Thursday 13 January 2011

When concrete was a craft

A small workshop in the 11th arrondissement proudly displays the trade of the craftsmen originally based here. Through an elegant, swirling font and a carved mural above the entrance, these masons of reinforced concrete (béton armé) showed that they were a new breed of worker whose skills were comparable to the best carpenters or stone masons. In the modern world at the beginning of the 20th century, they were the ones that represented the future.

Concrete today has such bad press that it is difficult to imagine a time when artisans would boast about their prowess with the material. Swamped in concrete jungle cities where trees of towers are blamed for all of societies ills, few would dare
boast today of such a service.

As the architect Mies Van der Rohe noted however, “we must remember that everything depends on how we use a material, not on the material itself”. At the beginning of the 20th century, inspired by precursors such as Anatole de Baudot, the architect of the revolutionary Saint Jean de Montmartre church, everybody wanted to work with concrete. The forms and structures of buildings could now be adapted, opening up a future that would be limited only by the size of our imagination.

In the 1920s, concrete became synonymous with modernity and luxury, and when Mallet-Stevens or Le Corbusier were chosen by the elite to build their houses, this was the material the clients requested. The owners of the establishment photographed here would have been involved in such projects, and would have
been naturally keen to highlight their competence to work on such prestigious constructions.

So where did it all go wrong? Concrete is still used massively around the world, with more than one cubic metre produced each year for every person on Earth, but when did it lose its prestige? Paris contains many fantastic examples of concrete constructions, notably the structures designed by Auguste Perret in the 1930s (such as the Palais d’Iena or the Mobilier National), but the real damage to its reputation was done in the second half of the century.

Whereas concrete buildings were once divided into two schools, described by architecture historian Bernard Marrey as the ‘lyrisme de la courbe’ (lyricism of the curve) and ‘la poésie de l'angle droit’ (poetry of the right angle), today they are grouped together with a general sentiment of penny-pinching and poverty of thought. The ubiquity of the material and the lack of reflection on its suitability and sustainability has lead to concrete cancer and crumbling public infrastructure.

Would those who created this enterprise have imagined this future? This was to be a noble material, one that they had mastered and for which they had helped build a solid reputation. It is a shame that I cannot knock on their door and ask them to put us on the right path once more.


Baley Petersen said...

Lovely detail. Thank you for sharing.

Christine H. said...

Great post. The Mies van der Rohe quote really sums it up.

beau gosse said...

The script is the buttercream frosting decoration on a wedding cake. Thank you kindly for the wonderful photo and facinating details!

Theresa Cheek said...

I agree, concrete was treated as a high art form in its heyday. It stil reminds me of pargetting. This is a wonderful post.

PeterParis said...

The St.Jean de Montmartre is a remarkable example, I agree. There of course, the concrete is not so visible, covered by your beloved bricks! :-)
Isn’t the problem with concrete that it needs to be taken care of? Some of the Le Corbusier and Mallet-Steven buildings may have attractive lines, but the material, when it’s not newly refreshed, may be grey and dull?
Anyhow, I agree, everything is better than most of the buildings from the 50’s, 60’s,70’s…, buildings that we now would like to see destroyed. Of course fashion changes, but I doubt that most of these buildings ever will be in fashion again.

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