Concrete as a Building Material The Material of Modernity

Garrison church in Ulm
Garrison church in Ulm | © Heinz Stadelmann

Without concrete modern architecture would be unthinkable. No other building material offers so many technical and design possibilities, thanks to its mouldable properties.

Scarcely any other construction material is so bound up with modern architectural language than concrete. As Beton, concrete, betón, coarse mortar or mortier, fine mortar, this mixed building material of cement, sand or gravel – depending on the desired consistency and processing – was first used extensively between 1906 and 1910 in the construction of Theodor Fischer’s Garrison Church in Ulm. Theodor Fischer, who is one of the most prominent urban developers of the 20th century, was in equal measure as an architect and as a technical innovator amd role model for many “New Construction” pioneers.

Plastically dynamic concrete architecture

Einsteinturm in Potsdam, Erich Mendelsohn Einsteinturm in Potsdam, Erich Mendelsohn | Photo: AIP The Einstein Tower, completed in Potsdam in 1921 by Erich Mendelsohn, marks the step towards a plastic, dynamic conception of concrete architecture with which the technical and construction-related idea was elevated to an aesthetic concept. But decades were to pass before concrete, as an inexpensive construction material that can be prepared at the building site or in a factory, could be widely used both in industry and in residential construction.

With “Anarcho-Power against the makers of ‘concrete coffins’”

Socalled Bierpinsel Berlin Socalled Bierpinsel Berlin | Photo: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, Bild: Kim. Modell: Horst Mandel 1977 Buildings like the Bierpinsel, erected in 1976 in West Berlin by Ralf Schüler and Ursulina Schüler-Witte, or the filigree, organically mobile shell-structure concrete constructions by Ulrich Müther in Warnemünde or by Baabe on the island of Rügen are concrete buildings that stand for the joy in experimentation, lightness, and also for the sculpturally monolithic vigour of the architecture of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Nonetheless, criticism of the inhospitableness of the cities turned concrete architecture into a socially fiercely disputed bogeyman associated with precisely the investor-friendly city planning policies that many in the early 80’s wished to do away with once and for all. “Anarcho-Power gegen Betonsargbauer” (i.e. with anarcho-power against the makers of concrete coffins) or “Mit Beton billig bauen und die ganze Stadt versauen” (i.e. build with concrete and make a mess of the entire city) are a couple of the provocative slogans of the squatters’ and takeover scenes that were to be read on building walls in all German cities to protest the destruction of vibrant neighbourhoods. For years, concrete was decidedly unpopular as a building material.

A monumental space with 2711 concrete stelae

Holocaust Memorial Berlin Holocaust Memorial Berlin | Photo: Marko Priske Inaugurated in 2005, Peter Eisenmann’s central Holocaust monument to Europe’s murdered Jews, is strikingly located in the heart of Berlin and thereby engraved into Germany’s political identity. The extensive monument space with 2711 stelae of dark concrete and 41 trees on 19,073m² fills a gap in collective memory of the up to six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust through National Socialist terror. Criticism of Eisenmann’s choice of material abated quickly. Instead, the monument’s abstract interpretative surface, which this building material opened up for a wide range of meanings, gained widespread recognition.

Concrete with archaic creative power

Bruder-Klaus-Kapelle in Wachendorf, Peter Zumthor Bruder-Klaus-Kapelle in Wachendorf, Peter Zumthor | Photo: Anja Schlamann That bridges into the past and the future of building can be built with an architecture of concrete is shown by Peter Zumthor, who, with the construction of the Bruder Klaus Kapelle (a field chapel dedicated to St. Nikolaus of Flüe) in Wachendorf in 2006, elevates concrete as material into the context of archaic creative power and collaboration among human beings, nature and landscape. With this twelve metre high, monolithic tower of compressed concrete the revitalisation of an historic processing method was initiated, with which construction based on the earth and colours of the region can be both sustainably and aesthetically implemented.

Conserving energy with concrete

Apartment house in Groß Munzel, Holger Meyer Apartment house in Groß Munzel, Holger Meyer | Photo: Christian Richters Today considerations revolving around climate protection and sustainability are motivating engineers, architects and the concrete industry to new, constructive experimentation and solutions. The material finds application as in-situ concrete (mixed and applied fresh at the construction site) coloured with pigments, as exposed and lightweight concrete, as roller compacted concrete for flooring, and as polished concrete for facades and as ultra-high strength concrete, manufactured using a novel production method. The properties specific to concrete as a material also lend themselves to targeted use in conserving energy.

Today, concrete is also finding increased use in households as a resource-saving material. In Groß Munzel in Lower Saxony, architect Holger Meyer has realised a one-family house which achieves the consumption level of a passive house thanks to its construction. The cubic building combines living and working under one flat roof. Large-format, anthracite-coloured exposed-concrete elements that were specially produced for this object are hung in front of the supporting structure of serial elements. The entire exterior wall construction is 50cm and is equipped with high-efficiency insulation. The architect calibrated the construction technology with the high heat storage capacity of the massive building components, so that a U value (thermal transmission) of less than 0.15 W/m²K is achieved, corresponding to a passive house standard.

Apartment house in Groß Munzel, Holger Meyer Apartment house in Groß Munzel, Holger Meyer | Photo: Christian Richters Meyer also makes use of exposed concrete with tactile surfaces - sometimes left unchanged, polished and waxed or painted in white - as a binding material and aesthetic principle in interior design as well. The rooms are open, airy and spacious. The simple materiality of the building is timeless in its beauty, self-explanatory and simple, self-assured and sustainable, a statement for a new understanding of concrete that will advance its acceptance.