Exploring Concrete Architecture: Tone, Texture, Form By David Bennett. Birkhauser, 2001. 160pp. £40
Whatever will the future make of the 20th century's indecisiveness in the treatment of structural concrete? Covered up until 1950, uncovered in the '50s and '60s, covered up again in the '70s and '80s, and then, in the '90s, a renaissance of exposed concrete.
The characteristic tone of the present phase is that we are older and wiser now, we have learnt from past mistakes, and at last we really know how to do concrete well. That concrete became repulsive at the end of the '60s is put down to architects' and contractors' ignorance of the material, but now blotchy fair-faced concrete and spalling surfaces are things of the past.
Whether this technical know-how will prevent concrete from once again having to be hidden from view remains to be seen. It is far from conclusive that the 'problem' of concrete - that is to say a material that economy makes indispensable, but which most people outside the building industry still regard as inferior to so-called 'natural' materials - has yet been solved. The story so far gives little faith that the present fashion for exposed concrete is anything like a final answer to the question of how to build in concrete.
Exploring Concrete Architecture belongs to the current rehabilitation of concrete: there is a tactful avoidance of everything nasty, and exclusive attention to its most beatific creations, illustrated by photographs of 22 European buildings of the past 10 years in their pristine elegance, with not a stain, a crack or a patch to be seen.
Each building is accompanied by a commentary from the architect, and sometimes the contractor too, about the use of concrete on the project. David Bennett's motive in compiling these commentaries is that only by sharing the experiences and the lessons of individual construction projects can architects and contractors expect to learn how to improve the standards of concrete construction.
And indeed, some of these case studies, beneath the rather bland style in which they are presented, do make remarkably interesting reading, with occasional glimpses into all the frustrations and disappointments of the building site. How many hours of bitter argument are buried in the wistful remark by Renato Benedetti, the project architect for David Chipperfield's Rowing Museum at Henley - 'In the end the surface finish was a compromise between the contractor's reluctance to demolish any concrete, and our insistence on the quality set by the reference sample'?
Of course all buildings are compromises, but with concrete these compromises are fixed for ever in the surface of the building.
No other material leaves these traces so vividly - and this is because, despite what the cement manufacturing industry would have us believe, truly speaking, concrete is not a material at all, but a process.
If we think of it as a process, it becomes easier to recognise that of all the ingredients of concrete, the most important and the most decisive for the final result is labour. To a greater degree than other materials - products of nature, or of industrial technologies - concrete is the product of human labour and, for better or for worse, the evidence of its manual treatment in the few hours between its liquid and its set state decides the fate of the building for ever.
Perhaps out of deference to the sponsors of this book - cement manufacturers from Denmark, England, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Ireland - the author has not drawn explicit attention to this fact but, nonetheless, it is implicit throughout all the good advice in his introduction on ensuring high quality in situ work, down to the detailed choreographing of vibration pokers.
Of the 22 buildings presented in the book, many will be familiar to readers of the AJ. The selection is heavily orientated towards northern Europe, with only two buildings from Spain to represent the south. Oddly, there is nothing from Switzerland, given its reputation for highquality concrete finishes.
But, ultimately, the selection of buildings matters less than the frankness of the architects and contractors in their confessions - and here I found myself wishing for more candour, and less of the style of the press release.
Adrian Forty is professor of architectural history at the Bartlett