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The History Of Reinforced Concrete In The Architecture Of The Basque Province Of Gipuzkoa

April 27, 2011

Today there is an extensive heritage of reinforced concrete buildings in the Basque Country, which hardly existed a century ago. Ms Maialen Sagarna, lecturer in Architecture at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), studied the evolution and development of the “most revolutionary material of the 20th century” in Gipuzkoa. She focused on the features of buildings constructed with reinforced concrete decade by decade, and explained how and why this material was used at any given time. Her PhD thesis, presented at the UPV/EHU, is entitled Gipuzkoako arkitekturaren eboluzioaren azterketa hormigoi armatuaren garapenari lotuta (Architectural evolution in Gipuzkoa involving reinforced concrete).

According to the thesis, in Gipuzkoa, the spread of the use of reinforced concrete was very much linked to industrialisation. It kicked off at the beginning of the 20th century, just when the first patents arrived from France and England, Portland cement began to be used industrially, and the need arose in Gipuzkoa for new constructions for industrialisation. The key factors which came together in the prosperous development of reinforced concrete in this Basque province were the arrival of cement and steel, the proximity of France, the socioeconomic development boosted by industrialisation and the existence of key persons who were essential for its development.

The beginnings

Ms Sagarna classified the first reinforced concrete buildings into two groups. On the one hand, totally functional constructions; the concrete was in view, as there was no need to cover or face it. Examples of this are the aqueduct of the Araxes paper mill and the Boinas El³segui block in Tolosa and the La Fandería bridge in Errenteria. The second group is made up of fine urban infrastructure; they had to be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional, and so the concrete was faced. As examples of this historicist or eclectic architecture in the Gipuzkoa capital of Donostia-San Sebastián we have the María Cristina bridge, the Head Offices of the Banco Guipuzcoano and the Court House in San Martín street and, again in Tolosa, the Archivo Provincial (the Provincial Record Office).

From 1910, this material was also used to repair the bay windows of the buildings in the Cortázar urban enlargement of the city of Donostia-San Sebastián, as well as for rebuilding the cinemas and theatres burnt down by fires, concrete being an incombustible material.

Patent free

Reinforced concrete soon became free of patents, and the opportunity to transform the material and create new architectural forms arose. According to the thesis, the buildings erected in Gipuzkoa from the 20s on took local architecture as a model, the reinforced concrete buildings emulating traditional Basque farmhouses and small palaces. Examples of this are the dwellings and storehouses of the Provincial government’s road builders and the Urola train station.

Meanwhile, in Europe, new architectural expressions arose as more began to be known about reinforced concrete, outstanding amongst these being rationalist architecture. This tendency came to Gipuzkoa later, and was applied to the building of new factories; for example, in the blocks of the Laborde factory in Andoain and in the Port of Pasaia.

According to Ms Sagarna, from the middle of the 20th century, engineers took the use of reinforced concrete to its extreme, the buildings being resistant not just for the properties of the material, but rather by the way it was applied (folds formed by thin and continuous layers. An example of this is the covering of the pelota court in Añorga, as well as the bowling alley. Given that this tendency was expensive, from the 1960s onwards there was a halt in the evolution and development of reinforced concrete.

Current challenges

The thesis argues that today architecture and engineering continue to make use of concrete. Nanotechnology has been turned to obtain new applications, and varieties have been produced with properties far from those originally attributed to this material: concretes that are translucent, lightweight, flexible, and so on. Ms Sagarna stresses that the challenge now is to achieve sustainable production of concrete, pointing to recycling and efficiency as measures to be taken into consideration. Following on from this, the researcher argues, new lines of research should be opened regarding the material and its production, which could bring a renewed interest in and use of reinforced concrete and, in consequence, give rise to new architectural expressions once again.

About the author

Ms Maialen Sagarna Aranburu (Usurbil, 1976) has a degree in Architecture. She drew up her thesis under the direction of Mr Joseba Escribano Villán, lecturer at the Department of Architecture of the higher Technical School of Architecture in Donostia-San Sebastián (UPV/EHU). Ms Sagarna is currently lecturer at the Department of Architecture of the Polytechnic University School in Donostia-San Sebastián (UPV/EHU).

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