Concrete, edited by William Hall with an essay by Leonard Karen, $49.95 US/CAN, Phaidon March 2013, www.phaidon.com
When I encounter a book dust jacket that’s textured to the touch I usually assume that it’s a willful distraction from the contents within; not so with Phaidon’s Concrete. Its striated cover perfectly evokes its complex subject. Concrete, despite its historical roles from the Roman Pantheon to Fallingwater, is a much-unloved material, rough to the touch and to the popular imagination. Both the volume’s introduction and essay make immediate acknowledgement of its unpopularity. William Hall writes:
“Despite its range and ubiquity, many people associate concrete with rain-stained social housing, or banal industrial buildings,” writes William Hall. “Detractors of concrete cite such tired monoliths, and point out the failure of the material. Its economy and speed of production have inevitably led to its use on buildings of poor quality – frequently compounded by substandard design and inadequate maintenance. But concrete cannot be held responsible for all the failures of concrete buildings. For too long negative associations have dominated the public perception of concrete.”
A turn to the first photo in volume can do wonders to allay this perception, with a gently undulating concrete bridge complementing a rocky Austrian river view. Concrete need not be forbidding! And look, there’s the Guggenheim on the next page. Who doesn’t like that?
Concrete is something of a constructive wonder. This slurry of mineral and water is adaptable into almost any number of shapes and frames. The fact that most of these shapes haven’t been particularly imaginative is no fault of concrete itself; no more than wheat is to blame for Wonder Bread.
“Iron in combination with concrete, reinforced concrete, is the building material of the new will to form,” wrote Erich Mendelsohn in 1914. “Its structural strength capable of being loaded almost equally with stress and compression will give rise to a new, specific logic in the laws of statics, logic of form, of harmony, of implicitness.”
Subsequent failures are of imagination, not of material.
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1996, Oscar Niemeyer, page 123, photo courtesy of Leonardo Finotti
This 50 m (164 ft) wide flying saucer, perched on the edge of a cliff, was designed when Niemeyer was 89 years old. A wide winding slope connects visitors to the entrance 10 m (33 ft) above the ground.