Book Review: “Concrete”
October 1, 2012
TWA Flight Center (1962), New York, Eero Saarinen
“Concrete liberates”, wrote a young Le Corbusier (then Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) nearly a hundred years ago. The proceeding century of architecture and architects would demonstrate just how concrete, that most “alien” of building materials, could indeed liberate every aspect of society. The powers that be would strike that heroic moment from the official records, indoctrinating future generations (from the mid-70s on) with a taste for safer alternatives. For most, including aesthetes like Salvador Dalí, concrete is programmed to breed oppressive ugliness. It can’t help itself, and in light of this innate deficiency, it must be stamped out, cloaked in a veil of diplomatic dresses like “traditional” brick and “regional” stone. Read more.
The so-called failures of modernism bore the unfortunate “crime” of being made of concrete. These sprawling structures, usually housing blocks or block-wide institutional centers, were castigated as harsh and, somehow both inhuman and inhumane. They were (are?) incubators of madness and welfare, and, thus exhibit qualities antithetical to Western values, especially the American propensity for jollity. They were held responsible for the death of great cities and the birth of terrible ones. Concrete’s overweening ambition and polarizing aesthetics were to be suppressed and, eventually, forgotten.
Concrete, a new monograph from Phaidon, aims to ameliorate the effects of the world’s most ubiquitous building surface. “For too long”, states William Hall, the book’s editor, “negative associations have dominated the public perception of concrete”, without which, he goes on to point out, “our built environment and the history of architecture would be woefully bereft.” The seductively photographed structures–175 projects in all–that follow thereafter only lend credence to his claim. Read on.
Tama Art University Library (2007), Tokyo, Toyo Ito
Passing references tying the Pantheon to Toyo Ito’s vaulted Tama Art University Library construct a long historical narrative of concrete’s propensity to conceive of new, and frequently dramatic, spaces. Every typology is represented here, from smaller dwellings and larger residential blocs to sanctified chapels and muscular factories, with a few beton bridges, dams, and other infrastructure thrown in for good measure. They are loosely collected in eight categories according to specific qualities such as “Texture” or “Presence”. The swooping ramps of Berthold Lubetkin’s ebullient Penguin Pool find an echo in SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center, while the the 8-bit apertures of the Bern Historical Museum by :mlzf can be traced back to the pixelated facade of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House.
Ennis House (1924), Los Angeles, Frank Lloyd Wright
The book’s great flaw comes in its blatant neglect, even contempt of context, political or otherwise. Granted, this is not part of its stated purpose, which is, more or less, to format beton brut for the coffee table. Still, to properly understand how revolutionary concrete architecture was (and still can be), one has to look to the social processes and historical events that lay behind every building’s surface. There is little explanatory text, while the pair of introductions do not do much towards illuminating this dense topic.
Penguin Pool (1934), London Zoo, Bernard Lubetkin
This quibble aside, the volume is consistently enthralling and even packs a few surprises for those familiar with 20th-century architecture. To their credit, the editors avoid any awkwardness that usually arises with the anachronistic collage of objects and buildings. Here, Brutalism’s cubist volumes sit, if not entirely comfortably, alongside today’s undulating, topological surfaces. Perhaps, that’s more of a tribute to (reinforced) concrete and its near alchemic ability to “transcend culture”.
Pimlico School (1970), London, John Bancroft
All images courtesy of Phaidon Press