University engineers study the art of concrete

Sculpture project could yield new concrete processing methods, according to University of Leeds engineers.

The Leeds researchers, technicians and students are working with sculptor Victoria Ferrand Scott in a year-long project to investigate alternative mixes of concrete. They will also explore how high-tech processing methods - such as adding strips of cloth to the concrete, which is then poured into flexible moulds - might be used creatively to make extremely large sculptures.

Concrete is the world’s most abundant man-made material, accounting for 60 per cent of all man-made products by mass; 20 billion tonnes of concrete are made around the world each year. It is essentially any material that uses cement to bind together crushed stone, rock and sand, so the starting recipe can vary considerably. A mixture that is perfect for making long, supporting concrete beams for a residential building may be quite different to the recipe that is mixed together in a bucket in an artist’s studio.

The project is based at the university’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure (iRI) and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The results of the work will be shared through the website of NACNet – a network of scientists, engineers, social scientists, industrialists and artists exploring novel uses for cement, from musical instruments to wind turbine blades.

“This is all about knowledge transfer between both parties,” said materials engineer Dr Phil Purnell, director of the iRI. “As engineers, we have considerable expertise in the material properties of concrete that should help artists like Victoria extend the scale and complexity of their sculptures.

“At the same time, we hope to learn more about our favourite material by hearing the artists’ perception and approach to concrete. For example, artists strive to create detailed and quite intricate surface finishes and these are not always fully exploited by engineers and architects when designing concrete buildings.”

“This is a truly valuable opportunity and I plan to use the time to push the accepted boundaries of process,” added Ferrand Scott. “Working with concrete is similar to working with plaster in that you are pouring fluid into bound moulds. The difference is that you have more time to manipulate the forms that are being created, greater potential strength, and more scope to increase the scale of sculptures.

“Forms made using fluid materials, such as concrete, can be quite organic, even visceral in nature. Yet concrete has for so long had a reputation as being an ugly, brutal material. I am hopeful that this collaboration will bring about a reappraisal of the creative possibilities of concrete and reveal its inherent sensuous qualities.”

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