Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Magic of Concrete

"Italy Sulmona view of the Roman aqueduct with the Del Vecchio fountain in the foreground"


In the fourth chapter of Robert Hughes' Rome, A Cultural Visual, and Personal History, my attention is drawn to the historic architectural breakthrough of concrete.

With concrete, the Romans could build aqueducts, arches, domes, and roads; it opened up means of rapid transport, storage, and defense that had not existed in earlier masonry cultures. Concrete built hundreds of bridges, which gave the Roman army swift access to the most remote parts of the Empire. The stuff of power and discipline--it was ugly and always would be--the brief mid-twentieth-century vogue for beaton brut, produced some of the most hideous, grime-attracting surfaces in all architecture, as a visit to London's Festival Hall will confirm. But it could be rendered with stucco or faced with thin sheets of stone, and it was very strong and cheap, allowing the the construction of very large structures.

Hughes, Robert. Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and 

     Personal History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
     2011. Print.

(Illustrative links added for blog; they were not selected by Hughes.)

It's hard to believe that something as ugly and "ordinary" as concrete could have such an effect upon history, but it certainly made its mark. In the prior post, for instance, I endeavored to focus upon the significance of the abundant fresh water in Rome, and this would have been impossible without the concrete aqueducts. It was, in effect, the bridge between thought and idea and reality: the malleable stuff of emperor's dreams.

     As a fellow who has to work in one of those concrete government buildings, I'm a little ambivalent about my topic of choice here. Still, it seems this was one of the materials or tools that really enabled Roman culture and genius to thrive. (As John D. Spalding observes in his essay "Spreading the Word," from Heldref Publications, the Roman system of roads also greatly facilitated the spreading of the Gospel.)

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