Concrete is the most widely used construction material today and one about which people seem to have particularly strong opinions. In popular discourse, it seems assumed that concrete buildings are to be thought of as ugly, cold, impersonal, and associated with totalitarian regimes and dystopian social projects. Many concrete buildings have been torn down in recent years, and more will be destroyed in the near future. Yet the characteristics of reinforced concrete enabled the creation of structures that were previously unimaginable, seeming to defy the laws of physics and offering possibilities for creating public and private spaces to enhance the lives of individuals living in increasingly urbanized populations. The architect Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979) said of concrete that it is ‘the best structural material yet devised by mankind. Almost by magic, we have been able to create “melted” stones of any desired shape.’[i] Our cityscapes are unimaginable without it.
This article explores the practical and aesthetic value of concrete, focusing on the reinforced concrete that is particularly associated with the 1950s-70s. It also discusses changing perceptions of concrete architecture since those decades, and looks at more recent uses of reinforced concrete in architecture.
A (very) brief history
Made from water, cement (which itself consists of limestone and clay) and a stone aggregate, concrete was widely used by the Romans in large-scale construction projects including the Colosseum (built c. 70 AD) and the Pantheon (built c. 126 AD and still the world’s largest non-reinforced concrete dome at 43.3m in diameter)[ii] then forgotten until the early nineteenth century. The invention of reinforced concrete, whereby steel bars are included within the liquid concrete before it hardens to give it higher tensile strength,[iii] revolutionised architecture, creating possibilities for previously unimaginable scales and forms.[iv] By 1910, about 40,000 structures had been built of reinforced concrete, and its use became characteristic of architecture during and after the Second World War. Here I will present some noteworthy reinforced concrete buildings.
Reinforced concrete is generally associated with Brutalist architecture (which I discuss in the next article), but it also occurs in earlier styles, including Art Deco. The town of Napier in New Zealand, largely destroyed in the 1931 Hawkes’ Bay earthquake, was rebuilt by architects including Stanley Natusch who had been inspired by the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, an exhibition which had presented the latest, modern, Art Deco style to the world. The Art Deco style suited the new measures implemented in New Zealand for protection against earthquakes, in that structures are generally relatively low, which keeps the building mass at floor level, and are built from sturdy reinforced concrete. For a long time after its completion, the inhabitants of Napier considered the style to be bare and unwelcoming, yet the town has gradually come to be appreciated as uniquely beautiful.[v]
Another Art Deco example is the old Hammonds department store in Hull, built in 1950:
Frank Lloyd Wright design for Unity Temple in Oak Park, Chicago has been deemed ‘one of the first major achievements in [reinforced concrete]’[vi] and is firmly within the Art Deco style.
In the case of Notre Dame du Raincy, built in 1922-23 by Auguste and Gustave Perret, near Paris (France): concrete was chosen for construction because of its cheapness.
Exploring possibilities: Post and lintel construction
The use of reinforced concrete introduced the possibility of increasing the length of horizontal planes resting on vertical supports (post and lintel construction). The Romans had got around the weight limitations of the post and lintel to an extent by inventing the arch, but with reinforced concrete, the distance between two vertical supports could be increased and the weight of the horizontal plane could be much greater than ever before. As an example, the former Ministry of Road Construction in Tbilisi, Georgia (1975) consists of five intersecting horizontal planes. It was designed to have a small footprint which would allow the growth of vegetation.[vii]
More recently, Alvaro Siza has used the ‘special properties of concrete, in particular its abilities to hang as well as vault and to achieve high strengths with minimal thickness’ in his National Pavilion, Expo 98, in Lisbon (1998), creating an illusion of weightlessness: ‘he takes a sheet of concrete and drops it like a pocket handkerchief between two rectangular blocks’.[viii]
The tensile strength of reinforced concrete also led to the development of cantilevers in architecture. A cantilever is a rigid horizontal beam or slab anchored at one end only to a support from which it protrudes, allowing for overhanging (think of a Jenga game). One of the most famous and early designs using reinforced concrete cantilevers is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, built in 1937 over a waterfall. The arrangement of the cantilevered floors resembles ‘suspended geological strata’, which ‘echoes the sedimentary geology of the site’, a perfect example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘determination to design houses in response to the particular qualities of a site’ to ‘establish a more dynamic relationship with their surroundings.’[ix]
Freeing the interior space
As for interiors, with internal walls freed of their load-bearing role by structural frames of concrete, new possibilities were offered for arranging walls at will according to functional requirements and spatial ideas.[x] This is particularly significant in domestic contexts, as we will see below, but also had fascinating expressions in public architecture. The ‘tree-like lily pad columns’ in the Johnson Wax Headquarters, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as early as 1939,[xi] enabled the creation of a spacious hall within the building and allowed natural light to come in through skylights. The design was so audacious that the Wisconsin Industrial Commission doubted that the columns, which were 21ft high and only 9inches in diameter at the base, could carry the weight of the roof. Each was supposed to hold 12 tons according to Wright’s designs. To convince the commission, Wright had workers pile 60 tons of sandbags on top of one of the columns.[xii]
The possibility of using curves in architecture is one of the most significant contributions of reinforced concrete. Los Manantiales restaurant, built by Felix Candela in Mexico City in 1958, features concrete parabolas ‘of exceptional apparent lightness which… hardly seem to touch the ground.’[xiii]
Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport, built in 1956-1958 in Rome, Italy, has a thin shell dome of 61m in diameter whose interior surface decoration gives an appearance of lightness,[xiv] as does that of his curved aircraft hangar at Orvieto, Italy, built in 1935 (and destroyed during the Second World War).[xv]
The Church of La Virgen Milagrosa built 1953-1955 by Felix Candela in Mexico City, has a warped roof of reinforced concrete just 3.8cm thick.[xvi] The interior is also very impressive.
Frank Lloyd Wright saw curves as ideal expressions of the fluid nature of concrete, a material which he had initially judged to have ‘neither song nor story’.[xvii] In his designs for the Guggenheim museum in New York City, which was completed in 1959, the rounded shape of the building contrasts with the grid structure of the city’s street plan and continues inside, where visitors amble in a procession up ‘a continuous ramp uncoiling upwards six stories for more than one-quarter of a mile, allowing for one floor to flow into another’ around a huge atrium. [xviii]
Oscar Niemeyer has been hailed as ‘the first king of the curve’ for his designs,[xix] which include the Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro (1996), a spaceship-like structure rising from a pool of water on a promontory overlooking the sea.
More recently, Zaha Hadid became famous for her use of curves, for example in the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan (2012), which was described as being ‘as pure and sexy as Marilyn’s blown skirt’ by a judge at the London Design Museum awards in 2014.[xx]
Hadid’s Galaxy Soho in Beijing comprises four 15-storey towers ‘linked by a ravishing mixture of bridges and platforms flowing around what can only be called a central canyon’,[xxi] creating ‘a world of continuous mutual adaptation and fluid movement between each building’[xxii] – it could have been sculpted by a river.
The International Style and Streamline Moderne
The Art Deco style developed into an approach to architecture favouring simplicity in what has been termed ‘machine aesthetic’, with rectilinear forms, surfaces stripped of applied decoration, and open interior spaces. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1928-1931) epitomizes the characteristics of this ‘International Style’ of the 1920s-30s and embodies his initial attempts to use concrete ‘in a way that suggested the smoothness and precision of machines’[xxiii] before he came to embrace its rough surfaces. This building also illustrates Le Corbusier’s ‘five points for a new architecture’ published in a manifesto in 1923 and which he continued to apply in his later Brutalist buildings:
- 1. The piloti: freed of their load-bearing role, walls could be replaced by a grid of reinforced concrete columns lifting the ground floor up
- 2. The free plan: furthermore, with no need for supporting walls, internal walls could be arranged according to functional requirements and spatial ideas
- 3. The ribbon window: as openings were no longer part of a load-bearing wall, windows could run horizontally across the façade
- 4. The free facade: openings could be arranged according to functional and formal requirements
- 5. The roof garden: the land lost to building could be recaptured by a garden on the flat roof.[xxiv]
Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians, built in 1964 in London, echoes Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in its elegance and design. Lasdun’s use of concrete developed in a similar direction to that of Le Corbusier, as we will see later.
A particular branch of the International Style which developed into a style of its own during the 1930s is worth mentioning before we turn to Brutalism: Streamline Moderne. Simple, aerodynamic curves replaced the sharp angles of Art Deco and of the International Style, and glass replaced their expensive exotic woods and stones. Reflecting the fascination with speed and travel during this period, the style emphasized the horizontal plane with flat roofs and long bands of windows, and nautical elements such as porthole windows were sometimes included, creating buildings that evoke ocean liners. Examples include Southgate Underground Station in London (Charles Holden, 1933); the Walgreen Drug Store in Miami (Zimmerman, Saxe and MacBride, 1936); and the Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico (opened 1942).
In the next article, we move onto the heavy stuff: Brutalism. No more levity.
What is your attitude to concrete buildings? Has this article introduced you to styles you did not know about? Which is your favourite, and why? Which do you like least, and why?
[i] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p.107.
[ii] John Mitchell Crow, ‘The Concrete Conundrum’, Chemistry World, March 2008, p62-66
[vi] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p107.
[ix] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p.11, 59-60.
[x] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p136.
[xv] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p. 106.
[xvi] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011.
[xvii] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p.107.
[xxiii] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p160
[xxiv] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p140
[xxv] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p.160
[xxxiv] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011.
[xxxv] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011. p140
[xlvi] Pardo, Alona, and Elias Redstone, eds. Photography and architecture in the modern age. Barbican Art Gallery, 2014.
Glancey, Jonathan. Lost buildings: demolished, destroyed, imagined, reborn. Goodman, 2008.