Brutal, drab, boring: concrete became the bęte noire of British cities when the rot set in, with Birmingham's Bull Ring the epitome of this decay. But as Brum unveils a gleaming new urban centre, concrete's disciples are staging a fight back.
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online
It was, perhaps, an inauspicious day to begin extolling the virtues of concrete.
As shoppers strolled the bright and airy walkways of Birmingham's new Bullring centre, the talk was of how things had changed for the better.
The old Bull Ring, built in the 1960s, and initially greeted with great optimism, became an architectural embarrassment; a stick with which to beat the Brummies.
As the ultimate concrete carbuncle, it epitomised everything wrong with post-war British cities. Brutal, drab, boring - retailers took their wares out of town, and their customers followed.
Thanks to the Bull Ring and countless other shopping centres, swimming pools, libraries, tower blocks, motorways, even churches that went up in Britain's post-war development spree, concrete became synonymous with the ills of urban life.
CEMENT THAT RELATIONSHIP
Royal College of Art students experimented for the Cement Creativity Awards 2003
A silk wedding dress with concrete "shells" was one of the most eye-catching entries
It was created by Harriett Harriss and Suzi Winstanley
By and large, perceptions have stayed that way. In its place, we have seen a return to brick and timber, and a discovery of steel and glass as building blocks.
There have been some signs of a revival lately, with architects tentatively returning to the aggregate. A controversial move by English Heritage to slap preservation orders on a number of tower blocks has forced a rethink in some quarters.
But this week the real fight back began. In Dundee, 260 delegates gathered for a two-day symposium described as a "celebration of concrete".
At the same time, in London, leading British architect Lord Rogers was among those gathering to mark the launch of the Concrete Centre, which will promote the design and use of concrete.
According to Ravi Dhir, head of Dundee's Concrete Technology Unit and organiser of this week's conference, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to concrete.
"Can we begin to imagine what life would be like without concrete? Civilisation would never have managed to reach the standards which it has achieved," says Mr Dhir.
Where would we be?
"Take transport: roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, would we have these without concrete? No. Water tunnels, reservoirs, sewage treatment works: again, these all depend on concrete.
"There's not another material that could do the job as economically or with such versatility. We couldn't afford the comfortable lives we have now were it not for concrete."
Support is growing
Suitably enough, it was those arch purveyors of progress, the Romans, who pioneered the use of concrete, mixing volcanic limestone with water and sand.
Rome's Colossuem is an outstanding early example of its use, and it has been in an out of fashion ever since, says Catherine Croft, who is writing a book about the history of the material.
The current distaste for it, says Ms Croft, is actually the result of a big misunderstanding.
The problem with the post-war urban environment was down to a range of factors: poor planning, cheap and shoddy workmanship, bad maintenance and some utopian belief that hundreds of people with a diversity of lifestyles could happily live together stuffed into tiny cubicles, stacked on top of each other, with lifts that didn't work.
Partly because it could be used quickly and cheaply, concrete happened to be the material of choice for developers in those days. It is guilty by association, says Ms Croft.
Mr Dhir picks up the argument: "It's like if you have a good cloth and a bad tailor, where does the fault lie for an awful suit?"
In fact, concrete has inspired a small legion of connoisseurs. Ms Croft is particularly fond of the detailed texture on the exterior of London's Hayward Gallery.
"When you get close, you see that each block is unique. The concrete was moulded in timber cases, and instead of reusing the same one, they built a new case every time."
Coming out of the closet
While today's architects may shy from being quite as upfront with the material, the industry is worth Ł5bn a year and concrete still plays an important, although often hidden, role in modern buildings. The new Bullring centre, for example, uses 90,000 cubic metres of the stuff.
But Steve Elliott, who has helped set up the new Concrete Centre, wants to see the material come out of the closet. "Structural integrity" is the buzz phrase - concrete buildings bearing their naked concreteness.
It's an architectural treat for some
"It doesn't have to look ugly. You can do amazing things with concrete, polish it to make it look like marble. It's incredibly malleable as well. You can make it what you want it to be," he says.
If that's not enough to win over sceptics, there's also an environmental sell. Because it's thick and heavy, concrete has good thermal efficiency - it evens out high and low temperature fluctuations.
"It absorbs heat slowly throughout the day but this can be controlled with simple ventilation. In the summer a concrete building stays cool. In the winter, you close those vents and it stays warm."
Whether the public are ready to reflect that warmth by re-embracing the material remains to be seen.
Happy to see a concrete comeback? Add your comments:
Some of your comments so far:
The architects are blaming everybody except themselves for the bad reputation of concrete. Bare concrete was (and still is) lauded by the architectural press as "uncompromising". Those silly circular holes left in the concrete were "educational". And, just like the Eiffel Tower, people would come to love concrete. But 40 years later this still has not happened! By all means build with concrete - but please put an attractive skin on top.
Personally, I'd like to see concrete given another chance. I have some idea of what it takes to construct buildings, and I'm convinced that we could not buld them as quickly or cheaply without the stuff. It can be made to look interesting, but without some sensitivity in the choice of complementary materials, it will still inevitably look grey and uninspiring after a few years.
I have to disagree about them being cool in summer. In my experience of the buildings I have worked in they make very good storage heaters. Warmed by the sun during the day, retaining the heat all night and then warmed a bit more the following day.
Used with imagination and care concrete is a wonderfully expressive medium. The Elephant house at London Zoo and the signalbox at Birmingham's New Street Station both feature corrugated concrete to good effect.
The trouble with concrete is it's colour. Concrete buildings look like they've been made out of a rainy day.
Environmentally friendly? Don't make me laugh. Concrete production emits tons of CO2 every year, because one of the first things you have to do is roast limestone to get it.
I agree that concrete is an excellent structural material and I can think of another good use for it: concrete shoes for Mr Rogers and the others of his clan who use our city environment as a laboratory with us in the role of lab rats . .
Anthony New, England
Concrete can come in any colour imaginable! It's just waiting for bold designers to choose the colours.
Around here, concrete is used to form crash barriers down the centre of many interstates. They have just completed new crash barriers along Interstate 95 in the centre of Wilmington, Delaware. The concrete is attractively patterned with stylized representations of trees and hillsides.
Debbie, USA, formerly UK
Concrete can be a beautiful material, just look at designs by Santiago Calatrava, and Tadao Ando. There are so many good contemporary examples that I can think of.
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