Celebrate Waffle Slabs on National Waffle Day

This is not the much bigger Våffeldagen (Swedish Waffle Day) but still worth noting.

Montreal Waffles
Montreal Museum of Fine Art.

Lloyd Alter

Last August 24, on the great American holiday known as National Waffle Day, I got confused and thought it was the Swedish waffle day tradition Våffeldagen, which falls on March 25th. According to Wikipeidia it actually is an old Christian holiday, Vårfrudagen ("Our Lady's Day"), but they got confused because they evidently sound alike, and now celebrate it with waffles. Other sources say that it is a celebration of spring, waffles use a lot of eggs which are a symbol of new life, so there you go. I prefer the confused story.

A reader corrected me and I promised that I would run the story again on the proper date, and correct my previously confused posts about concrete waffle slabs, a technology that gets longer spans out of less concrete. For those who might remember that TreeHugger normally is not fond of concrete, I admit a fondness for older concrete done well.

National Arts Centre

© National Arts CentreAs for replacing concrete with wood, that is even coming to waffle slabs, with the new addition to National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where they picked up on the existing waffle slab architecture, and have built a waffle slab out of cross-laminated timber, a first. More coverage on that to come.

Here are my two waffle posts, reposted in honour of the upcoming Våffeldagen.

What Are Waffle Slabs?

waffle slabes looking up

Lloyd Alter/ Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/CC BY 2.0

In the Washington Post, they write about How pancakes and waffles divide the nation. I have always preferred waffles to pancakes, which I consider to be limp and formless. Waffles, on the other hand, have form and real substance, structure and rigidity.

It is much the same in architecture. A concrete slab is- just a slab, and a thick one at that, using a lot of concrete to get to the depth it needs to span a significant distance without limply sagging. You don't look at it because it is boring, and the electrical or mechanical services are hanging from it so they are covered with even more boring drywall.

waffle slab montreal

Lloyd Alter/ Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/CC BY 2.0

Waffle slabs are different. They are designed to be thick where you need it, for the structure in the ribs, and thin for the slab. They are designed to be exposed and seen and enjoyed. Today I was walking through the wonderful Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' decorative art collection in the Liliane and David M. Stewart Pavilion and had trouble looking at the fabulous stuff because I was entranced by the ceiling, layers of the tastiest waffle slabs I had ever seen. The entire structure is there for you to see: nothing but the concrete that it holding itself up.

old slab

© Engineering Heritage Australia

Almost nobody really does waffle slabs anymore; they can be expensive, with the reinforcing carefully placed in narrow ribs between forms.

terminal 1

© John B. Parkin

They can be really hard to repair; one of the reasons that Toronto's iconic John Parkin Terminal was demolished was because he built the parking garage with waffle slabs, and one should not put salt on waffles.

But while we are no fan of concrete on TreeHugger, there are good things to say about waffle slabs. They use less concrete, and they look good enough to leave exposed so you use less of everything else.

National Theatre

Lloyd Alter/ National Theatre/CC BY 2.0

Examples of Waffle Slab Architecture

There are wonderful waffles at the National Theatre in Britain;

Confederation Centre

Lloyd Alter/ Confederation Centre/CC BY 2.0

And really cool ones at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where in one section, they even left off the slab itself and put on great pyramidal skylights.

holedeck interior

© Alarcon + Asociados via Designboom

Holedeck has figured out a great way to integrate services into them. Perhaps it is time to say that if we have to use concrete in our buildings, then we should let concrete be concrete, exposed and beautiful through thick and thin. It's time to bring back tasty waffle slabs. Mmmmm.

Goldstein House

© Goldstein House/ John Lautner

This post has been corrected to reflect information about Våffeldagen.

In Sweden, they celebrate Våffeldagen or Waffle Day on March 25; In America, we waffle a bit and celebrate Waffle Day on August 24, the day the patent on the waffle iron was issued. That's two opportunities to celebrate the tasty waffle slab, a form of construction that used to be popular but has fallen out of flavor or favor or whatever.

Which is a shame; we are not usually fond of concrete because of its carbon footprint, but waffle slabs let designers get much larger spans with less material. They also look so nice as architectural elements that they are left exposed instead of getting covered up with drywall- the structure is the finish. And being concrete, they are durable. We have covered tasty waffles that I have known here, but there are some others worth looking at. I have been criticized for not mentioning some other very famous waffles, starting with John Lautner's Goldstein house in Los Angeles, a rare residential use of waffles. It has been donated to the The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) by its owner so it is likely that it will remain intact and accessible.

robarts library

© Robarts Library

A number of readers berated me for not including Toronto's Robarts Library in the list; I am a fan of this building and have written about it before, but had forgotten about its waffle slabs.

Yale gallery

© Louis Kahn, restored by Polshek Partnership

The Robarts waffles are triangular and appear to be a homage to Louis Kahn, and his Yale Art Gallery, which was recently restored and upgraded by the Polshek Partnership.

Kitchener Library

© LGA architects

Another demonstration of how well waffle slabs hold up over the years, both aesthetically and functionally, is this renovation of the Kitchener Public Library by LGA architects and Phil Carter; those 1961 vintage waffles still look good.

waffles at barbican

Lloyd Alter/ Barbican waffles/CC BY 2.0

Waffles can be very dramatic with low ceilings, like these at the Barbican in London. The wonderful housing project, one of the world's best, is full of waffles that also act as light fixtures.

lights in platform

Lloyd Alter/ Lights in Washington Metro platform/CC BY 2.0

Waffles are dramatic high up as well, as shown in the Washington Metro. The trains may not be holding up so well, but the roof certainly is. I did not originally think of this as a waffle slab; I thought of it as a coffered ceiling. But others do not waffle about it, so here it is.

fiat factory

Lloyd Alter/ Fiat factory, Turin/CC BY 1.0

Similarly, I did not include Nervi's Fiat factory in Turin but all the waffle sites do, so I include it here.

new york wafles

Lloyd Alter/ Marcel Breur MET/CC BY 2.0

On this waffle day, spend some time looking up at ceilings. You will see few as beautiful as those waffle slabs; few that have lasted so long. They are at once decorative, structural (though this one by Marcel Breuer at the MET Modern is totally decorative, hanging below the ceiling) and durable, all attributes of green building. Happy Våffeldagen!

For more waffles, see the waffle slab archive on Tumblr