Monday 04 Jul 2011

From Mayan temples to buildings on their backs: Ferro-concrete structures

In a book called ‘Visions of Architecture’ (Bloomsbury A&C Black 2011 ISBN 978-1-4081-2881-7, £16-99) the author Stephen Lees examines various buildings and the fascinating facts that caused their creation due to what might be termed the ‘Construction Process’ involving seven disciplines: Architecture, Religion, Engineering, Arts, Psychology, Economics and Politics, the influences of which have eluded people even though they may be familiar with the structures. Stephen shares his findings with WAN readers in an exclusive seven-part series...

The development of ferro-concrete marked an important turning point in the development of building technology and design. Not since construction of the gigantic Cathedrals of the Middle Ages had there been such an profound acceptance of a new technology and it’s implication for construction. With the use of ferro-concrete technology an entire building could be cast with poured concrete as a single monolithic unit conferring an integral and formidable strength to the structure. Made all the stronger with internal steel re-enforcement bars to withstand great compressive and tensile loads spanning great distances creating uncluttered space in a structure, making them difficult to damage or destroy. Ferro-concrete opened the way for a wide range of imaginative designs from Joplin Railroad Station in Missouri to the Royal Liver Building, Liverpool or the Stocklet Palace, Brussels all built in 1911. It was used by Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius with the Bauhaus Movement in creating buildings of steel, glass and concrete to address space and light considerations.

A fascinating consequence emerged from the development of ferro-concrete as a versatile plastic material. The ability to form concrete quickly and cheaply into three-dimensional shapes made it the preferred choice of material for designers, as Frank Lloyd Wright, anxious to exploit it in creating new distinctive forms. In the early part of the Twentieth Century discoveries were made about the ancient Aztec-Mayan civilisation of Central America. What made these finds more fascinating were the elaborate Aztec-Mayan stepped ziggurat mortuary temples shaped as pyramids. These structures were adorned with symbolic artwork carved into the stonework by the ancient Aztec-Mayans as a method of impressing and decorating their religious buildings. Because of the adaptability and innovative opportunities afforded by Ferro-concrete, it was used at the Art Deco Pyramid in San Francisco and at Fort Knox in Kentucky. An imaginative use of the material can be seen above the door entrance at No. 27 Soho Square in London and on the largest structure on earth - the Art Deco designed Hoover Dam in Nevada

A remarkable ability of ferro-concrete was seen in the largest gas works in the world at Beckton, London. Comprised of such exotic structures as the Horizontal Retort Plant, Gas Dehydration Plant, Triple Pavilion Building, Carburetted Water Gas Plant, and the elegant Intermediary Building, were all heavily bombed during WWII, though not quite to oblivion. This is because Ferro-concrete structures are capable of sustaining major damage whilst remaining intact. In those huge structures was created a profound Surrealism in their damaged appearance that gave them a gaunt minatory look making them a preferred location for film directors. Some buildings have been undermined but because of their integral strength had quite literally rolled over on to their backs intact with their foundation columns pointing to the sky!

Stephen Lees
Visions of Architecture

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