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Saturday, 13 January, 2001, 15:44 GMT
In defence of concrete
Concrete mixer
With the death of National Theatre architect Sir Denys Lasdun, concrete - that much maligned building material - has lost a loyal friend. Why has concrete been given such a rocky ride?

When Sir Denys Lasdun was set to designing the Royal National Theatre he wanted a building material which would compliment the historic stone of St Paul's Cathedral and Somerset House.

Something also with a rough surface, which he hoped would give the structure a natural, even archaic, feel.

Rome's Colosseum
Concrete historical evidence: Rome's Colosseum
He chose concrete and won the resentment of many critics - including architecture buff Prince Charles.

It seems strange something as simple as a mixture of sand, cement and water should incite the sort of ire normally reserved for toxic or nuclear waste.

Concrete is the bogeyman of the late 20th century built environment, says Professor Andrew Beeby, University of Leeds civil engineering lecturer and a member of the Magazine of Concrete Research's editorial panel.

Concrete is the run down council estate, the syringe-strewn tower block, the deserted shopping arcade.

Concrete ...
holds heat well
isn't attacked by pests
doesn't burn
is resistant to corrosion
withstands high winds
is water-fast
"In the post-war period, people were desperate to build a lot of housing very quickly. Concrete was an ideal material."

This building boom, perhaps unfortunately, coincided with a fashion among architects to lay bare the materials from which their structures were made - and that included concrete.

"It was probably a mistake using it in this way. Concrete is not a very pleasant colour, it doesn't weather all that well and tends to stain."

It has also had to weather the vagaries of language. Criticism of the "concrete jungle" has done little to enhance the material's image.

"It's a nice phrase which has embedded itself in the public consciousness. Unfortunately, many of the buildings which it is used to describe are actually made from brick."

Sydney Opera House
"What would Charles say?"
The nicely alliterative phrase "concrete cancer" - an unwelcome reaction between the component cement and aggregate - has also done the material a disservice, says Mr Beeby.

"Concrete cancer has enjoyed a lot of media coverage and prompted a huge amount of research. It is very rare and tends to make a structure look nasty rather than render it unsafe."

Of course, all is not rosy in the concrete garden. Even the material's biggest fans will admit it has been used to produce ugly buildings.

"Concrete is the most used material in the world, after water. Of course some of it is going to be used badly. But if you look around you will find some really beautiful structures - think of the Sydney Opera House."

However, many of us may not see the concrete for the buildings, says Mike Gilbert, chief executive of the British Cement Association.

Concerete mass: Frank Lloyd Wright's award-winning Fallingwater
"People see concrete all around them, but don't see it as such. You may look up at the attractive 'stone cladding' of an office in the City but in fact you're looking at concrete."

Concrete is often seen as the stuff of modernity, but in fact it is one of the oldest building materials. The ancient Egyptians employed a primative concrete in their pyramids, and nor were its charms lost on the Romans constructing the Colosseum.

Around the world, coloured and moulded concrete has long been used to great decorative effect, says Mr Gilbert.

"The great architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, have all used concrete. And remember, many 'carbuncles' have been made from brick."

The UK isn't as concrete-bound as many critics of the material might think, Mr Gilbert says we have perhaps the lowest per capita use of the material in Europe.

Tower block
Tower blocks gave concrete a bad name
This may not be such a good thing. Mr Gilbert says apart from being cheap and easy to use, concrete could be worth its weight in saved energy.

"Because of concrete's thermal insultating properties, it can significantly reduce heating costs over a building's life. One study showed a 20% saving."

Also, unlike steel or timber, concrete can be found almost anywhere. It rarely has to be transported far to reach the building site.

So have its critics got "liquid rock" all wrong? Probably says Mr Beeby.

"Most of the problems of concrete are down to the art of the engineer or architect," he says. "They aren't the fault of the material."

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