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Concrete in architecture has became popular for a number of reasons. Like the brick house in the story of the three little pigs, the durability of concrete withstands the winds of time. It provides superior protection from the elements of nature while also providing a comforting sense of permanence.
The definition of architectural concrete is “concrete exposed as an exterior or interior surface in the completed structure, [that] contributes to its visual character, and is specifically designated as such in the contract documents.”
Today’s architects are using architectural concrete in a variety of innovative ways to create the architectural wonders of tomorrow.
Brutalism, an architectural style that utilises concrete, is making a comeback, as is the controversial socialist movement that once made it so popular. Brutalism’s linguistic roots can be found in the French phrase “béton-brut”, which translates to “raw concrete”. The Brutalism movement emerged in the early 1950s as an expansion of Modernism.
Architect and urban planner Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, was one of the greatest influences on the movement. His Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, combined aesthetics with social policy. The 12-story apartment building with interior “streets” and a roof terrace was completed in 1952. One critic of the movement, Reyner Banham, referred to the sculptural quality of buildings designed and constructed using raw concrete during the 1960s and 1970s as the New Brutalism.
In addition to sustainability, as a building material, concrete offers strength, durability, and a high level of weather resistance. While the utilitarian principles of Brutalism remain evident in today’s concrete architecture, there are some breathtaking examples that combine utility with creativity.
Some of the scientific research into ways to improve concrete as a building material have yielded some amazing results. For example, in the 1990s, Italian chemist Luigi Cassar invented a type of smog-eating concrete. The first architect to utilise it was Richard Meier. It was introduced on the market in 2000, and today that technology has been incorporated in up to 50 buildings.
Pina Petricone’s book, Concrete Technology, discusses some of the surprising advances in concrete, which utilise both nanotechnology and biotechnology. Applying those sciences to developing flexible and sustainable building materials has produced several new types of concrete with some astonishing capabilities. There are now bendable, super-fluid, conductive, self-healing, and illuminating concretes.
One of the most stunning examples of how this new technology is being employed is the Cella Septichora Visitor Center in Hungary. The architectural firm of Bachman & Bachmann designed it with a translucent concrete wall that performs a dazzling light display. Twenty years ago, the concept that concrete could be translucent would have been unthinkable.
Another example of the creative use of concrete using modern technology is the Zaragoza Bride Pavilion in Spain, designed by Zaha Hadid. It is made from 29,000 concrete panels.The RAPT centre in France, designed by ECDM Architects, utilises embossed concrete to achieve the look of perforated metal.
There are some special considerations when building with architectural concrete, including the jointing of formwork, tolerances of forms, and treatments of joints and corners. Those considerations are addressed in the safety specifications contained in the ACI 347, Guide to Formwork for Concrete, and the ACI 117, Standard Specifications for Tolerances for Concrete Construction and Materials. These guidelines ensure the seamless integration of the structure with the other building systems such as plumbing, lighting and roofing.
Using proper concrete placement methods prevents segregation while providing sufficient vibration for consistent consolidation. Because defects can occur even under optimum conditions, repair methods are planned and tested in advance. Sealing joints is perhaps the costliest element of the building process. The superior safety features of concrete can be maximised by following well-documented procedures and using high-quality materials.
Sealing joints is perhaps the costliest element of the building process when using architectural concrete. While some imperfections, such as potential cracking, are inherent in concrete, it is now possible to achieve high-quality, enduring finishes that reduce that potential.
According to AKTII director Gerry O’Brian, concrete is “the most versatile of materials…Being fluid, it is infinitely mouldable.” Concrete specialist David Bennett calls it “liquid stone” and uses the word “rustic” to describe architect Peter Zumthor’s work in concrete construction. Today’s concrete finishes, from rustic to futuristic, come in a wide variety of styles, colours, and materials.
One of those materials is fibreglass. The Reider company’s glass fibre concrete facade panels are designed to look like shining metal. Ductal concrete has an anticipated life of a thousand years, which drastically reduces the environmental impact of construction. It is now available with microfibers that reinforce its compressive strength even further.
Stamping concrete is another method that can be used to create the appearance of river rock, brick, cobblestone, marble, granite or even wood, without the high financial and environmental cost. The versatility of stamped concretes makes it ideal for patios, interior flooring, and counter-tops. Concrete additives can be applied to almost any vertical surface, including walls, steps, and fireplaces.
Hand carved concrete mimics authentic natural materials like rock and stone. By applying concrete mixes of various textures to a vertical substrate, hand carving patterns and designs can achieve virtually any desired look. There are as many colours available as there are textures. With acid staining, even multi-coloured concrete is possible. Using a water-based mixture of acid and inorganic salts creates a chemical reaction with the minerals in cured concrete, producing a one-of-a-kind colour pattern.
The timeless quality of stone has long been used by architects and interior designers alike to add an element of decorative permanence to their artistic creations. Concrete combines the durability of stone with the flexibility of technological innovation. In a world of increasingly rapid change, the elements of sustainability and a sense permanence provide ample reason for the increasing popularity of concrete architecture.