Now, many decades after the midcentury boom in concrete construction, we are beginning to understand just how this material ages – when it does so well, and when mismanagement and imprecision cause its accelerated and untimely demise.
While the 1950s – 1970s represented an age of significant technological development in the formal properties of concrete, these advances were not without their growing pains. Beyond the “Cosmic” concrete architecture of the Soviet Union, western countries had their own problems with revolutionary forms. The Montreal Olympic Stadium represented a large-scale experiment in early post-tensioning, with significant monetary consequences that carried into cut corners throughout the project. Structural maintenance and collapse have continued to plague the structure, with damage as recent as March 2012, when an 8 by 12 meter slab of concrete fell from the ceiling of an underground parking garage.
Numerous problems can plague these old structures: oxidation of steel reinforcing causes expansion leading to fracture; water permeating deep into the surface wrecks havoc as it freezes; unreacted calcium oxide reacts with silica aggregate, sometimes exerting substantial pressure on the surrounding structure.
That said, the post-apocalyptic appearance of decaying concrete is not without its aesthetic appeal. Nearby, in the St. Paul suburb of Rosemount, the remains of Gopher Ordnance Works stand as a monument to the frantic material mobilization of World War II. Much like the stone and brick buildings that planners of the 60’s and 70’s sought to destroy and replace with concrete high rises, concrete is now the significant but rather unloved part of our architectural history that needs allies in its preservation. The modern area of concrete speaks to a paradigm shift in the way we visualize the lived environment and the versatility and durability we demand in our industrial infrastructure. Much like plastic, concrete is an alienating drug of a material that we just can’t quit. But, like plastic, it has meaning and can shine in the hands of a skilled designer or architect. As Jean-Louis Cohen states in his essay, “Modern Architecture and the Saga of Concrete,”
“The ability of a technology, alternatively hyped and maligned, to represent change or stubborn stasis, historical continuity or brave innovation, sophisticated, scientifically grounded production or coarse handiwork remains astonishing. There is no such thing as a single, legitimate architecture of concrete…”