The mixture of cement and aggregate is an ancient building material. Add a good dose of slave labour and it's possible to have the Romans' astounding civil engineering and, with it, cities on a scale not seen for centuries. Concrete in a modern sense has its roots in the development of a reliable and consistent cement in the mid-19th century, followed by reinforcement only a few decades later. The development of a specifically concrete architecture, however, which addresses what the logic or architectural consequences of concrete are, is a leitmotif of the 20th century, as the well-written and nicely opinionated introduction to this book attests.
Catherine Croft claims that concrete is again fashionable, an assertion not worth contesting since the introduction and individual entries promise us 'a celebration of concrete'. Indeed, everyone will find something they like or admire. As in any book that is a collection of buildings by different architects - there are 44, mostly from the past five years and almost exclusively from Europe and the US - there is the expected, the surprising and the absent. (And the baffling, like the omission of work by engineers. ) Each example has either four or six pages, with an informative short description about the building and the architect. As well as the expected exteriors and interior photographs, there are legible plans and sections, for which, increasingly, we must be grateful. Disappointingly for a large-format book, many of the photographs are poorly reproduced.
The chosen buildings are divided into four categories of home, work, play and landscape. This is a shame because, as Croft points out, the history of 20th-century concrete can be written as a long struggle to match its virtues for structure and construction to its architectural possibilities. A book purporting to look at a particular material in architecture should be organised by how that material is used.
The wonders of reinforced concrete have been recognised serially, as can be seen neatly in the first half of the 20th century, and to a large extent are still what drive concrete architecture today. Its favourable cost-to-span ratio made it perfect for the new programme of parking garages and other utilitarian or military buildings (where the engineering was often left to lead the design). Its speed of erection and low labour cost helped it meet the huge demand for urban housing after the First World War, as did an evolving interest in its affinity for prefabrication. Then it lost its meaning as a sleek modern material in favour of reclaiming its primitive roots.
The idea that concrete is quintessentially Modern has lingered longer in the UK, with its ambivalence towards Modernism, than in other European countries, where it has never been out of fashion. These different understandings of concrete were a vigorous attempt to find the meaning of what was, in effect, a new material, one that seductively seemed to address a central problem of 20thcentury architecture: namely, decoration.
The latest and truly new issue about concrete is the argument that it is not sustainable due to the source of much aggregate, the production process of cement, and the difficulty of getting its constituents back out.
This judgement depends on one's definition of sustainability, and is an argument worth having, though one that the author ignores.
Concrete architecture is less interesting as a fashion statement because its use is still so complicated. More than a century after its wide introduction, its meanings and use still resist being set, and so a book of some outstanding contemporary concrete buildings can only further the development of its use and meanings.
Steven Spier is a professor at the University of Strathclyde