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Things You May Not Have Known About the History of Concrete

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We're big fans of the design podcast 99% Invisible, so we were overjoyed when their latest episode, "Hard to Love a Brute," explored the love/hate relationship with béton brut and concrete construction. Always controversial, the building material has been in the news this a lot summer, especially in England, where key buildings in the Brutalist canon have (or haven't) been given the equivalent of landmark status, and the Royal Institute of British Architects devoted a slate of programming to the "emotionally loaded material," including a roundtable discussion about the cultural history of concrete. We listened to the panel talk, featuring Adrian Forty (Professor Emeritus of Architectural History, The Bartlett and author of Concrete and Culture – A Material History), Elain Harwood (historian with English Heritage and author of Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975) and William Hall (William Hall Design and author of Concrete) and walked away with these intriguing facts.

It's been around for longer than you think
While precursors to concrete can be found back in Roman times (the term comes from the Latin word concretus, meaning compact or condensed), the modern version was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. British bricklayer Joseph Aspdin applied for a patent for Portland cement, named after an island near Dorset where it was quarried, in 1824. Initially, architects and engineers didn't show much interest in the material. Ordinary builders and contractors were the first to pick it up and start experimenting.

Modern concrete construction really started with a Frenchman
Many people contributed to the development of the material, such as Joseph Monier, who came up with the concept of steel-reinforced concrete in an attempt to develop stronger flower pots. But the single architect often credited with starting the concrete boom is Auguste Perret. The Frenchman's early work, especially the Rue Franklin Apartments (1904), reflects the typical place of concrete in early 20th century construction: hidden, in this case, behind tile work. But he'd gradually begin exposing his work, so to speak, trying to advance the idea of concrete as a noble material. One of his projects, the Eglise Notre-Dame du Raincy, is considered a masterpiece of modernism and a showcase of the material's potential. Perret advanced notions of technology and materials, concepts his pupil, Le Corbusier, would later advance.

Architects REALLY love it
Forty spoke in depth about the obsession that architects have about using the material, even though often the public can have a very negative reaction to concrete buildings (he used the term "revulsion"). His point could perhaps best be summed up with this quote from engineer Jane Wernick: "with concrete you get closest to total architecture." The flexibility of form allows "immaculate conception," Forty said, its blankness and grayness are positive qualities, which help modern architects get to the "soul" of the project.

The Life and Death of Britain's Most Beloved Brutalist Building, Robin Hood Gardens [Curbed]
Play Hard: New Brutalist Playground in London Celebrates the Legacy of Concrete Parks [Curbed]
Brutalist Concrete Gas Station A Thing of Surprising Beauty [Curbed]