Concrete to Cosmetics
Eric Höweler

It is no coincidence that each reinforced concrete building site, with its mad clutter of shuttering, resembles Noah’s project: an inexplicably land-locked shipyard. What Noah needed was reinforced concrete. What Modern Architecture needs is a flood.
Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1978

Concrete buildings are an endangered species in Boston. The tide of public opinion has shifted away from concrete towards anything but. In the age of “Extreme Makeover,” concrete buildings are disappearing behind sleek new re-clad facades of glass and aluminum, and even brick.

Boston boasts some of the best examples of concrete architecture in the world: the Carpenter Center (Le Corbusier), Boston City Hall (Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles), Peabody Terrace (Sert Jackson), as well as some lesser known buildings like the Blue Cross / Blue Shield Building (Paul Rudolph) and the New England Aquarium (Cambridge Seven Architects). The concrete building is increasingly threatened by the shifting of public perceptions and the associations with the material itself. Concrete buildings are disappearing by demolition (Logan Airport Terminal A by Minoru Yamasaki) or by re-cladding (as has occurred with the TAC’s Children’s Hospital, and is happening with the Tufts Medical Center).

A re-clad retains the building’s structure, while sheathing it in a new skin. These “skin jobs” are the architectural equivalent of facelifts, masking the aging coarsely textured facades of concrete buildings behind the wrinkle-free surface of a glass and metal veneer: a nip and a tuck, some silicone sealant, a dose of Botox, and an Alucobond wrap.

Exposed concrete emphasizes the unadorned materiality of construction, and privileging of that constructional logic by modernist architects. Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, and Paul Rudolph celebrated the “honest” expression of concrete structures, and emphasized the indexical qualities of the formwork patterns on the concrete. Traces of the construction process are evident in the façade of the building. The directness of structure and expression is readily apparent.

In this exhibition, Michael Kallmann recalls his desire to imbue architecture and his Boston City Hall in particular with “an authenticity” that only concrete could provide. “When you build in concrete, what you see is what you get. The building is concrete. It is made in concrete. It is structured in concrete.” His use of concrete was in opposition to the flimsy, decorated architecture of the corporate practices of the time.

“(We were) standing against... what we considered the stream of decadently degenerate frippery and surface concerns.” The concrete building is monolithic, integral, and whole. In contrast, buildings made of components—steel frames and cladding structures—are prefabricated elsewhere and then erected and assembled on site. Component-based building requires jointing and consideration of how the units come together. The monolithic concrete building is site-specific—being formed, mixed, and placed, on the site.

Concrete produces an authentic, powerful, and unembellished architecture. The texture of concrete buildings reveals their age through the process of weathering, the slow erosion of their surface, and the staining with dirt or mineral deposits. Concrete buildings mark time through the slow evolution of their materials. Re-clad buildings do not reveal their age, seeking to arrest time by presenting a new face. Their sleek skins and polished surfaces are easier to clean and don’t weather. The re-clad, like the facelift, reflects a desire to maintain the appearance of perpetual youth.

The trend toward re-cladding concrete buildings signals a shift from concrete to cosmetic, from depth to surface, from textured to smooth, from the monolithic to the panelized. The tragedy of the re-clad is that these concrete buildings are being masked in the flimsy veneer architecture that they were originally fighting against. The permanent, the substantive, the authentic has been subsumed by the ageless architecture of surface—a condition that is sadly emblematic of contemporary culture.

Eric Höweler is a founding principal of Höweler + Yoon Architecture. He is currently a design critic in architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and has previously taught at MIT. He is the author of Skyscraper: Vertical Now (Rizzoli/Universe Publishers, 2004). Expanded Practice, a monograph of the work of Höweler + Yoon Architecture, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2009.