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Concrete facts

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Derided as grey and miserable, concrete often has an image problem. But as two new books testify, understanding this heroic materical is essntial to architects, writes Steve Parnell

Concrete is burdened with an image problem that cuts deeper than its association with the left-of-centre political consensus that was abandoned in the 1970s.

Portrayed as boring, cheap, and thoughtless, it is used by the public as a synonym for bad architecture, often pejoratively around the words “1960s” and “estate”. For them, concrete is everything that is bad in architecture – dogmatic, ugly, and as miserably grey as English drizzle, although less polite.

But like architects, concrete doesn’t care for their opinion. Once set, however much you mock it or taunt it, caress it or compliment it, concrete stoically accepts its irremediable fate with heroic disdain. However, as Adrian Forty’s Concrete and Culture and William Hall’s Concrete testify, concrete has been enjoying something of a fashionable resurgence amongst architects since, as Forty argues, it was employed to extinguish Post-Modernism’s flame in the 1990s.

As concrete has been considered a material of the future rather than the past, there has been scant historical consideration of it: books on concrete usually focus on either the dry technical, or the exotic aesthetic. Until Forty’s thoroughly researched and easily read book, the most authoritative history was that of Peter Collins, published in 1959 by way of a biography of his hero, Auguste Perret. Concrete and Culture, however, is the first cultural history of the material, or “medium” as Forty is fond of calling it. It is about concrete’s “existence in the mind parallel to its existence in the world.” However, due to architects’ natural affinity with concrete, it is inevitably an architectural history rendered in one material, viewed through ten thematic chapters, each of which will deepen the reader’s understanding and affection of a familiar friend who will never again be seen in the same light.

We learn about how concrete divides labour, and about how although it is ostensibly a universal material, it is also fiercely nationalistic. Japan, Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, USSR, the US and Britain all adapted concrete for different reasons in ways that reveal the national character and society of each. We also learn why concrete’s history is associated with war: not, like steel, as a medium of killing, but as protection and resistance, and ultimately for memory and reconstruction. Concrete is also symbolic of the Cold War, from its widespread use in the construction of the Welfare State, to its more deleterious division of Berlin.

Forty provides a fascinating insight into the adoption of concrete in the USSR after Krushchev’s 1954 speech that essentially defamed Socialist Realism in favour of the universal application of prefabrication. Noting that concrete is inherently “colourless” – an empty vessel waiting to be filled with meaning – Forty further develops concrete’s political and ideological meanings, as a democratic material used to fabricate previously unseen large spans under which the masses could congregate, and spiritually in its extensive use for churches, cemeteries, memorials, and, occasionally, art.

The chapter on Concrete and Photography is particularly interesting, the two media enjoying a symbiotic partnership. So Concrete and Culture can be profitably read alongside Hall’s Concrete, which delivers 240 pages of beautiful photographs of concrete structures and buildings – both black and white and happily colour too – direct to your coffee table. It is a book of the iconic and monumental, and documentary evidence of concrete’s ability to inspire awe and pop eyes. Some entries are a little spurious, such as Rietveld’s Schröder House, and there are inevitably a few omissions, such as, I would argue, Siza’s Portuguese Pavilion for the 1998 Lisbon World Expo. And whatever your position on Saint Calatrava’s ossified gymnastics, he has persuaded even car manufacturers that concrete is sexy, but receives no attention here. Nevertheless, the reach is global and the taste deliciously eclectic.

The sumptuous images in Concrete provide ample evidence of Forty’s point that each medium is of mutual assistance to the other. One could extend this further. Other architectural institutions were also invented in the 1830s and share a parallel historical trajectory with concrete and photography: the Institute of British Architects (later, RIBA), the first architectural magazine, and architectural education all emerged in Britain in the 1830s and played their respective roles in the ultimate creation of modern architecture. The first RIBA Gold Medal, for example, was awarded to George Godwin (later editor of The Builder) in 1836 for an essay entitled The Nature and Properties of Concrete.

On finishing these books, I was left feeling that concrete is the quintessential material of architecture. Demanding meticulous pre-planning and design, it forgives nothing, and answers only to gravity. Let the engineers have steel to make cars and probes for Mars. Concrete is for architects. Without mastering this medium – not only technically, but also culturally – no architect can surely ever be complete. Concrete and Culture is therefore required reading.

Steve Parnell is an architect, critic and lecturer at the University of Nottingham

Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty, Reaktion Books, £27.00

Concrete, edited by William Hall with essay by Leonard Koren, Phaidon, £29.95

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