A brief introduction to Listed places Post-War Architecture

A Brief History of Reinforced Concrete Buildings

Reinforcing concrete made highly complex large-scale structures possible.

Concrete is the most commonly used man-made substance on the planet, second only to water as the most utilised resource.

Interior of the Pantheon, a large domed ceiling.
Interior of the Pantheon’s dome today, Rome, Italy. Image via Creative Commons.

Cement – a key constituent of concrete and its historic forebear – has been used for thousands of years in various forms, including in Ancient Egypt and Greece. 

Almost 2,500 years ago, merchant tribes in the deserts of Arabia were using deposits of silica mixed with lime to create cement to build water channels and cisterns for collecting scarce rainfall.

Over 1,900 years ago, the Romans also employed a type of cement, which included using volcanic ash. They built the colossal 43 metre diameter dome of the Pantheon in Rome, still standing today.

Three large concrete towers of the Barbican.
View of the three concrete residential towers of the Barbican estate, London. The Barbican was designed by the architectural practice of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. Construction started in 1960 and concluded with the opening of the Barbican Centre in 1982. Listed Grade II. Image via Creative Commons.

In the modern world, concrete – basically cement and water mixed with aggregates such as gravel and sand – defines much of our landscape: bridges, motorways, tunnels, power stations, office and apartment blocks, airports, underground stations, industrial sites, shopping, leisure and exhibition centres, civic buildings, car parks, hospitals.

But it was the idea of reinforcing concrete – giving it enormous strength and versatility in form – that made such highly complex large-scale structures possible.

In 1892, a French engineer, François Hennebique, patented a pioneering reinforced concrete system – the first to be commercially successful and widely used. He became a key figure in helping revolutionise the entire world-wide construction industry. 

The beginnings: Experimenting with cement

Painting of smoke coming from textile mills.
Textile mills, Manchester, 1840. Image in the Public Domain.

There was a long gap between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the 18th century before there was a revival of interest in cement. Engineers began experimenting with new compounds. 

This resurgence may have been due in part to the 18th century interest in Classical civilisation. Knowledge was bought back from the Grand Tour when aristocratic young men travelled Europe with a tutor, particularly to Italy, to gain an education in Classical culture and architecture. 

Engraving of the Great Fire of Gateshead and Newcastle
Hand-coloured wood engraving of the Great Fire of Gateshead and Newcastle, 6 October 1854, when a gas-lit worsted mill caught fire, setting alight adjacent warehouses and part of the city. Image in the Public Domain.

It has been suggested too that the cost of building in stone was a factor, as was the Industrial Revolution (mid-18th to mid-19th century), when factories, mills and warehouses were often destroyed in fires and there was a demand for economic fire-resistant buildings. 

Concrete was one answer, but the first challenge was to make reliable cement, the essential bonding agent for the aggregates – when cement and water are mixed it triggers a reaction known as hydration, causing the concrete to harden. 

Experiments culminated in Portland cement, a generic term for a mix of materials such as limestone, shale or clay, heated to extremely high temperatures and finely ground. The name was derived from its resemblance to Portland stone.

Plaque reading: Joseph Aspdin (1778-1855) Portland Cement, one of mankind's most important manufactured materials, was patented by Joseph Aspdin, a Leeds Bricklayer, on 21 Ocober 1824. Aspdin lived in this yard (then called Slip Inn Yard) and first sold his cement in Angel Inn Yard.
Plaque commemorating Portland cement pioneer, Joseph Aspdin (1778-1855), Leeds, Yorkshire. Image via Creative Commons.

Portland cement was patented by bricklayer Joseph Aspdin in Leeds in 1824.  However, the first true commercial Portland cement was manufactured twenty-one years later by rival inventor, Isaac Charles Johnson (1811-1911), at his cement plant in Swanscombe, Kent. 

Portrait of a man reading a letter
Isaac Johnson photographed on his hundreth birthday in 1911. (He was Mayor of Gateshead in 1864). Image in the Public Domain.

Reliable cement meant that the potential of concrete could be realised. But another major challenge remained – its strength. Concrete is hugely strong under compression – good at load bearing like stone, but weak at withstanding stresses – bending and twisting causes it to fail.

Engineers spent the next decades developing how concrete could be reinforced. Key among them was the Frenchman, François Hennebique, whose system was the first to be widely used in Britain.

François Hennebique – pioneer of reinforced concrete

The success of Hennebique’s system was the use of inexpensive steel rods as reinforcement (rebar) within the concrete, giving it high tensile strength (the maximum stress that a material can withstand before breaking).

Portrait of a smartly dressed man in a suit with a bead
François Hennebique (1842-1921) photographed in 1906. He patented his revolutionary reinforced-concrete construction system in 1892, starting his own business the same year.  Image in the Public Domain.

But it was also Hennebique’s astute business model that ensured his then dominance. 

Hennebique worked only with existing leading contractors, licensing their use of his system providing they followed his strict specifications. This included putting workers he himself had trained technically into the businesses and ensuring stringent supervision of quality.

Concrete house
Hennebique designed and built his own family home out of reinforced concrete – La Maison Hennebique (1901-1903), Bourg-la-Reine, France – to showcase the possibilities of his system. Image via Creative Commons.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Hennebique had licensed contractors across Europe. By the end of the first decade, his reinforced concrete system had been used in almost 20,000 structures and his company had more than 60 offices across four continents.

Hennebique buildings in Britain

Weaver’s Mill, Swansea

Large flour mill and corn storage warehouse with 'Weaving & Company' i large letters across the top.
Weaver & Company building, Swansea, Wales – a flour mill and corn storage warehouse, pictured in a disused state. The Company originally imported wheat from Europe, Russia and North America. Image via Creative Commons.

The first building in Britain to use the Hennebique system was Weaver’s Mill, completed in 1898. The cement, aggregates and steel were all imported from France.

Plaque that reads 'This column was part of the old Weavers Mill the first reinforced concrete framed building built in Britain by French engineer Francais Hennebique 1897.'
Plaque – adjacent to a surviving column from Weaver’s Mill – that commemorates the significance of the building and François Hennebique’s contribution.  (His name has been misspelled). The plaque is near to the mill’s original site. Image via Creative Commons.

Weavers Mill survived the Luftwaffe bombing of Swansea, February 1941 during the Second World War, only for developers to succeed where the German air force had failed – it was demolished in 1984 to make way for a supermarket.

Jetties, Haslar, Gosport

Jetties, Gosport
Contemporary image of the jetties, Haslar, Gosport, Hampshire. Image courtesy of Wayne Cocroft.

In the early 20th century, Gosport was chosen as the Royal Navy’s principal submarine depot. On the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918), the Navy had 80 submarines – the vessels then were cutting edge naval technology.

Technical plan of the jetties
Technical plan of the jetties (pictured above) titled ‘Ferro-concrete Dépôt (Hennebique System) for submarine boats at Haslar, Portsmouth,’ published in the journal ‘Engineering’, June 11 1909’. Image in the Public Domain.

The pioneering Hennebique system jetties were used as mooring for submarines during the war, and remained in use until 1993 when the last vessels departed. The horizontal and diagonal design of the concrete beams are reminiscent of the traditional timber construction of piers.

In the Second World War, reinforced concrete was widely used to build defensive structures across the country, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank defences, and thousands of pill boxes, as well as airfield runways and hangars and vast pre-fabricated mobile ‘Mulberry Harbours’, towed to France for rapidly offloading supplies onto beaches during the Allied D-Day landings (6 June 1944).

Royal Liver Building, Liverpool

A general view of the Royal Liver Building
A general view of the Royal Liver Building, May 1912. Source: Historic England Archive

Although the Royal Liver Building has a granite facade, it is a rare early 20th century survivor that used the Hennebique reinforced concrete system for its structural frame.

At the beginning of the century, there were no regulations covering the use of reinforced concrete, with technical specifications only known to a few. However, with the passing of legislation in 1915, technical information became widely available.

Spanish city, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear

Old postcard of Whitley Bay
Old postcard of Spanish City, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear, originally a theatre, and shops, opened 1910. Listed Grade II. Image in the Public Domain.

Pictured is another surviving building constructed using the reinforced concrete Hennebique system. After falling into disrepair, a major regeneration project saw the Spanish City re-open in 2018 as a leisure and event venue.

Reinforced concrete after the First World War

Large hall with curved beams
Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) New Hall, also known as Lawrence Hall, Westminster, London, (1923-1928), illustrating the radical use of reinforced concrete for its parabolic arches. Leased by the RHS to Westminster School, the building now acts as a sports hall for the school, with the RHS using it for several flower shows a year. Listed Grade II*. Image in the Public Domain.

In the early years of the 20th century, reinforced concrete was mostly used for utilitarian buildings and structures, such as warehouses and factories, bridges and roads.

Penguins on the two spiralling intertwining ramps.
The Penguin Pool at London Zoo (now ZSL London Zoo), opened in 1934. Listed Grade I. The pool is based on an egg shape with two spiralling intertwining ramps. It was designed in Modernist style by Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin (1901–1990) and engineer Ove Arup – two pioneers of concrete construction. However, modern concerns about the way animals were kept in captivity saw the pool’s closure in 1984 after 50 years, replaced by the Penguin Beach. Image © Historic England AA98/06395.

The period between the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945) saw architects embracing the exciting freedoms and design possibilities of the new material, including arches, spiral shapes and curved forms.

De La Warr Pavilion with curved staircases and glass walls
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, designed in Art Deco style in 1935 by the architects, Russian-born Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) and Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953). Listed Grade 1. Image via Creative Commons.

Mendelsohn was one of several refugee architects who fled Nazi Germany for Britain in the 1930s bringing new technical knowledge and Modernist ideas with them.

The role of concrete after the Second World War

Damaged houses after an air raid
Devastation following an air raid during the Second World War, Hither Green, London. Image © IWM HU1177

In Britain during the Second World War, an estimated two million homes – as well as schools, hospitals, infrastructure, transport systems, civic, cultural, commercial and industrial buildings – were severely damaged or destroyed by bombing.

The country had to be rebuilt fast. But there was a shortage of traditional materials, including bricks and wood, as well as skilled labour. Low cost, relatively quick to construct, reinforced concrete was the answer, especially in urban areas.

In Britain, the vast reconstruction programme – which included the razing of slums, the building of public housing and pre-fabs, and the establishment of new towns – was state-controlled, led by national and local government. Building styles were generally plain and functional. Policies were in the context of the welfare state which had come into being post-war, based on the principles of equal opportunity for all.

Brutalist Britain: Concrete in the 1960s and 1970s

Exposed concrete walls and staircases of National Theatre
National Theatre on London’s South Bank. Constructed of concrete (including raw exposed walls and stairwells in the interior), it opened 22 October 1963 and was designed by renowned architect, Denys Lasdun. Listed Grade II*. Image in the Public Domain.

The 1960s was a socially progressive decade of rapid change; a time of strong economic growth after the austerity of the 1950s; of idealism; of optimism that a better future lay ahead.

Large bus station with concrete roof
Preston Central Bus Station and Car Park, Lancashire. A pre-cast moulded and reinforced concrete megastructure, it was designed by Keith Ingham of the Building Design Partnership to give bus passengers something of the luxury of air travel. When it opened in October 1969, it was the largest bus station in Europe. Despite years of public pressure to have it demolished, it was listed Grade II in 2013. Image via Creative Commons.

A distinctive type of architecture emerged in the 1960s and 1970s; the clearest visual manifestation of the design possibilities of concrete.

Monumental buildings – high rise flats, multi-storey car parks, universities, schools, leisure and shopping complexes, often with extensive road schemes – were constructed. This uncompromising dramatic style – versatile and cheap – changed the face of urban Britain.

Large tower
102 Petty France, London. Formerly the Home Office, it now houses the Ministry of Justice. It was designed by Fitzroy Robinson & Partners, with Basil Spence, and completed in 1976. Image via Creative Commons.

Brutalism – as certain types of this new radical architecture came to be known – was first associated with internationally-acclaimed architect, Le Corbusier (1887-1965), a Swiss-French Modernist pioneer who, in 1952, celebrated the unfinished surfaces and the texture of raw concrete (Béton Brut).

His ideas on urban planning and the aesthetics of concrete inspired a new generation of architects and planners who embraced them as an exciting social and visual break from the past.

Large and long block of flats
Park Hill, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, photographed in 2007 in a state of dereliction after sliding into social failure and crime. Lack of maintenance, here and on other large estates, exacerbated problems. Local councils across the country were attempting to tackle the growing population of the post-war baby boom and the estate was built by Sheffield Corporation City Architect’s Department. It opened in 1961 and was considered flagship social housing at the time. Its deck access scheme (‘streets in the sky’), big enough for milk floats to move along, was seen as revolutionary. Listed Grade II* in 1998. Image via Creative Commons.

Brutalism eventually fell out of favour after it became associated with urban decay and social problems. It had generally been reviled by the public.

Many important concrete Brutalist buildings were demolished (see ‘Those We Have Lost’ later).  In recent years, however, there has been a critical reappraisal and a growing appreciation of the style, with some buildings now listed.

Parkhill is a survivor. The estate was saved and refurbished by developers Urban Splash, beginning in 2004

A block of flats damaged by a gas explosion
Ronan Point, Canning Town, London, following the gas explosion on the 18th floor, 16 May 1968 – two months after the building had opened. A resulting enquiry found the collapse was due to poor construction and design. Image via Creative Commons.

Many high rise buildings at the time were system-built – constructed using standardised factory-made pre-cast concrete panels, assembled on site. Public confidence in these estates – already at a low – was seriously undermined by the Ronan Point disaster of 1968, where the entire corner of a 22-storey block of flats progressively collapsed downwards after a gas explosion, killing four residents and injuring 17.

The disaster was a shock to the construction industry and led to major changes in building regulations. Within 20 years, many local council tower blocks were demolished across the country, including those where it was found that metal reinforcement within the concrete had corroded, compromising structural integrity.

Concrete in the modern world

Large curved building
Auditorio de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, a performance space designed by Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, completed 2003. Image via Creative Commons.

Reinforced concrete can be designed to create extraordinary forms, as well as taking on different textures and colours.

Interior of the new nine storey London School of Economics Marshall Building, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, opened January 2022. It was designed by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, co-founders of Dublin-based Grafton Architects, and winners of the Pritzker Prize, March 2020, considered the highest honour in the architectural profession. Image © Nicky Hughes.

The pictured interior shows the Marshall Building’s extensive exposed concrete, and tree-like structure of vaulting.

Curved concrete staircase
The swooping curves of the Marshall Building’s central concrete staircase. The exterior of the building is pre-cast white concrete featuring tall fins, up to 11.5 metres tall, one row above the other. Image © Nicky Hughes.

Mass-produced reinforced concrete in many different guises is a crucial material used in virtually all construction projects across the globe today, from modest houses to the tallest towers.

In Britain, concrete is being used for the immense tunnels of London’s new sewerage system, still under construction – Thames Tideway, as well as the 118 kilometre mainly underground Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) from Reading, Berkshire to Abbey Wood on the far south-east reaches of Greater London. HS2 – the high-speed rail link being built between London and the major cities of the Midlands and the North of England – is pioneering the use of low carbon concrete for its more than 500 bridges and tunnels.

Large factory
Heidelberg Cement plant, Germany. The company today is among the world’s 10 largest cement manufacturers. Image via Creative Commons.

This extraordinary material has produced some of the world’s greatest architecture, including the Sydney Opera House (Jørn Utzon with Ove Arup, 1973) and the Fallingwater house, Pennsylvania, USA (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935), along with spectacular structures such as the Panama Canal (1914), the colossal Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro (1931), and the controversial Three Gorges Dam, China (completed 2012).

The downside is that the manufacture of concrete’s key ingredient, cement, creates a massive carbon footprint, the source of around 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

With well over 20 billion tons of concrete poured annually and, taking into account the CO2, the miles covered to transport the raw materials and the fact that it uses around 10% of the world’s industrial water supplies, concrete’s environmental impact today is huge.

Concrete innovation

A large curved white building
Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku, Azerbaijan, designed by the late British/Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), opened 2012. Its shell is made of glass-fibre-reinforced concrete panels with a steel space frame. Image in the Public Domain.

Architects, designers and researchers world-wide are working on alternatives to cement, and on eliminating its CO2 emissions. Zaha Hadid’s glass-fibre cement Heydar Aliyev Centre (pictured above) is one example.

Areas of research have included making low carbon concrete mixes that use waste materials, such as recycled plastic, ash from coal-fired power stations or blast furnace slag; bio-concrete using CO2-absorbing moss and lichen; capturing CO2 and injecting it into concrete mixes, permanently locking it in.

Progress is being made – including the concrete industry burning waste materials rather than fossil fuels and improving the energy-efficiency of its plants.

As the search goes on for a more sustainable concrete, the world’s most vital building material continues to be used in vast quantities and for the foreseeable future. 

Lost buildings – demolished concrete landmarks

Old Wembley Stadium, London, demolished 2003.

Old postcard of the original Wembley Stadium, with its iconic concrete twin towers
Pictured is an old postcard of the original Wembley Stadium, with its iconic concrete twin towers, built to house the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25 and originally known as the Empire Stadium. It was completed in 1923 and served as the main venue of the 1948 Olympic Games, remaining in use until 2000. The building was replaced by a new Foster + Partners stadium that opened in 2007. Image in the Public Domain

Tricorn Centre, Portsmouth, Hampshire, demolished 2004.

A large concrete multi-storey building
The Tricorn Centre, opened 1966, comprised a shopping centre, multi-storey car parking, pubs, flats and a market. It was designed by the Owen Luder Partnership and Rodney Gordon and, although considered a keynote building at the time, it fell into disrepair due to lack of investment. The site was purchased by Portsmouth City Council as part of its regeneration strategy. Image © Historic England.

Pimlico Comprehensive School, London, demolished 2008.

A concrete building with cube like sections
Pimlico School, London, photographed in 2006. It was designed by John Bancroft of the Greater London Council architecture department, 1964-1965, for 1,725 students. The school was one of the last of a programme of large comprehensives in London. The building was difficult to maintain and was subject to over-heating; students occasionally had to be sent home in the summer. The school was replaced by a new building – Pimlico Academy. Image via Creative Commons.

Birmingham Central Library, West Midlands, demolished 2016.

Birmingham Central Library, completed in 1973, was designed by John Makin – Birmingham’s most important post-war architect, along with Ove Arup – in the form of a monumental inverted ziggurat. It was considered a key Modernist building on a site that had seen a first library built in 1865 and a second replacing it in 1882 after a fire. The pictured building was demolished to make way for a new city centre office development. It was replaced by the Library of Birmingham close to the original site. Image © Historic England AA/050035.

Welbeck Street Car Park, London, demolished 2019.

A large cube shaped building with a tesselated triangle facade
Welbeck Street Car Park was designed in 1970, with a tessellated triangular concrete façade, by Michael Blampied and Partners, to provide multi-storey parking for customers of the new flagship Debenhams store, Oxford Street. The Twentieth Century Society, who lead many campaigns to save buildings from this time period, campaigned for it to be protected but it was not listed. It was demolished to make way for a hotel. Image via Creative Commons.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Reusing our buildings is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions and eliminate unnecessary waste. By adapting our historic buildings appropriately, we can reduce carbon emissions, improve quality of life and nurture the skills needed for a green economy. Read our Climate Change Strategy.

Further Reading

  • Concrete Architecture’, Catherine Croft, published Laurence King Publishing.
  • ‘Space, Hope and Brutalism’, Elain Harwood, published Yale University Press.

5 comments on “A Brief History of Reinforced Concrete Buildings

  1. I always thought they were so ugly (as a child)!

  2. Richard Wilson

    The former New Bridge Street Goods Station in Newcastle was another good example that has been lost. It was built in 1907 and was bombed in the Second World War. The resulting fire burned for about a week, but the main structure did not collapse. It was mutilated during construction of an urban motorway in the 1960s, and later was used for storage of materials for the construction of the Metro system. It was demolished in the 1980s.

  3. (Rupert ) James Youle

    My favourite concrete brutalist tower to have been demolished in 2007, was the Richard Seifert and partners Draper’s Gardens built in 1967. It was 100m and 30 storey’s high, and housed NatWest banking staff, and was overlooked by the Seifert NatWest Tower which luckily survives but is unlisted thanks to two IRA bombs which damaged it, so it was not deemed suitable for grade 2 listing. It was restored sympathetically to the architects original specifications though.

  4. Two other Hennebique style buildings that are worth checking out are the Grade II Listed Concrete Workshop Block at the former De Smet Rosedowns Ltd compound, Caroline Street, Hull – the first of it’s kind in England (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1208067?section=official-list-entry) and the truly wonderful Grade A Listed, Glasgow Art Nouveau style, Lion Chambers on Hope Street, Glasgow (https://canmore.org.uk/site/44133/glasgow-172-hope-street-lion-chambers).

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