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Construction Matters: How Advances in Brick, Steel, and Concrete Changed Architecture

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How the technology behind the building blocks of construction informs the craft and creativity of architecture

In an era of insane renderings and conceptual construction projects, Georg Windeck, an architect and teacher at Cooper Union, wanted to take a different look at technology’s relationship to visionary architecture. His forthcoming book Construction Matters examines how building tech and the craft of design coexist, spurring on one another.

"People today are fooling around with terms, like post-modernism and new modernism, but the construction processes and materials we use today—we still build with reinforced concrete, we still build with steel framing—are the same as we used at the beginning of the modern movement," he says.

Windeck and his co-editors explore the elements of modern architecture through a series of case studies. Here are three examples of how new construction technology helped turned genre-defying designs into icons.

Brick: Brick Country House (Unbuilt: 1924)

He’s best known for shaping steel and glass, but Mies van der Rohe started working in the building trades working for his father, a mason, and some of his first designs, such as this unbuilt brick home, showcase how he always maintained a bricklayer’s sensitivity to the form and fit of individual elements. This experimental building plan has been celebrated for decades as a revolutionary pre-war design due to its horizontal layout and the way it anticipated the form of modern structures. The sharpness of its lines, as Windeck writes, come in part from the control available via mass-produced, wire-cut bricks, which introduced industrial precision to this type of construction. He feels this unbuilt plan, arranged in a very systematic way around patterns, suggests Mies’s masonry background may have informed the way he created minimal glass-and-steel structures that exuded such heft. "Think about it, Breuer was a carpenter, Corbu was an engraver," Windeck says, "transcending what material can do is easier for a craftsman."

Concrete: Los Manantiales Restaurant (Mexico City, Mexico: 1958)

A hyperbolic parasol of concrete, Mexican architect Felix Candela’s gorgeous restaurant showed the artistic possibilities of a thin shell of concrete, a modern counterpoint to the base upon which it sits, a layer of crushed stone that looks like the bottom of a Mayan temple. Candela combined mathematical precision and creative engineering to erect this series of four hyperbolic paraboloids, which form a roof that’s only four centimeters thick. Candela took advantage of pour-in-place concrete and laid all eight petals of the structure at once, which allowed the petals to form simultaneously and pull against each other, producing the force necessary to balance the thin roof. The material allowed for the creation of specific shapes, which give the overall structure its strength, and an elegant take on vaults. "He was trying to define a contemporary creation of architectural form," says Windeck.

Steel: Farnsworth House (Plano, Illinois: 1951)

This standout modern home, which floats above the shores of a riverside roughly 60 miles west of Chicago, was fashioned from metal parts cut from I-beams, a collection of steel pieces that formed its own font. Taking advantage of 20th century advances in welding, Mies used plug welds and lapped joints to connect the structure. Flat steel pieces were laid on top of each other, holes were drilled in one piece, and the welds were made in those holes, distributing weight across a wider surface area and creating different type of connection between beams. Rather than resting on top of each other, the support and roof beams seem to hover next to each other in a way Windeck describes as poetic. "The beams meet in a way that’s totally anti-historic," he says. "It’s that tension that makes the building so powerful."