Dal-Tile Tropical Brown Granite is used for the countertop slab and backsplash. The trim on the backsplash is made of sand-tumbled stone chair rail and Ravello fashion accents. Image used with permission of Dal-Tile Distribution, Inc.
Evidence of naturally occurring cement, a mixture of limestone and oil shale, has been found in ancient Israel. Although Serbians made cement that was used for floors in 5600 b.c.e., most ancient cultures used cement as a binding agent. Egyptians used it to bind the rocks used to construct the pyramids. The Chinese used cementitious products on the Great Wall. Mayan roof structures were built with crossed wood beams, filled in with sticks, and covered with lime cement. The beams were removed when the cement hardened. The Romans used a type of cement referred to as Pozzolana Cement for roads and buildings. Made from volcanic ash and sand found in the Bay of Naples, Pozzolana Cement had a pinkish color. Roman structures were built with a stiff mixture of cement and a small amount of water that was tightly packed into the space between two wythes of brick. Aggregate was pounded into the cement by hand as the wall was built up in layers. This material was very strong, but it was not reinforced. However, bronze bars were used as reinforcement for the dome of the Pantheon in Rome in 125 c.e. The differing expansion rates of bronze and concrete resulted in spalling, and reinforced concrete was not used again until the nineteenth century. In fact, concrete was not used for several centuries.
Modern concrete is a result of the development of Portland Cement and the practice of reinforcing concrete with steel. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, inventors experimented with various forms of hydraulic cement. In 1756, John Smeaton, a British engineer, used hydraulic lime with pebbles and powdered brick as aggregate. In 1824, a British stonemason, Joseph Aspdin, heated finely ground limestone and clay on his kitchen stove, and then ground it into a powder. This became known as Portland Cement because of its similarity in color to stone found on the British coastal island, Isle of Portland. Portland Cement has become the dominant cementing agent in concrete production today.
In 1849, Joseph Monier, a Parisian gardener, began making garden tubs of concrete reinforced with iron mesh. He received his patent in time for the 1867 Paris Exhibition, where reinforced concrete products including railway ties, pipes, floors, arches, and bridges were exhibited. At about the same time, Jean-Louis Lambot was reinforcing small concrete boats with iron bars and wire mesh. Credit for the first reinforced concrete building is given to William B. Wilkinson, a plasterer from Newcastle, England, who built several two-story servants’ cottages of concrete reinforced with iron bars and wire rope with the goal of building fireproof dwellings. In the United States, the first significant building of reinforced concrete was the 1875 William Ward home, designed to resemble masonry and to reassure Mr. Ward’s wife, who was afraid of fire. The Ward house is still standing today.
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Early skyscrapers were able to take advantage of the new technology of using reinforced concrete. The first was the 1904 Ingalls building in Cincinnati, Ohio, at 16 stories tall. In 1919, Mies Van der Rohe wrote of the idea of building high-rise buildings with a concrete core and cantilevered floors. Frank Lloyd Wright applied the cantilever concept when he designed Falling Water for the Kaufman family in 1936, and implemented Van der Rohe’s core and cantilever ideas when designing the Johnson Wax Tower in 1947. Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City Towers in Chicago sparked the development of the concrete skyscraper. Chicago architects used concrete for its high strength, constructing tall buildings made of concrete throughout the late twentieth century.
Early twentieth-century architects were intrigued by the possibilities allowed by the plasticity of concrete, such as the ability to design fluid structures or to develop thin shell structures. Several significant structures were designed to take advantage of the sculptural properties of concrete. Early to mid-twentieth-century architects who used concrete as a sculptural element included August Perret, designing buildings in and around Paris. Le Corbusier was a master of using concrete in expressive ways, exemplified by the slab construction of Villa Savoye and Notre Dame de Haut (Ronchamp Cathedral). Frank Lloyd Wright’s last work, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, is an expression of the fluidity of concrete. Thin shell concrete structures such as Eduardo Torroja’s Madrid Hippodrome of 1935 and Pier Luigi Nervi’s Sports Palace in Rome of 1960 were often designed by engineers. Architect Felix Candela developed thin-shell parabolic structures in Mexico City in the 1950s and 1960s. Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York is another example of the sculptural use of concrete.
Before concrete was accepted as a material with its own aesthetic value, it was often formed to imitate other materials, such as stone. Concrete blocks used in late nineteenth-century homes were rusticated to look like stone. Frank Lloyd Wright also explored the decorative possibilities of concrete block, designing four houses in southern California in the 1920s that used custom-designed textile blocks.
Beton Brut refers to concrete that is left exposed, with the textures created by patterns of formwork and the design of form tie locations as decorative elements. In the 1960s and 1970s, this style became known at Brutalism. Examples include Boston City Hall and the Sydney Opera House. Many Brutalist buildings have interiors with exposed concrete walls.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, an appreciation of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century industrial buildings and the prevalence of the “loft” aesthetic resulted in the celebration of the structure of a building by exposing it. In renovated older buildings as well as in new construction, concrete beams, columns, and ceilings are often exposed. Concrete floors, once a surface to be covered, are now considered an appropriate finished surface and may be polished, sealed, stained, or colored. Concrete furniture, tubs, sinks, and countertops are designed for interiors that embrace the inherent aesthetic value of the material.
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