Of all the materials that make the modern city possible, none is more despised than concrete. We tolerate it as long as it stays out of sight and out of mind – in the subway tunnels, beneath the streets. But buildings made of it are routinely described as cold, dehumanizing, prison-like; and the very idea of a single-family dwelling fashioned from concrete is, to most observers now, unthinkable.
Granted, most of the concrete we see in the course of a Toronto day is grey, massive, unlovely stuff. At least some of the widespread dislike for it, however, surely springs from a misunderstanding. When concrete expressways and desolate concrete residential towers and windswept malls rolled out in North American cities a half-century ago, after all, it was the design – the handiwork of architects and urban planners – and not the humble industrial substance that was deeply flawed. But concrete got a share of the blame anyway, once public and professional opinion about "urban renewal" and such swung from the indifference of the 1950s to the active hostility of the 1960s and beyond.
While concrete still has a bad popular reputation that hails from those old days, some perceptive architects, planners and scholars have recently been taking long second looks at things constructed from this commonest of all building materials, and finding much to appreciate, and even to admire.
An early piece of local evidence for this new openness was the publication, five years ago, of Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart's celebratory Concrete Toronto: a Guidebook to Concrete Architecture from the Fifties to the Seventies. This illustrated field manual, which features 52 projects in or near Hogtown, is a handy map of long-neglected cultural territory, hence a valuable contribution to Toronto's knowledge of itself and its modernist architectural heritage. The editors of Concrete Toronto set themselves the task of providing practical, informative guidance to lay folk new to the pursuit of local concrete architecture.
The second, more recent item of evidence for interest in concrete I'd like to mention is something considerably different. Concrete Ideas: Material To Shape A City (Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers, $55.27), which appeared earlier this month, aims to excite professionals and savvy amateurs about Toronto's built legacy from yesteryear, but also about advances in concrete technology and formal manipulation. As we learn from this handsomely produced, interesting book, concrete architecture has come a long way since the 1950s, when Toronto political boss Fred Gardiner threw down the huge frames that undergird the expressway that bears his name.
Assembled and partially written by Pina Petricone, a professor at the University of Toronto's architecture school and a practising architect, Concrete Ideas is a richly illustrated compendium by several hands. There are brief texts by scholars (including a foreword by former U of T dean George Baird and an afterword by Harvard University landscape architect Charles Waldheim) and practitioners (Graeme Stewart, Mark West and others), imaginative projects by students in Ms. Petricone's U of T studios, and notes on new concrete products. The book comes in a sturdy box with the look and heft of a chunk of concrete.
People (especially architects, but all gadget aficionados as well) who like to keep up with what's coming down the technological pipeline will find those product notes engaging. There is now concrete that bends, concrete that lights up and glows with words and images, concrete that can generate enough warmth to prevent ice build-up, super-strong concrete that can be sliced super-thin. There is ultra-lightweight concrete that can be worked with ordinary carpentry tools, and concrete that eats smog. Among the most beautiful substances depicted here is translucent concrete. While some citizens were reviling concrete and all its manifestations, we discover, scientists and technicians have been working through the night to re-invent this ancient building material and ready it for new artistic applications.
Ms. Petricone clearly means for her book to be a serious commentary on Toronto's older concrete architecture and a serious exploration of concrete's future possibilities. As Charles Waldheim suggests in his afterword, the work "is a timely and well-conceived generational rebuttal to the arguments against modernism and its aspiration to articulate public buildings in concrete. Concrete is a material, as is evident in this collection, of extraordinary range and invention. In the hands of a skilled architect, it transcends its mundane profile in favour of a supple and resilient expression."
But in making her plea, Ms. Petricone has avoided all solemnity and has generously shared with the reader the intellectual and sensuous delight that has accompanied her teaching and research. This publication is something that many people, until the quite recent past, would have thought impossible: a cheerful book about concrete.