Architectural Asceticism

Reviewing Adrian Forty’s Concrete and Culture in the TLS, James Hall summarizes the shifting fortunes of concrete as a building material: “Reinforced concrete’s global heyday spanned roughly from the 1920s to the 60s, when exposed, cantilevered concrete was all the (modernist) rage. Then a pragmatic and/or postmodernist reaction set in: the boldness of reinforced concrete structures was now bleakness, not least because of porousness and poor weathering. Brutalism—the architecture critic Reyner Banham’s unwise transposition of Le Corbusier’s béton brut (raw concrete)—came to be associated with everything inhumane and shoddy. The demolition crews moved in. Except for infrastructure, reinforced concrete was now to be covered up, wrapped in brick, tiled in stone and ceramic, sheathed in metal panels, painted, mummified. Naked concrete made its comeback in the 1990s, a crucial component of the Age of Grey. It was effortlessly in tune with po-faced Austerity, notwithstanding the dreadful environmental consequences of its manufacture.”

Concrete is not used primarily in interiors, where it has taken on an ascetic connotation: “Concrete is here a notional hair shirt worn beneath designer clothing. Its current internal deployment is curiously similar to that of the most famous of all grey building stones, pietra serena, used inside the Pazzi Chapel and Michelangelo’s New Sacristy.” For Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, “the iron and steel structures of the nineteenth century [are] emblematic of modernity, because of their capacity to represent the subconscious. . . . Benjamin linked reinforced concrete to Art Nouveau, which he considered less modern.”

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