In the movie "The Third Man" ; Orson Wells plays the devilish character of Harry Lime. Harry delivers one of those classic lines where he says "Italy for 30 years had war, terror and murder under the Borgias but in that time produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance; Switzerland had 500 years of peace and democracy -and produce the cuckoo clock."
That quote has me thinking of the cruelty and decadence of the Roman Empire. One of the more showy structures of those times was the Coliseum in Rome, thought in every major city in the empire was a similar but small copy of the original. The games in the Colosseum were spectacles of terror and murder and yet the building itself is a marvelous example of design and engineering.
The Colosseum could seat over 50,000 people but it could be emptied safely in as little as twenty minutes. Under the arena were trap doors so Gladiators and wild animals could make a dramatic entrance or their dead bodies de discreetly removed. The arena could be flooded and small manned ships could be used for mock sea battles. The Coloseum was one of the last Roman building this large to be built solely out of stone. They used a soft limestone that was very similar to concrete.
The Romans became the masters of concrete. Buildings after the Colosseum were made with poured concrete with a veneer of marble or other decorative stone added on. It was the beginning of a building boom as the imperial city of Rome became the home of over a million people. I just wonder was concrete a product born from the depravity of emperors like Caligula or the boredom of the Pax Romana.
The Romans had a formula for concrete that harden under water. They found mixing horse hair in the concrete kept it from cracking and using animal blood instead of water made a finished product that stood up to frost.
It wasn't until the mid 1800's with the use of steel reinforcing bars (rebar) that concrete enters a whole new world of architectural use. Today concrete is so ubiquitous it's difficult to think of the modern world without it but we hardly every think of it either. And when we do think of it, it's rarely flattering.
The plain homeliness of the material was been worked into an architectural school of aesthetics known as Brutalism. It could be best described as the idea of making something so ugly that it becomes beautiful. It's sort of like the idea behind camp, where a movie or play is so bad it actually becomes entertaining. What works for entertainment didn't work for architecture. Brutalism never really caught on and the few buildings that were constructed in that style got torn down at first opportunity.
The city had turned the church's request for a demolition permit in 2008. The church filed a lawsuit to finally get permission to demolish the church in 2009. The details of the court case were interesting because it pitted the desire for Historic Preservation against both property and religious rights.
As much as I support historic preservation, I have to admit it's not only an ugly building but not everything can be saved. Any community needs hold on its past but it also needs permission to move forward and create new history as well.
Concrete gets no respect, it is seen as that cold gray material synonymous with all that is wrong with urban development. It doesn't have to be that way. One beloved concrete building is the Henry Mercer mansion, also known as Fonthill in Doylestown PA. Finished in 1910 the whimsical 44 room home is now a museum filled with the oddest and most eclectic collection of handcrafted "stuff". It difficult to describe but well worth visiting in a very community centric town.
As the world population grows towards 9 billion and the majority of those people will live in cities, concrete will be even more important to construct all the new infrastructure that another 2 billion people will need in the next 50 years.
Concrete as a building material is changing to fit the times. There are now trans-lucent concretes that let light pass through. Some mixes can be made so thin because they are strong and flexible instead of brittle. For demonstration purposes engineering students have built canoes out of the stuff.
Part of the idea of living well is being creative with the materials you have on hand. If your focus is solely on short term profits then asphalt still works just fine. Very soon the calculus of future development will change because the idea of long term viability will start to have an obvious economic advantage.