A mass of contradictions

There’s more to concrete than meets the eye, says Eleanor Young, and it’s the versatile material’s polarities that make it so interesting

The Armenian Church of St George in Tblisi, Georgia, under construction in 1903 using the Hennebique system.
The Armenian Church of St George in Tblisi, Georgia, under construction in 1903 using the Hennebique system.

At the very start of this major work on concrete, author Adrian Forty explains that he is not the first to have found concrete attracts opposing meanings. His study is arranged around polarities: natural/ unnatural, skilled/ unskilled, site of memory/ oblivion. He himself finds the most satisfying applications where there is a ‘knowing recognition by the creator of the slipperiness of concrete’. At Sergison Bates’ New Art Gallery Walsall, ‘Only in the soffits of the ground floor and the upper-level gallery does one see concrete in relief. Deep beams, and many of them, lie close together as if they were timber.’

The words are infused with the experience of buildings, and the density and directness of Forty’s writing makes reading a pleasure, like drinking deep from a glass of cool clear water. It has the personality of his one-time tutor Reyner Banham but with more seriousness and, perhaps, more depth. Unlike many academic books it is not cluttered with references and the specialist vocabulary of academia but neither has Forty stooped to explaining things like tie rods. 
This is not just about individual buildings or architects. But there are the names you would expect: Auguste Perret; the LCC Architects Department; and Zumthor. There there is Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev’s push on the industrialisation of concrete and the USSR concrete panel organisation that at one time employed 13 million people. Political and commercial interests in concrete seem to have gone hand in hand. French company Hennebique played a major role in the use of reinforced concrete with its proprietary system patented in 1892. With such dominant players Forty shows how the French have laid claim to the technology of concrete. But he points out that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the French made use of the shell structures pioneered by Germany, which as early as 1913 had completed the enormous Breslau Centennial Hall. And Forty subtly plants the suggestion that the history of concrete could have been written in quite a different way over the years – with an aesthetic rather than structural emphasis – if England’s decorative approach under James Pulham had only been more successful.

Forty attempts to get closer to the men (and in Russia, at least, women) who worked with the concrete. This is obviously a difficult task with few records at workman level, but structural changes to site hierarchies are explored as well as the sidelining of architects through panellised construction. The tables from scientific managers Frederick Taylor and Sanford Thompson, set out in their 1912 book Concrete Costs, break down all the processes of making concrete into 144 timed stages. It is illuminating, although thankfully not reproduced in full (Cut string on cement bag, 0.11 seconds, Move bag about 2ft, 0.08 etc). The pair was, of course, concerned with increasing efficiency, the sort of attempt we continue to see throughout reviews of the construction industry.

Forty’s final assertion is that architects are the mediators of our relationship with concrete. But I would beg to differ. Civil engineering surely sets the popular tone for understanding the material, we are surrounded by it. Shortly after reading this book I was speeding into a concrete underpass. Architects can place concrete closer to us, to be experienced in a less distracted way, but architects and architectural discourse can only shift our perception of it by degrees.


CONCRETE AND CULTURE: A Material history
By Adrian Forty, RIBA Publishing £27