Concrete: a Cultural History – RIBA talk, 7 July 2015

Last week I went to another event in RIBA’s Brutalist Playground season:

“Concrete polarises opinion. Used almost universally in modern construction today it is a material capable of provoking intense loathing as well as stirring passions. Its development can be traced as far back as Roman times, however it was in the twentieth century that its full capabilities became realised. Over the past 100 years architects and engineers have seized upon the possibilities of concrete enthusiastically. Its widespread use in almost all building types we experience has given it a significance and meaning that has – for better or worse – leapt beyond buildings into politics, film, literature and art.

“RIBA hosts a discussion exploring the world’s most emotionally loaded material charting a global love/hate relationship with Adrian Forty (Prof. Emeritus of Architectural History,The Bartlett & author of ‘Concrete and Culture – A Material History’), Elain Harwood (Historian with English Heritage & author of ‘Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975) and William Hall (William hall Design & author of ‘Concrete’). Chaired by Adam Kaasa (RCA School of Architecture).”

“Concrete ______” and Brutalism

Adam Kaasa was unwell so Catherine Croft, Director of the 20th Century Society, stepped in to chair at the last minute. She started by saying that ‘concrete’ is often followed by ‘jungle’ or ‘monstrosity’ when referred to by the public or in the media. She also said she felt that Brutalist buildings don’t have to be concrete at all. I suppose it depends how strictly you define it as being derived from the French ‘beton brut’ for ‘raw concrete’ – I have always agreed with that definition but more recently the term seems to have been expanded in popular use to include any striking, massive or sometimes rough-around-the-edges concrete (and sometimes brick) buildings. The Wikipedia entry for Brutalist Architecture summarises this diluting and confusing of the term:

“‘Brutalism’ as an architectural critical term was not always consistently used by critics; architects themselves usually avoided using it altogether. More recently, ‘brutalism’ has become used in popular discourse to refer to buildings of the late twentieth century that are large or unpopular – as a synonym for ‘brutal’ – making its effective use in architectural historical discourse problematic.”

Adrian Forty

Professor Forty spoke first, on the history of concrete and on some of its meanings and associations. He explained that concrete was first developed as a commercial building material in the 1830s to 1840s but wasn’t used much until the late 19th and early 20th century, when Belgian builders did experimental work, including sandbag loading to test the strength of concrete beams.

In the 1900s architects and engineers became more interested in the material. Auguste Perret in France designed concrete buildings that started the debate on whether to show or hide the material, including the Rue Franklin apartment building in Paris and Notre Dame du Raincy church just outside the French capital. Forty said that Perret set out to make concrete a noble material, not just for foundations. I did remember Perret from when I did my Architecture degree (and this talk reminded me a bit of my university lectures) but it was still striking to see the Raincy church, with its heavy ceiling seeming to rest so lightly on walls of glass, and I imagine it must have been even more remarkable to viewers at the time it was built.

Also in the early 20th century, Rudolf Steiner designed the Second Goetheanum – an early use of cast concrete in building – in Dornach, near Basel, in Switzerland. In the mid 20th century, Le Corbusier designed the monastery Sainte Marie de La Tourette, built outside Lyon in reinforced concrete.

Forty described how in the 20th century, the majority of the public steadily became disgusted by concrete, and this revulsion was in contrast to the passion of architects and engineers for the material. He quoted Ove Arup as saying he “couldn’t understand why architects continued to use concrete when they knew so little about it and other alternatives were available”.

Forty himself said that “for many architects, concrete stands for or represents all matter”. He referred to Martin Heidegger’s concept of ‘fourfold’ in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’: Earth, Sky, Mortals and Divinities as the four elements that complete dwelling. Forty said that a similar model for concrete specifically would be Humanity, Nature, Matter and Non-matter (or Space). In this context, “Matter is a generic substance, stuff without distracting evidence of construction – matter in its pure state – transcends individuation of other materials. Grey blankness is a virtue, a quality … it shows off the soul of the project”.

There is a bit of a contradiction here, as much concrete architecture, especially Brutalism, actually shows and celebrates the method of construction – as, for example, in the wood textures on the concrete surfaces of the National Theatre in London. (One of the speakers showed a slide with a close-up of this concrete and I recognised it immediately – it’s such a distinctive feature of that and many buildings that had an element of craft to the shuttering the concrete was poured into.) This was also raised as a point by someone in the audience – Forty responded that it is a somewhat double-edged sword, and while I’m not quite sure what he meant by that, I can see there is an inherent contradiction in concrete both having a fluid, plastic quality but at the same time sometimes requiring some quite traditional materials and methods, such as timber and carpentry, to mould them.

Elain Harwood

Elain Harwood is Senior Architectural Investigator at Historic England (formerly English Heritage) and familiar to me from architectural history TV programmes, English Heritage videos and exhibitions, books and events such as this (and the excellent Barbitopia, which she co-curated with David Heathcote). Her new book, Space, Hope and Brutalism, is published in September and looks interesting.

To be concluded… I will return to this post and complete it shortly, with Elain Harwood’s wide-ranging examples of concrete buildings from history, and William Hall’s equally diverse and often more obscure present-day examples.

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