Japan

  • House & Restaurant by junya.ishigami + associates in Ube, Yamaguchi, Japan | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    House & Restaurant by junya.ishigami + associates in Ube, Yamaguchi, Japan Image: © junya.ishigami + associates
  • Vaults and archways are staple features of the design | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    Vaults and archways are staple features of the design Image: © junya.ishigami + associates

Junya Ishigami, who leads his Tokyo-based practice junya.ishigami + associates, “excavated” a residence and restaurant from the earth in the city of Ube, within Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture for this hospitality architecture. A cave-like building, with raw, unpolished finishes across its organic structural members, the hospitality design was realised for chef Motonori Hirata, who implored the Japanese architect to create something that would radiate heaviness and resilience. In fact, the Japanese architecture was not built "on" the site but rather, “carved” out of the terrain and soil layers beneath it, through a process that involved pile driving, concrete filling, and excavation. “More specifically, we dug a hole in the ground to pour concrete, excavated the volume, and fixed glass to create interior spaces,” Ishigami states.

5. Nendo takes minimalism to its maximum with the Culvert Guesthouse in Japan

  • A glimpse into the Culvert Guesthouse in Japan Video: Courtesy of nendo_official; Toru Shiomi (filming and editing); Takahisa Araki and Masaya Yoshimura (filming)
  • Aerial view of the Culvert Guesthouse designed by Japanese design and architectural firm Nendo | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    Aerial view of the Culvert Guesthouse designed by Japanese design and architectural firm Nendo Image: Takumi Ota

This archival piece of earthquake resistant contemporary architecture lets minimalism reign supreme, exploring in its stark white, modern being, precast concrete tunnels that are placed and oriented in fantastic simplicity. Conceived by Japanese designer firm Nendo, led by Oki Sato, this storage facility is attached with a guesthouse, recording and displaying their furniture, product designs, and artwork, as a solo museum of all things Nendo. Located within a quiet and nature-rich environment in Miyota-machi, Nagano Prefecture in central Japan, where streams meander through a thick forest of red pine, the ingenious Japanese architecture is made by stacking four tunnel-like concrete “culverts” bookended by glass walls, enclosed by a flat bleached roof at their centre, and a fifth volume residing solitary a few metres away.

6. A circle, a sundial, an infinity: Wóolis residence by Arkham Projects

  • The oculus camber is the main protagonist of the Wóolis residence and observatory in Mexico designed by Arkham Projects | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    The oculus camber is the main protagonist of the Wóolis residence and observatory in Mexico designed by Arkham Projects Image: Manolo Solis
  • Arkham Projects channels a sentimental friendship between daylight and concrete within the august essence of Wóolis | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    Arkham Projects channels a sentimental friendship between daylight and concrete within the august essence of Wóolis Image: Zaickz Moz

Casting simplicity with concrete, Wóolis is an austere Mexican architecture designed by Arkham Projects, conceived as a circular observatory and dwelling located north of the city of Mérida in Yucatán, Mexico. Channeling a sentimental friendship between natural light and concrete, the geometric, subtle form is inspired from, and pays homage to Mayan heritage, architecture, and culture, evident in details, motifs, and latticed facades that bring alive the residential architecture. Wóolis was lovingly given its name by the workers, or rather, artisans of Mayan descent, who built it painstakingly by hand, giving it life. According to the Mexican architects, its meaning in Mayan is ball, round, circle – referring to the heart of the project, the gorgeous central cylinder they sculpted in concrete.

7. Lampadistis Wine Distillery illustrates a Cypriot wine-making story in béton brut

  • The Lampadistis Wine Distillery in Cyprus by Eraclis Papachristou Architects | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    The Lampadistis Wine Distillery in Cyprus by Eraclis Papachristou Architects Image: ©Hufton+Crow
  • The winery is an amalgamation of smaller architectural elements inundated with influences of brutalist architecture | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
    The winery is an amalgamation of smaller architectural elements inundated with influences of brutalist architecture Image: ©Hufton+Crow

Eraclis Papachristou Architects conceived this picturesque wine distillery inspired by the Lampadistis churches in Cyprus, evoking in its splendid form, the drama of brutalism. A wonderful example of béton brut, the winery appears anchored to the hill, preparing to take flight. The form unwinds in three layers— a bulky substructure, and an angular superstructure, with a concrete roof and perforated façade. While the architects mention the influence of the Lampadistis in the contextual architecture, the physical manifestation of this influence can be seen in the three cylindrical structures visible in the form, which also represent the three main stages of winemaking— fermentation, ageing, and bottling.

8. Atelier Deshaus creates undulating terraces for Qintai Art Museum in Wuhan, China

Qintai Art Museum by Atelier Deshaus in Wuhan, China | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
Qintai Art Museum by Atelier Deshaus in Wuhan, China Image: Fangfang Tian

Channeling the undulations and topographical flow of its lakeside context, the Qintai Art Museum in Wuhan, China, by Shanghai-based practice Atelier Deshaus melds into the nearby terrain, as a series of fluid terraces outlining a pair of interlocking hill-like structures. Overlooking Meizi Hill to its south, beyond the city’s Moon Lake in its vicinity, the concrete art museum offers an engaging public space along its roof, composed of a series of flowing terraces stacked in a manner reminiscent of an architectural contour model, a significant geometric design, as an organic extension of the landscape it rests on. Extending down from a vertical façade along its road-facing side, that imbues a more conventional sense of architectural morphology to the complex, the terraces of the museum architecture ebb and flow towards the shore of the lake, culminating in a stepped green space along the lower levels.

9. XRANGE Architects play with walls and curves for this concrete retreat in Taiwan

The Wandering Walls by XRANGE Architects | Sculptural Concrete Architecture Round up 2022 | STIRworld
The Wandering Walls by XRANGE Architects Image: Kuo-Min Lee, Lorenzo Pierucci Studio, Studio Millspace

A series of curved concrete walls give shape to this eight-room, three storied retreat in Taiwan, designed by Taipei-based practice XRANGE Architects, as a mystical paradise emerging from nowhere. Nestled cosy amid tall grasses and vast acacia forests, the building gets its moniker owing to its flowing form garbed in a concrete shell. "The retreat is a building where the walls wander throughout like flowing ribbons. Driven by the constraints and inspired by the raw beauty of the natural surroundings, the design concept seeks to create a sense of quietude and permanence with a single architectural element and a minimal palette of materials; defining the entire architecture with just curves walls that are both structure and form, inside and outside, exterior and interior all at once,” describes the design team.

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