Is Concrete Architectural Associates an enfant terrible perhaps? During their presentation, founders Gilian Schrofer and Rob Wagemans certainly did their best to turn accepted architectural thinking on its head. Anarchy or new insight? Hip décors or a humorous take on reality?
Concrete is largely responsible for Amsterdam's high-profile interiors, and its work regularly features in magazines devoted to architecture, media and fashion. Projects like the Supperclub restaurant, Australian chocolate and ice-cream parlour, Laundry Industry clothing and De Lairesse Pharmacy scarcely need any introduction in the Netherlands. With of 40 to 60 projects a year, the firm can boast of a bigger workload than that of many architecture firms. Besides interior commissions, the firm is working on various architectural projects, among them an extension to Nyenrode University campus. Designers with so much work and (media) attention are guaranteed a critical public. They cunningly avoided the first pitfall with the opening statement: 'Hello, we are Concrete, and we do commercial work.'
Serving up a stream of glossy images, booming video clips, pornographic material, 'art concepts,' and socio-economic critique, Schrofer and Wagemans gave us an audio-visual show without trying to legitimise their work. Sometimes without saying anything, they nimbly outlined their projects as well as their personal and professional backgrounds.
Spinning a web of sentences and statements gradually brought their view of the world into focus as the evening progressed. It's one rife with inconsistencies. Both the references and presented ideas abound in extremes, varying from the bland to the deadly serious. The audience was held in thrall with questions such as how Kylie in lingerie on a rodeo relates to the 9-11 disaster that has been edited into a video clip. What has such material got to do with the substance and meaning of their work? Is this context reserved for the glossy styling of semi-public interiors or does it work at another scale? The paradox is whether they use such imagery as a reference or do they extrapolate more abstract mechanisms? Reversal would seem to be a powerful method deployed by Concrete, but is that all there is to it? What should architecture make of the pleasure, nimbleness, lack of alarm and success of Concrete? Is it naïveté or is it arrogance?
Schrofer and Wagemans weren't the slightest bit mysterious or pretentious about their work or their role in the profession. They are fully aware of the consequences of the irony, reciprocity and drawback of their approach. But the lecture also illustrated what is so special about the office. They surprise us time and again using familiar facts, images, principles, materials and preconditions. And that is how they are cleverly and consciously carving out their niche on the international design circuit. Concrete's mission is about 'feeling good', through sexy seduction or fascinans et tremendum. The world of Concrete exists, not by making 'other things' but by seeing things in another way. This is a world in which reality is not merely a reference but also something to be moulded. In the hands of Concrete, realism isn't dirty but beautiful.