We are surrounded by concrete. The gloopy gray building material has always been controversial. It has been vilified as ugly, but also used to make art and architecture of staggering beauty and grace. It completely revolutionized the building of municipal structures and social housing, and spawned the Brutalist architectural tradition that still inspires daring design to this day. Concrete lovers enthuse about the environmental differences that make each regional variation of concrete unique and beautiful.
Whether you love it or hate it, you cannot deny the significance of concrete. It has literally changed the world – and not always for the better. After water, concrete is the most used material on the planet, and this mass creation and consumption of the all-purpose building material are having some dire effects on our environment. What follows is a short history of the gray goo that has become such a dominant material force in human society. It is by no means a complete history, for there are myriad narratives that can be linked to concrete.
A Truly Ancient Innovation
Concrete is much older than you might think. Ancient desert traders built underground water cisterns using primitive concrete at least 8,000 years ago. The first people to use concrete in the way we understand it now were the ancient Romans. They used concrete for almost all of their buildings. Ancient Roman concrete actually lasts a great deal longer than its modern alternative. This is likely because they used volcanic ash as part of the mix, giving it incredible strength that explains how structures like harbors and the colosseum (which is partially built with ancient concrete) still stand to this day.
Lost for a Millennium
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, concrete was almost completely forgotten about for around 1,400 years. Unbelievably, there were no major uses of the utilitarian material from the fall of the Raman Empire until the 19th Century.
Concrete use took off again in the 19th Century. French engineers had begun to use it in small-scale projects, but it was the invention of the rebar reinforced concrete structure by Californian engineer Earnest Ransome that kicked off the second concrete revolution. Rebar structures use metal bars to reinforce poured concrete.
Form and Function
Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was the fist person to see the potential of concrete as a material that could create stunning modernist buildings. His 1939 Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania is considered to be one of the most elegant houses ever constructed. It was made using innovative concrete pouring techniques.
Unfortunately, concrete has also been used to create some depressing and ugly structures. Many of us associate the material with dull office blocks or crumbling pathways. It isn’t unusual for homeowners to pay a concrete removal cost to contractors who specialize in removing the stuff.
It is a shame indeed, for in the right hands, concrete can be a beautiful thing. It is not the material that is to blame for the ugliness of a space, but the design itself.