Concrete History & Structures Around the World
Concrete. We use it every day and don’t think twice about it. However, whether we recognize it or not, concrete has shaped our modern world. It is the most widely used construction material globally, with applications ranging from buildings and bridges to dams and highways.
Exploring the history of concrete helps us grasp the evolution of construction techniques and the development of modern architectural styles. By understanding the past, we gain a deeper appreciation for the technologies and materials we employ in contemporary construction.
Ancient Egyptians used gypsum and lime to create mortar when they built the Great Pyramid in Giza. Yes, concrete and mortar are not the same, but we still have to recognize the Egyptians here. The Great Pyramid used 500,000 tons of mortar to create casting stones to form the structure’s surface.
And although most of the blocks in the Pyramids were carved from stone, some experts believe that some of the blocks were cast in a concrete like fashion, especially in areas that would be hard to position pre carved stones.
4th Century BC
The Nabataea, an ancient civilization that thrived in the Arabian Peninsula from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD, were pioneers in the use of concrete. The Nabataeans mixed water, lime, and locally available volcanic ash to create a durable and versatile material. Their ingenious use of concrete revolutionized construction techniques of their time, enabling the creation of intricate architectural marvels.
The Nabataea also etched designs into concrete. This early technique shows us that people have been using decorative concrete for thousands of years!
118 to 125 A.D.
The Pantheon’s enduring presence for over two thousand years stands as a testament to the remarkable durability and longevity of ancient concrete. The techniques and knowledge derived from the Pantheon’s construction have greatly influenced modern concrete practices, inspiring engineers and architects to push the boundaries of concrete technology, creating structures that are both aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound.
Many examples of Roman architecture are still standing, due to their ingenious hydraulic concrete, often combined with pozzolanic ash that helped prevent cracks from spreading. Sometimes the architects also used lime clasts, which gave the concrete self healing abilities.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the world suffered a loss of the advanced engineering knowledge and techniques that were prevalent during the Roman era. Unfortunately, the Romans’ expertise in concrete production and construction techniques was not effectively transferred or preserved.
Because of this, people stopped utilizing concrete until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century. During that time, John Smeaton created the first modern concrete by mixing hydraulic lime with crushed bricks and pebbles. Smeaton built the Eddystone Lighthouse in 1759. Because of the hydraulic lime, the mortar and concrete could set even in the wet coastal conditions. This mixture was the predecessor of today’s Portland cement.
72 rue Charles
Although it may not appear significant at first glance, this 1853 house created by François Coignet is the first iron reinforced concrete structure in history. Up until this point, concrete wasn’t used to its full potential. Without reinforcements, the material was prone to cracking and was structurally flawed.
La Sagrada Familia
Concrete plays a significant role in the construction of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, an architectural masterpiece located in Barcelona, Spain. Designed by renowned architect Antoni Gaudí, the basilica showcases his innovative and unconventional approach to concrete construction. Gaudí envisioned the use of concrete as a versatile material that could be shaped and molded to bring his artistic vision to life.
Nearly all the elements in the Sagrada Familia are created from concrete, including reinforced concrete, mass concrete, and prefabricated concrete. The unique designs and organic forms of the church demanded a flexible and expressive medium, and concrete provided the perfect solution.
Perhaps the most iconic concrete engineering marvel is the Hoover Dam. Engineers faced numerous challenges, including extreme heat and the need for a concrete mix that could withstand the forces of the Colorado River. They developed a specialized mix using local aggregates and cooled water to mitigate the effects of the scorching desert temperatures. The result was a high-quality, dense concrete with excellent structural integrity.
Sydney Opera House
Located in Australia, the Sydney Opera House is heralded as one of the most significant structures of the 20th Century. The uniquely designed “shells” are composed of precast concrete panels and ribs. These shells also rest on 588 concrete piers sunk up to 82 feet below sea level.
The Sydney Opera house was also one of the first structures to use computer aided design (CAD) to create complicated concrete shapes, paving the way for future concrete buildings.