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Making the Case for Vitruvian Concrete

Durability, Convenience, and Beauty

The oldest surviving written work dedicated to the discipline of architecture dates back to the first century B.C. The author of this work, a Roman engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, wrote The Ten Books on Architecture with the notion that his text could serve the Roman Empire as a guide for manifesting public order through Rome’s built environment. A fundamental principle that Vitruvius lays forth in his text is that if a building is to be considered architecture there must be three specific components present. These three components, known by every present-day architect as the Vitruvian Triad, are Durability, Convenience, and Beauty. In terms of present-day building materials, none embody the Vitruvian Triad better than polished concrete.
A testament to this occurred in the fall of 2006 when two craftsmen visited the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to polish a small section of concrete floor. The section of floor they had been directed to polish was a portion of slab located where the college’s machine shop had been for the previous twenty-five years. Areas of the floor were saturated with oil residue that showed where metal lathes and milling machines had stood for a quarter century. There were patches present; anchors that had held large machinery had been jack hammered out of the floor. In addition to the stains and patches, the levelness of the slab was such that with the naked eye a near ripple-like surface was present. 
As the polishers proceeded with the floor over the course of a morning, students and faculty began to gather and observe the results. To witness what followed the completion of the polishing process was a telling and critical observation of the power of polished concrete. Architecture faculty, design students, and staff of the college, stopped in awe at the transformed slab. As one might find typical in a school of architecture and design, a crowd gathered around the perimeter of the newly polished floor and conversations began, observations were voiced, and questions were put forth to the polishers. There were three remarkable and somewhat unexpected things about the post-polish presentation. The first thing: not a single person had felt comfortable enough to step foot onto the polished section of concrete and observe it more closely; it seemed as though each person was waiting for someone else to be the first. In fact, it came to the point that a faculty member felt compelled to tell the group of observers that it was ‘ok’ to walk on. The second thing: out of approximately sixty-five people present, no one had seen a polished concrete floor in person. Still more remarkable is that the first time several of them had even seen an image, or heard of polished concrete, was by a visiting architect from Switzerland who had recently used the process. (This architect by the way thought enough of the material to take the time to mention it in a formal lecture.) The third remarkable thing to observe was the number of times one could overhear comments regarding how the floor had been ‘transformed’.  
This last observation is in some ways an obvious one, but in other ways it reflects a critical actuality of how polished concrete is thought of by people who are new to the process. Simply stated, to many architects and designers the finished product of polished concrete isn’t at most a new process brought to a timeless material; it is an altogether new material. This stands true whether it be a three-step finish on a stained, twenty-five year old machine shop floor or a seven-step finish on a perfectly level new slab. To the students and architecture faculty referenced above, the concrete had been literally transformed in both a physical and a psychological way. Anyone witnessing another’s reaction at first site of a polished concrete floor is telling of the place that concrete holds in the minds of people.
It’s true that polished concrete is in its infancy and that architects and designers are only beginning to exploit it, but another horizon is that it has also yet to find its true place in the context of modern materials. This is in part because polished concrete has yet to permeate the mental picture that concrete brutalism painted for many North Americans and Europeans. This brutalist concrete (Béton Brute or raw concrete), typified by the Boston City Hall building, was only expected to maintain rough tolerances and was the primary, often overwhelming architectural feature of many public buildings from the early 60’s through early 70’s. In light of this, to polish concrete may have the connotation of polishing something that is, in the collective framework of our recent history, intrinsically unsightly and un-transformable. An architect needs ready ammunition to present polished concrete for what it is.
It can be clearly shown that concrete is one of the most timeless and inherently dignified materials; it’s the Pantheon in Rome, it’s the cantilevers that give Frank Lloyd Wrights Falling Water it’s drama, and it’s the literary device we use to denote the ‘permanence’ of something. When we say something is ‘concrete’ we mean to say it is here to stay. It is durable. When dry polished it becomes beautiful. And when specified properly for the application, it reflects the utmost in convenience. (Vitruvian convenience being achieved when something is “faultless and presents no hindrance to use.”) One might present that polished concrete, this Vitruvian material, is simultaneously one of the oldest and newest materials in the building construction industry, and if architects present durability, convenience, and beauty as criteria that has to be met for their architecture, then polished concrete is a challenging material to substitute.