Last updated on 17.07.2020
Developed world of instant access and information technology, we are all more than aware of the wider global concerns around sustainability and Eco-friendliness. As these “Green” issues are now part of the everyday debate, it would be remiss not to look at the public’s perception of, and the poor reputation concrete has attracted over its relatively short life. It is this awareness, that needs to be the driving force behind the education and changing of sensitivities and attitudes towards the concrete.
Using science and mathematics, this dissertation will look at how the public perception of concrete as a cold, dull material may have little to do with concrete movements or architects but instead be attributed to something as simple as aesthetics. It will be important to define what decorative concrete is and then look at some of the enhancements and surface treatments. To look at decorative uses of the material in an aesthetic sense from the past two centuries will need examples of the different finishes available and also look at some of the artists who have engaged with concrete in the past as well as those engaging with concrete in their practices today.
According to Catherine Croft in “Concrete Architecture”, the word “concrete” has been used since at least the fifteenth century. Further research will show much older references and one in, particular, describes concrete in greater depth than any other known writing from antiquity. Engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote his “Ten Books of Architecture” in the first century B.C. These writings gave us a window into the technologies of our ancestors and clearly define the methods for laying a concrete floor. Author Morris Hickey Morgan translates the text to read”,
“First, I shall begin with the concrete flooring, which is the most important of the polished finishing’s, observing that great pains and the utmost precaution must be taken to ensure its durability. On this, lay the nucleus, consisting of pounded tile mixed with lime in the proportions of three parts to one, and forming a layer not less than six digits thick.”
Time and vocabulary may have moved on but still, depending on its intended use or application, (using the very same ratios of 3:1 as written by Vitruvius) if you add some varying sizes of small stones, (e.g. from the size of a 20c coin right down to the size of grains of sand) with some water and you add a binding agent called cement, then as simple as that you’ve just created a version of the world’s most commonly used building material. The mixture of stones and sand is called aggregate and the mixture of Portland cement and water is called a paste. The paste coats the aggregates when mixed together and through a chemical process called hydration, this paste hardens to bind everything together. This process is quite remarkable as the concrete is in what is called a “plastic” and malleable state when first mixed but shortly after it becomes rock solid. So solid in fact that concrete has often been referred to as “liquid stone.”
What may surprise you further, is that this glutenous looking mass of pungent slop can so easily be transformed into something aesthetically pleasing. Even after it solidifies (and solidifies it will), you will still have the option to transform it into a work of art if you choose to do so. The process and final application may be entirely at your discretion. With incredible compressive strength coupled with outstanding structural capabilities, durability, and versatility, it doesn’t take much to understand why, after water, concrete is the world’s most widely used construction material.
Be that as it may, the general public’s perception of concrete doesn’t allow any of its many attributes to dispel their collective judgment, that it has a negative image and is viewed by the majority as dull or boring. Given that so many people are oblivious as to how it’s actually made, it is no wonder that its technological advances are overshadowed and that its capabilities with the addition of admixtures have barely been recognized.
Dull, cold, grey, boring, dirty, uncompromising, light draining, unwieldy, are but a few of the terms used to describe concrete. Not a very welcoming image of any material and certainly one that wouldn’t instill any confidence in its ability to please the senses in any way. The disparaging assessments by an untrained public are quite understandable when taken in context but the pessimism had to start somewhere. To look at this deep-rooted trend requires examination of historical literature and perhaps one of the more recognized names in architecture. Of course, this is not to say that just one person is responsible for creating an entire mindset, but we look to history to learn and to understand. As stated by Carl Sagan, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”