Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
A new book aims to repair the reputation of the much-maligned composite.
For a material so solid in name and in function, concrete seems awfully insecure. Is it an aggressive, abrasive construction material or a complex tool of cool architecture? Is it the industrial base of dams and reactors or a flighty indulgence of modernist vanity projects? Do you love it or hate it?
In Concrete, a gorgeous new coffee table book from Phaidon Press, William Hall attempts to cement your answer to the latter question by rehabilitating this maligned composite. "For too long, negative associations have dominated the public perception of concrete," the editor writes. "I conceived this book to advocate and celebrate concrete’s beauty, efficiency, and its incalculable contribution to modern life."
Concrete, by the way, is a mixture of gravel or crushed rocks, sand, water and cement. Different compositions yield different colors or textures, and a number of construction techniques can alter its appearance, creating anything from Paul Rudolph’s signature corduroy concrete, as in the Yale Architecture School, to the timber-set imprints of the cover of this book. But if that sounds like a relatively simple recipe, concrete has a vast and astonishing variety of uses, which this book shows simply and elegantly in a collection of photos, one per monument. (By my count, only one structure appears twice -- Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut.)
The key to concrete's distinctiveness is in its strength and versatility, which allow it to merge form and function, structure and decoration, in swooping curves and vaulted ceilings. This makes it the perfect material for function-first industrial projects like the Panama Canal, the Three Gorges Dam, or the world's hyperboloid cooling towers. It also makes it the perfect material for modern architecture. Concrete imparts a sense of raw, open, power.
Just look at some of its uses. A remarkable number of the book’s photographs are of churches: Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp, Oscar Niemeyer’s Cathedral of Brasilia, Auguste Perret’s Notre-Dame du Raincy (above). Other concrete churches were built in Algiers, Liverpool, Reykjavik, Tokyo, Basel, and on and on. There's also the original, Rome's Pantheon. Concrete gives sacred space power.
It has also been the material of choice to express political and cultural independence. Some of the most famous examples of non-aligned architecture are featured in Concrete: Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia (below) and Louis Khan’s buildings at Dhaka. In Algeria and India as well, two countries trying to forge an architectural style both modern and anti-colonial, concrete was used as a rebuff to ornamental colonial architecture.
There’s a lot of bad concrete architecture too, and all the things that make great concrete architecture great – that it is loud, raw, and distinctive – also make its worst examples memorably offensive. But this book isn’t about the bad, it’s about proving, as Leonard Koren writes in the introduction, that concrete is a noble material. And prove it does: the eye candy here, from the graceful Fallingwater to the brash Trellick Tower (below), is enough to open the mind of any concrete skeptic.
That the same substance can be responsible for both the graceful bulk of the Hoover Dam and the floating ceiling of the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne is surprising and wonderful. Gazing over three hundred photographs of concrete architecture does not help you answer any questions about concrete. On the contrary: the more concrete you see, the less you feel you know it.
Top image: Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland -- Gudjon Samuelsson, 1986. All images courtesy of Phaidon Press.