Over the past century, the perception of concrete has more dramatically fluctuated than that of any other material. At various times and locations across the globe, this ubiquitous substance has experienced life as architecture’s most loved and loathed material, simultaneously its most iconic and its most divisive. The humble mixture of aggregate and cement has inspired entire theoretical movements within the profession and helped alter entire cities in the process. As a consequence, many concrete buildings now stand as powerful social metaphors that reflect the very identity of the people that designed, built, and lived within them.
Phaidon’s book, simply titled Concrete, succinctly communicates the evolution of this material and its use over the course of the last 100 years via a collection of stunning photographs of iconic structures around the world. Exploring this expansive gallery, it is possible to identify key architectural moments that sum up remarkable chapters in the life of this, the planet’s most-used building material. Echoing Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man,” we look at seven of the most seminal moments for contemporary concrete and its most influential advocates:
Ennis House by Frank Lloyd Wright, Los Angeles, Calif., United States, 1924
“The concrete block? The cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the world,” wrote Frank Lloyd Wright, reflecting on his opening experiments with concrete as a construction material for a series of four textile block houses in California, including Ennis House. “Why not see what could be done with the gutter-rat? It might be permanent, noble, beautiful.” While Wright was by no means a child in architectural terms by 1924, his use of concrete was in its infancy. He would go on to utilize it for some of the most famous buildings of the 20th century, including the iconic Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Clones of Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier, Marseille, France, 1952
According to one interpretation of the original seven stages, the “schoolboy” displays the immaturity of a man “not confident enough to exercise his own discretion.” This description does not necessarily apply to Le Corbusier’s iconic Unité d’Habitation, but, rather, the many ill-advised high-rise blocks it inspired, such as the infamous Park Hill estate in Sheffield, England. Thankfully, HawkinsBrown has shown that, as in life, you can learn from past mistakes in architecture: their savvy renovation of that housing complex in 2011 earned them a nomination for the Stirling Prize, the United Kingdom’s prestigious architectural award.
Los Manantiales Restaurant by Félix Candela, Mexico City, Mexico, 1958
Perhaps one of the most passionate odes to concrete ever created, Candela’s impossibly thin undulating canopy formed an instant architectural icon in Mexico City. Just as a lover never holds back in expressing their feelings, Candela waxed lyrical about his design and the beauty of concrete as a structural material: “I think it is unsurpassed and all that a shell should be: simple, graceful, and light.” Indeed, Candela’s love affair with concrete was remarkable; in the present day, perhaps only Tadao Ando comes close to such adoration of this material.
Government Service Center by Paul Rudolph, Boston, Mass., 1971
The “soldier” stage of man is described thusly: “He is hot headed. He is always working towards making a reputation for himself, however short-lived it may be, even at the cost of foolish risks.” This sounds a lot like Brutalism, one of the most iconic examples of which being Paul Rudolph’s controversial Government Service Center in Boston. Of course, not all brutalist buildings are big and brash: Urlaubsarchitektur’s concrete cabin proves that the style lives on in some sophisticated contemporary projects.
Casa da Música by OMA, Porto, Portugal, 2005
At this stage of life, one is deemed to have “acquired wisdom through the many experiences he has had in life, and is likely to impart it. He has reached a stage where he has gained prosperity and social status.” Perhaps the most influential proponent of the profession over the past 30 years is Rem Koolhaas of OMA, designer of the assured, angular form of the Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal. The ‘imparted wisdom’ of this design can be witnessed in a number of more recent projects, such as BNKR Arquitectura’s Sunset Chapel in Acapulco, Mexico.
6. Old Age
Meiso no Mori Crematorium by Toyo Ito and Associates Architects, Kakamigahara City, Japan, 2006
Shakespeare’s sardonic character states that, at this stage of life, man is “a shell of his former self.” In architectural terms, the maturity of concrete as a construction material has seen it used in increasingly delicate ways, evolving from the monumental, aggressive styles of the Brutalist period to a passive, almost introverted material in many projects. Japanese architect Toyo Ito produced a particularly poetic example of architectural understatement with concrete, creating a canopy for a crematorium that the architect describes as “floating above the site like slowly drifting clouds.” It is a far cry from the Brutalism of the 1970s, but does evoke memories of modernists such as Oscar Niemeyer and Félix Candela.
7. Second Innocence
In the last of the seven stages one is said to regain innocence, echoing the fresh, unaffected perspective experienced during infancy. In terms of architects’ uses of concrete, new technologies have spawned new styles leading us to reexamine applications of materials from the ground up. The parametric architecture of Zaha Hadid is a case in point: the practice has had to experiment with alternative manufacturing and building techniques to create many of its algorithm-driven designs, including the concrete panels of the Guangzhou Opera House in China. New processes bring with them fresh challenges, opportunities, and mistakes — but they also have the power to breathe new life into this age-old material.
Want see more outstanding concrete projects? Check out Phaidon’s book Concrete.