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Concrete is one of the most basic construction materials; it is widely used for any type of structure and characterised the majority of our built environment. For many, concrete is merely a composite material made of water, sand, rock or grave, but it is vital to know that this material has changed the way architects have designed building and the way our artificial environment is built. Almost no other construction material can be more contradictive, criticised and celebrated at the same time.
The first time the term concrete was used was in 1750 by Bernard Belidor as a description for a mortar, but the first time that it was used successfully for a large building was in 128 AD, with the construction of the Roman Pantheon in Rome that, to this day, is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome. Today, reinforced concrete is one of the most used materials and it is Germany’s most popular by far, with 100 million cubic metres used yearly. Neo futurist and hi-tech architects still show that the potential of this building material can still be subject to innovations and new applications.
However, what has deeply changed the world of architecture was the creation of reinforced concrete. Concrete consists of cement, water and aggregate with a hydraulic-setting bonding agent. Reinforced concrete is concrete with the use of steel. Steel has very high tensile strength and makes concrete structures to stay rigid and cover a wide area without the need for arching or support, even if the structure is voluminous.
Reinforced concrete showed its potential through Heinz Isler’s delicate shell constructions and Maillart’s bridges. Many architects have developed ways to work with this material; the Isler system to build reinforced concrete shell constructions is still used today and has been developed further by architects such as Renzo Piano.
What properly introduced reinforced concrete as a building material was Le Corbusier’s “Villa Savoy”. The modernist villa, made by the French architect between 1928 and 1931, featured reinforced concrete in order to embody the stylistic values of “Ornament is Crime” and introduce Le Corbusier’s “five points” of new architecture.
With reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier introduced the use of pilotis in the villa. Pilotis are reinforced concrete columns that withstand structural load and allows the building to elevate from the ground without the need for supporting walls. The use of this material also helped to allow the free design of the ground plan, as the absence of supporting walls was achieved with reinforced concrete. Furthermore, concrete facilitated the free design of the façade, without structural constraints, and introducing truth to material, that has since become an important aspect of modern architecture. The revolution that reinforced concrete brought upon the architecture world and its possible applications shown by Le Corbusier were essential for the development of the “Bauhaus” and Germany’s modernism.
Reinforced concrete has also been vital for the vertical development of buildings and it has therefore allowed for the making of iconic buildings and skylines. From New York to Dubai, thousands of tonnes of concrete have been used in order to create some of architecture’s wonders; the “Empire State Building” in New York has used 62 thousand cubic yards of reinforced concrete, whereas the “Burj Khalifa” in Dubai required 330 thousand of cubic metres of concrete.
Concrete has not only changed architecture, it has changed the world we live in and our built environment. Concrete allows for many design possibilities, and its potential is yet to be fulfilled.
Image credits: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/47443799.jpg