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Concrete evidence

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Histoire d'un Materiau: Le Beton a Paris At the Pavillon de l'Arsenale, 21 Boulevard Morland, Paris until 31 May 1999. The catalogue, by Bernard Marrey and Franck Hammoutene, is published by Editions du Pavillon de l'Arsenal/Picard Editeur (224 pp. FF 280

'Le Beton a Paris' (Concrete in Paris) is the fifth of an inspired series of exhibitions at the Pavillon de l'Arsenale. The previous ones, on iron, brick, wood and glass, investigated each particular material as manifested in the architecture of Paris. Concrete is perhaps the one most appropriate to Paris, for not only was France the home of many of the early developments in concrete construction, but Paris itself contains an unusually large number of canonic works in concrete. De Baudot's church of St-Jean de Montmartre, Perret's Notre Dame at Le Raincy, Freyssinet's hangars for dirigibles at Orly, the early works of Le Corbusier, Nervi and Breuer's unesco building - the list is formidable.

'Le Beton a Paris' is emphatically not an exhibition about the science of concrete construction but about the appearance of the results. Long spans, thin shells and such like only matter in this new exhibition for how they look; of more interest to the organisers are the varieties of aggregates and of shuttering materials, the things that control the surface appearance of concrete. The selection of the exhibits has been made as much on the basis of visual effect as of technical innovation.

If the show has a message, it is the rehabilitation of concrete from being the symbol of everything wrong with modernity. At the outset, the tone is apologetic: 'The history of concrete is of a material often maligned; so much so that its image has suffered'. The lesson is that we could learn to love it. Yet how can something unloved be brought back into favour? Simply to negate its defects, and to present it as beautiful and sensuous (as many of the photographs in the show do) cannot itself change anything. For all sorts of reasons - some bad, some good - concrete has become regarded as repellent, which is no less a part of it than any of its other qualities. This repellence has to be acknowledged as inherent (something the organisers of the show have not quite succeeded in doing).

The exhibition is kaleidoscopic: a bewildering variety of works, images and ideas is presented, yet without a distinct interpretation emerging. While this can lead to unexpected connections, it can also be frustrating. What are we to make of the display on identically sized panels of two such disparate objects as half a square metre of a concrete collage of some stones in the Square Rene-de-Gall and the colossal shell-concrete construction of the 1958 cnit exhibition hall, that exceeded in size even Saarinen's Kresge auditorium in Boston? Do they really have parity? The organisers are disingenuous if they expect us to believe so.

The only scheme imposed is roughly chronological - and from this some interesting things do emerge. In particular, it is apparent that since about 1980 the major pre-occupation in the architectural use of concrete has been to improve the quality of the material itself and to develop new and improved finishes, with a variety of aggregates and additives. Some of the results are indeed remarkable, but what seems to have been lost in the process has been the drive to explore the formal architectonic possibilities of the medium that marked the works of the 1960s: from the exhibits here, it is the 1960s that stand out as the decade that came closest to realising a distinctive concrete architecture.

The show suggests that the turn to finishes was because their poor quality had been perceived as the cause of concrete's failure, and it was believed that the way to restore its reputation was to make the material itself seem more valuable. But if this was so, it may well turn out that in the long term historical view this pre-occupation with facture was no more than a diversion away from the more fundamental tectonic concerns which the architects of the 1960s had approached with such freedom and vitality.

If you can't see the show in Paris, don't worry. The excellent catalogue replicates almost exactly the contents of the exhibition - and into the bargain makes a wonderfully eccentric guidebook to Parisian architecture of the last 150 years.

Adrian Forty is professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture

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