Le Corbusier

CONCRETE HEROES: SAVING THE MONUMENTS OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE

A review of:

CONCRETE: CASE STUDIES IN CONSERVATION PRACTICE

Edited by Catherine Croft and Susan Macdonald with Gail Ostergren
Conserving Modern Heritage series of the The Getty Conservation Institute
www.getty.edu/publications

These images, from “Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice,” are from the chapter about concrete restoration at Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille.

Buildings are like human bodies: over time, things happen to them—generally not good things….Even when Modern architects had the best intentions, and relied on what they thought was forward-looking and scientifically derived construction methods, the “bodies” of Modern buildings are showing their age. Some repairs are easier than others: one can re-plaster or re-apply stucco without too much trouble. But some are head-scratchers, as when, during renovation, one finds that the original architect used a product that is no longer available. That happened when renovating a famous mid-century Modern house: a plastic corrugated panel (of a type popular in that era) was not made any more—leading to an expensive custom order. But among all the materials that present themselves for repair, concrete—especially exposed concrete as used in some of Modernism’s most iconic works—is among the most difficult to work with.

We’re all familiar with classic views of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation at Marseille—truly an icon of Modern architecture—but what of the reality when moisture has seeped below the surface and corroded the reinforcing, and parts of the surface have flaked off? Can it be repaired? [And by “repair”, we don’t just mean excising and replacing broken or decayed areas, but rather making the repair blend-in as much as possible, so that it does not look like a carelessly done patch. ]

Moreover, concrete buildings have their own special issues. When moisture reaches reinforcing, it not only leads to spalling (as the rusting steel expands), but also possibly undermines the structure itself—with serious consequences for the building’s integrity. Dirt from the atmosphere and streaks from flowing water adhere to concrete’s subtly fissured surfaces… Well, there’s no need to go on, as the indictments against aging concrete are already part of the pro-and-anti Modern architecture discourse—and particularly when discussing works that have been characterized as “Brutalist” [A term, by-the-way, which we dispute—but that’s another discussion.] Since a significant portion of Paul Rudolph’s oeuvre used exposed concrete—beautifully and artistically, we contend—we are naturally concerned about repair issues and techniques.

“Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice” is a fascinating new book that offers hope and tangibly useful information on the repair of concrete architecture. They do it via case studies—and oh what “cases” they show: some of the most famous buildings of the Modern era!

Among their 14 case studies are:

  • Unité d’habitation by Le Corbusier

  • Brion Cemetery by Carlo Scarpa

  • New York Hall of Science by Harrison and Abramovitz

  • Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Yale, by Eero Saarinen

  • Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pampulha by Oscar Niemeyer

  • “Untitled,” an artwork by Donald Judd

Each had its own problems, and the many authors (34 contributors in all) show the unique issues of the buildings, the solutions proposed and executed—and, finally, the superb, fresh results of their ministrations.

Did we say that the book is beautiful? One doesn’t usually expect technically-oriented studies to be visually attractive but this volume shows it can be done. The writers and editors (with Getty’s book designer for this project, Jeffrey Cohen) have assembled a wealth of good photographs (many in color), intriguing drawings (some vintage, and may newly created), and vivid diagrams—and put them together in a way that is inviting. Each case/chapter’s text clearly describes the various teams’ approaches to their building, their careful investigations, their considerations in choosing which techniques were to be used, and the consequences. Yet, while fully informative, the amount of detail is not overloaded, and can be readily digested by the interested reader. We wish more architecture/construction-science books were so appealingly and richly communicative.

There is nothing as convincing as “before and after.” This book shows a multiplicity of projects—differing in their problems, sizes, scales, locations, and building types. It makes abundantly clear that, however grim and despair-inducing concrete repair problems can be, there are effective, creative, rigorous techniques for resolving them. Bravo to the authors and editors of this fine book—and to the Getty Conservation Institute for bringing it forth. We look forward to future volumes in their Conserving Modern Heritage series.