From the Pantheon to the Guggenheim Museum: why concrete is fantastic



This article featured in Issue Eight of Umbrella

For such an ancient material, concrete will forever be associated with the modernist architecture of the 20th Century. Unlike bricks and stone, concrete – that mix of sand, aggregate and water – could be formed into the futuristic shapes of architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, an old tool for a new age. 

From Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York to Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool at London Zoo, a new book, Concrete showcases the greatest buildings constructed in this most maligned of substances. Publishers Phaidon say:

“Arranged to promote comparison and discussion, the selected projects take the reader on a global tour of inspiring and intriguing structures: a German skatepark sits beside an Italian rooftop test track, a Japanese crematorium alongside a Portuguese swimming pool and a Brazilian government building next to a Chinese opera house.” 

While it has a reputation – certainly in Britain – for being the rust-stained canvas of a thousand ill-thought out tower blocks, used with imagination and in the right place, concrete can make impossible architectural dreams an elegant reality. Look at Brasilia’s National Congress Building or the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) in London proof. 

The book, though it pays tribute to the past, also shows the material being used to create fantastical structures in the new age, bent and shaped with computer programs by the likes of Zaha Hadid and Herzog & de Meuron. These are buildings full of light and space, that keep up the modernist tradition of progress, yet take on the painfully learned lessons of days gone by. 

Proof then, that like a century ago, the future really does belong to concrete.

Concrete is edited by William Hall and published by Phaidon, priced £29.95. Copies can be bought from

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