Last post from Paris…Architecturefarm is going on a brief hiatus while my daughter shares my last couple of weeks in Europe with me. Musical theater? Yes. Obscure examples of early concrete? Not on the agenda.
Francois Hennebique was the greatest concrete contractor and innovator in Europe around the turn of the century—France’s Ernest Ransome and C.A.P. Turner put together. His patented system was used throughout the continent for warehouses, factories, and bridges—the Ponte Risorgimento in Rome was only his most famous.
The system of reinforcing and forming that he patented was largely comparable to how we build in concrete today. The reinforcing is in the tensile zones of slabs and girders throughout, and he recognized that the location switches in continuous beams—the tops of the beams are in tension over the supports, while the bottoms are in tension at mid-span. You can also see acknowledgement of shear issues toward supports, with rudimentary stirrups and wide caps between column and girder to distribute these forces and the increased amount of reinforcing. The formwork was all straightforward—proto-Perret in its flat detailing, but with chamfering in key locations to prevent chipping of fragile corners. The system’s regularity and repetition instilled some natural sense of order, rhythm, and proportion, and it’s possible to see in it precedents for both Perret’s work and (less apparently, but still latent) Corbusier’s.
But Hennebique’s work wasn’t limited to such a pragmatic, industrial system. He built two demonstration projects around Paris—his own house in Bourg-la-Reine and a development project that housed his offices in the middle of St. Michel, just across the river from Notre Dame. In both of these, he went out of his way to show off concrete’s plasticity. The house is an encyclopedic collection of concrete forms and techniques—most famous for the giant tower (under restoration—good for the house, bad for blog photos), but also full of eclectic forms and ideas throughout most of its fabric. The block in St. Michel is a long, slender plan, almost entirely façade, but that façade is as voluptuous as any art nouveau building in Paris—just done out of a material that had a reputation to earn, rather than stone or iron.
Like Coignet and Perret, Hennebique was a businessman first and a designer second—pretty apparent from the blocks of glorious self-promotion embedded into the façade announcing the building as Systeme Hennebique. And just in case you didn’t get it, the roundels at the roofline include an “SH” at their centers. Hennebique was justifiably proud—the Systeme was as close to a universal building system on the continent as anything since the Roman armies built their network of coordinated camps throughout their domain—and it would also be as influential as any single invention in Europe’s building world until mid-century.