I often park at the multi-storey car park located between Masjid Negara and Dayabumi. Next to it is a newly built canopy walkway, sleekly lit up at night. Across the road, the majestic Masjid Negara, one of the best examples of high modernism in the country. And a little further on is Bank Negara, its raw form and rugged surface the best example of brutalism in the country. And lastly, over the cityscape, is the Petronas Twin Towers.
This little triangulation tells a compact story of concrete.
Made from a mix of cement, water, and aggregates, the liquid is poured into whatever formwork is prepared and, upon drying, hardens and maintains the shape of the containment.
Concrete is often misunderstood, unloved. Not seemingly natural and traditional as brick and stone, it is seen as a product of the modern age. Yet the ancient Romans used it to construct the dome of the Pantheon in the second century AD.
Masjid Negara is an example of the expression of modernist concrete design at its best. The thin folded canopy roofs of the building, the slim high columns, and the perforated wall planes, contribute to an open, democratic and spiritual space.
This is concrete as lightness.
Bank Negara, just further up the road, is an excellent example of what is known as brutalist architecture. Its form as if hewn from a single block of rock, its raw concrete surface has tactile quality which is further expressed with rough vertical imprints. It suggests a weighty permanence that is befitting of a national financial institution.
This is concrete as permanence.
The Petronas Twin Tower also has another story. Here, concrete is the symbolic upholder of the nation, the foundational concrete raft floating on a site whose geological makeup is so complicated, there were rumours of concrete piles literally disappearing into the porous underworld (unlike for example, skyscraper cities like Hong Kong and New York which are built on a bed of solid granite.)
For such a tall building, it would normally be sensible to have a steel structure. However, for both cost and political reasons, locally produced concrete was used instead.
This is concrete as strength.
But back to the multi-storey car park, next to the sleek, lightweight canopy walkway.
The multi-storey car park currently looks worn, unmaintained. A reliable, purely utilitarian space. Robust in construction and in sensibility. The flashy bright walkway, like many local constructions erected in metal and clad in aluminium, will probably start showing damage and wear within a few years. It is less resilient than that of the older concrete buildings.
The heyday of concrete is gone. The building industry is currently enamoured with aluminium cladding.
Even the current vogue of pastiche references to Tadao Ando’s raw concrete walls, usually for high spec apartment blocks, are often just block work, cemented over and rendered to give the illusion of raw concrete.
Here is concrete as memory and illusion.
I see the car park and the National Mosque talking to the city, telling the young, new aluminium-clad buildings to be true to themselves.
Concrete is resilient and true.