Why concrete is still best for stunning architecture

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Why concrete is still best for stunning architecture

Water, aggregate, cement. Mix them together, and you produce concrete – usually the most banal of building materials, not even as characterful or satisfying to touch as a well-fired brick. But when concrete is used by brilliant architects and engineers, the results are riveting. Even today, the world’s first iconic concrete structure, the unreinforced 43.4m dome of the Pantheon in Rome, completed in AD128, still seems breathtaking in its daring and beauty.

In the 21st century, software-generated algorithms and geometry often make the shaping and structuring of concrete as deliberately iconic as the vastly gloopy shell of Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku; or controversial, as in the sculpted ripples of Thomas Heatherwick’s contested Garden Bridge across the Thames.

But the aesthetic and atmospheric qualities of concrete architecture are not just about shape-making. It’s about the feel of the material, the light and shadow it creates, its particular sense of “grunt” – or its lightness and delicacy. Concrete can make asymmetry as graceful as symmetry, or turn volumes of space into engrossing mysteries.

All of these sensual qualities are superbly illustrated in Concrete Buildings, a new two-volume boxed tome that, quite literally, weighs as much as a breeze-block. And so it should: the built environment is composed largely of concrete; the worldwide readymix concrete industry is worth £127bn a year – more than the values of all the other main building materials put together. []