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From Washington DC to London, concrete edifices aren’t to everyone’s taste, but they’re here to stay – and people have learned to love these sights
Mies van der Rohe was born first, in 1886, in Aachen, Germany. Le Corbusier arrived the following year, and 250 miles to the south, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Mies went on to become the godfather of the steel-and-glass international style; Corbu, enamored with the possibilities of concrete, essentially created brutalism. Which means that not only were the two architects great builders in their own right; they were also responsible for creating the greatest sibling rivalry in the history of architecture.
Le Corbusier’s brutalism took an early lead, not least because of concrete’s cost advantage: it is cheap and abundant, the second most consumed material in the world, after water. Brutalism also had the art-historical advantage of fitting easily into a centuries-long narrative. The monumental brutalist vaulting of the Washington Metro, for instance, is uncannily similar to that found in largest concrete dome in the world – the 2,000-year-old Pantheon, in Rome.
Yet by the 1960s, when both movements really hit their stride, it was the international style that was in the ascendant. Mies had given New York City the Seagram Building, “the millennium’s most important building”, according to Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times. Citizens of modern cities on every continent started looking up and seeing shimmering sheets of glass, as their formerly parochial towns were transformed into something resembling the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. A new international phenomenon emerged: the modern skyline, comprising buildings that aspired to float – effortlessly, impossibly – upwards, in a reverie of light and transparency. This, surely, was the golden future. The lucky few were part of it already, and everybody else wanted in. […]