10 Striking Buildings to Make You Fall in Love with Concrete

The Dhaka National Assembly, a concrete icon in Bangladesh 2 (Image: Forgemind ArchiMedia)

Of all the world’s building materials, few get a worse rap than concrete. For many, the mere word conjures images of ugly postwar tower blocks blighting the landscape, or soulless elevated motorways spiraling to nowhere. And that’s before we even mention Brutalism.

Yet it would be a mistake to think all concrete buildings look like post-World War Two eyesores. In the past and in the present, a handful of architects have used this often unloved material to create structures that are awe-inspiring, powerful… and even beautiful. Here are 10 impressive examples.

The Einstein Tower (Germany)

The Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany (Image: Astrophysikalisches Institut Potsdam)

Just outside Potsdam in Germany sits one of the prettiest little science structures ever built. The Einstein Tower was designed in the immediate aftermath of World War One as a place where Germany’s great mathematicians could further develop Einstein’s groundbreaking ideas. The brainchild of Erich Mendelsohn, its weird shape was dictated as much by practical considerations – including letting maximum light in – as it was by artistic expression.

Today, the Einstein Tower is a protected German monument. It’s easy to see why. Even without its historic pedigree, this strange, swirling mix of brick and poured concrete would be worth maintaining. This weird and wonderful sentinel rises from the Brandenburg landscape, keeping watch over the surrounding science park. A keeper of knowledge in a world slowly giving in to unforgivable ignorance.

Notre Dame du Haut (France)

Concrete splendour at Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France (Image: Rory Hyde)

Le Corbusier was a father of modernism, the guy who first decided a house should be a “machine for living”. He was also a big fan of concrete, and many of his constructions are exactly the sort of buildings that would make a concrete-hater weep. But just occasionally, he pulled out all the stops and produced a masterpiece anyone could enjoy. Notre Dame du Haut was one such masterpiece.

Built in 1955 on top of an ancient site of pagan and Christian worship, the chapel was pretty much unlike anything else Le Corbusier ever created. A curving, organic structure painted a brilliant white and capped with a waving roof of untreated, brutalist-style concrete, it looks almost like a living being. Seen on a clear day, beneath a deep blue sky (such as the one in the photo above), it can appear almost magical. Like a giant seashell, washed ashore on some sunny beach, just waiting to be discovered.

Second Goetheanum (Switzerland)

Modernist concrete magnificence inside the Second Goetheanum in Switzerland (Image: Taxiarchos228)

The work of Rudolph Steiner, the Second Goetheanum is a surreal, almost fairy tale building. The outside curves, juts and grows, like some form of strange organism, staring down at the town below. The inside is a world of constantly angling, multi-colored surfaces, like an alien sea in a storm. It feels grand and magical all at once, a place for pious reflection, or simply a place to wander around and gape at.

Built in 1928, this oddball building came into existence after the First Goetheanum burned to the ground in 1922. Entirely made of cast concrete, it was intended to express an affinity with the environment around it. We’ll let you be the judges of whether that worked or not. To us, the Second Goetheanum looks less like something natural in an earthly sense, and more like something wonderfully alien. A building you might find on a remote planet, its lights twinkling beneath an impossibly remote, setting sun.

The Lotus Temple (India)

The Lotus Temple in New Delhi (Image: Arian Zwegers)

In the midst of the whirl of human energy that is New Delhi sits a strangely peaceful building. The lotus Temple is a colossal, flower-like place of worship. An impossible collection of pure white petals, unfolding over the streets of India’s capital. An important monument of the Baha’i faith, it is now one of the most-visited buildings in the world.

Constructed in 1986, the Temple uses the same basic ideas as Sydney Opera House. But where that building’s tiled concrete sails were arrange to sweep up and back, like the crests of a wave, here they all turn towards a central point. For those inside, looking up is similar to staring into the depths of a choppy sea, with peaks and troughs and crests it’s hard to believe are made from concrete. Outside is even-more dramatic. Up close, you can see the Lotus Temple is surrounded by a pool. The result is a remarkable building that seems to float on water, an almost impossible work of art. Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie once called it the “work of God.”

Habitat 67 (Canada)

The concrete wonder of Habitat 67 (Image: Christine Jackowski)

Habitat 67 is what life could look like if we all lived inside a ’70s Sci-Fi film. Built from heavy-duty concrete by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie when he was still a student, it was meant to showcase Canada’s design prowess to visitors to the 1967 World’s Fair. In the event, it blossomed out into something much bigger… an attempt to create a Utopian community that would serve as a model for the future.

Everything about the building screams ‘retro futurism’. Each apartment consists of either one or three concrete boxes, suspended in space and often free from its neighbors. The walls are incredibly thick, so thick that you can turn your speakers up to brain-melting volume and still not bother the guy next door. Today owned by its tenants – one of whom is Safdie himself – the amazing structure is like a relic from the past. A time when concrete was alive with space age possibilities.

Pilgrimage Church (Germany)

The Brutalist concrete Pilgrimage Church in Neviges, Germany (Image: seier+seier)

Even a movement as maligned as Brutalism is capable of producing some universally-loved works. The Pilgrimage Church in Neviges is one such work. Designed by Gottfried Böhm, it is unashamedly a piece wrought from concrete. There’s nothing to disguise it, no paint, no paneling, no marble tiles. But rather than look like a tower block or 1970s library, the Pilgrimage Church looks like a mountain range, its jagged peaks soaring majestically into the sky.

Inside, the feeling is like stepping into a Bond villain’s lair. Shadows swirl. Shafts of light illuminate gloomy corners shaped at impossible angles. It could be the witch’s house from a Brutalist fairy tale, or perhaps the modern equivalent of those spooky old cathedrals found across the continent. Undeniably dramatic, Böhm’s weird, spooky hymn to the theological uses of concrete is perhaps as beautiful as it is brutal.

Fiat Tagliero Building (Eritrea)

The amazing concrete Tagliero Building in Asmara, Eritrea (Image: David Stanley)

A futurist masterpiece with Art Deco trappings, the Fiat Tagliero building in Asmara, Eritrea, is a peculiar colonial hangover. Once part of Italy’s African colonies, the town was invaded by architects after Mussolini declared it a blank slate where a new Rome should be built. Rather than classical, this Rome would be ultra-modern. It would be a world of cutting-edge designs, shapes that mimicked speed… and concrete. Lots of concrete.

At the heart of this reconstruction sat the Fiat Tagliero Building. Despite his commission being a simple service station, architect Giuseppe Pettazzi, was determined to make something that had never been seen before. He achieved this with the building’s incredible wings. Made of solid concrete and measuring a staggering 98 ft each, they are unsupported except for at their base. Legend has it the builders insisted on putting wooden support poles at the wings’ edges. At the opening ceremony, Pettazzi forced them at gunpoint to remove the poles. The building’s heavy wings stayed up, seeming to float in the air.

Palais Ideal (France)

Awe-inspiringly decorative concrete at the Palais Ideal in France (Image: Ankopedia)

Outside Hauterives in France sits what may be one of the weirdest building ever constructed. A four-sided castle decorated with a haphazard mishmash of shapes, motifs, figures and ideas, it looks like something that’s materialized straight from a dream. In fact, it has. The architect,  Ferdinand Cheval, was inspired by a dream he had in 1864 in which he built a gigantic rock palace.

We use the term ‘architect’ in its loosest sense. Cheval was a postman with no formal education and hardly any money. Nonetheless, he decided to dedicate 34 years of his life to single-handedly building this impossible castle.

Throughout its entire construction, Cheval only used three materials: concrete, lime, and wire. While not a purely concrete structure, the Palais Ideal is still a mind-blowing look at what this much-maligned material can achieve, given a dash of genius and a hint of madness.

Dhaka National Assembly (Bangladesh)

The Dhaka National Assembly, a concrete icon in Bangladesh (Image: Forgemind ArchiMedia)

The Dhaka National Assembly in Bangladesh is like something from a hardnosed dystopia. A collection of Brutalist blocks with geometric shapes carved into them that dominate the skyline, it’s a solid, strange, and imposing structure. It’s also oddly awe-inspiring. Seeming to rise from the vast lake beside it, the Dhaka National Assembly looks like the hall of justice in some future regime. A place of raw power, powerfully executed.

Designed by Louis Khan, the building took almost 20 years to complete. Originally meant to be a vast monument to government, it was transformed into a symbol of peace and democracy when Bangladesh abruptly split from Pakistan in a war that left around three million dead. Today, Khan’s concrete masterwork is more likely to evoke nostalgia for the dream of Bangladeshi independence, a dream that has over the years fallen victim to violence.

Ryugyong Hotel (North Korea)

The unfinished Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea (Image: Roman Harak)

It’s a hotel with no guests. A megastructure soaring above the Pyongyang skyline, the Ryugyong Hotel could once lay claim to being the tallest hotel in the world. Except it couldn’t. Despite leaping up into the North Korean sky between 1987 and 1992, construction of the Ryugyong Hotel then ground to a halt. North Korea’s economy collapsed. The hotel was abandoned. Nearly 25 years later, it’s still there, and it’s still empty.

Looking like a rocket ship about to blast off into the stratosphere, the Ryugyong has become an albatross around North Korea’s neck. A humiliating reminder of the secretive regime’s cartoonish yet chilling ineptness. Yet it is far from being worthless. Like the grandest dictator follies, it evokes a futuristic world that never came to be. A science fiction dream that will never come true. Just as many on this list show the intriguing possibilities of concrete, the Ryugyong Hotel, though undeniably commanding, shows the material’s massive potential for hubris too.

Related: 10 Incredible Modern Buildings that Became UNESCO World Heritage Sites

 
 


 
 
 

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