France and Spain share many historical events and experiences not least the invasion of Spain by the forces of Napoleon’s Grand armee in the Peninsular war of the early nineteenth century. Meanwhile, in the Spanish civil war (1936-39) large numbers of Spanish refugees entered France as exiles and were given refuge there. This was followed, again, in more recent times in the 1950’s when many economic migrants left the poorer parts of Spain to find work in France.
However, there is one other little known factor in common between Spain and France – concrete! And, one has to ask, where would Spain be without reinforced concrete?
In the tiny rural Provencal village of Monfort sur Argens in Southern France is a large wall mural (made of concrete naturally!) dedicated to the memory of a Frenchman named John-Louis Lambot the man who invented reinforced concrete.
Lambot was born on May 22 1814 (died 1847) and although certainly not the inventor of concrete it was he who first reinforced it with iron bars for extra strength. His first construction with his new invention was, oddly, a concrete boat which was successfully floated on a lake near his Provençal home. The lake is now in the grounds of the closely guarded domain of Château Miraval near Montfort, which is occupied as a French residence by Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It is, needless to say, not accessible to, or viewable by, mere mortals.
The idea and, in due course, the patent for John-Louis Lambot’s invention passed in 1884 to two German engineers and from this there quickly developed the idea of reinforced concrete as a worldwide, revolutionary material for buildings, railways and public works.
The rapidly growing cities of the United States were the first to make major use of reinforced concrete as a building material. It was here that the product was first modified from iron bars to steel bars and then to steel mesh – which was what provided the enormous strength required in the erection of many major ‘new’ buildings in developing cities such as New York – with the Empire State building being a notable example.
Of course, it was reinforced concrete in Spain that has also changed the rural landscape of Spain as much of the Spanish population moved from the countryside into the towns and cities with some urban areas developing into the awful eyesores we see today. Certainly Spain has made the best – and the worst – of reinforced concrete. Look at the soaring tower block hotels and apartments of Benidorm and then at the beautiful ultra-modern buildings in the City of the Arts and Sciences in Valencia and the Guggenheim museum of contemporary art in Bilbao as examples.
The magnificent complex of the City of Arts and Sciences in the dried diverted bed of the river Turia was designed by Spanish architects Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela and features a number of strikingly designed and innovative buildings. The complex was designed to be a city within a city and as a celebration for the 21st century and the new millennium. The buildings all make major use of reinforced concrete structures as a base for the detailed glass and metal exterior designs.
Needless to say, it sometimes seems that, in recent years, Spain has gone concrete mad!
Driving near to Alicante airport you will pass numerous cement works, nowadays strangely silent and redundant, within a local landscape scarred by quarrying for the raw materials. Much of the output from these cement works was, of course, used to build the legions of ugly new developments, flats and estates hat have spoilt some parts of the Spanish Mediterranean coast. The Spanish fondness for living in urban flats and the enormous growth in coastal towns has used vast amounts of reinforced concrete – to an extent that, surely, could never have been envisaged by John-Louis Lambot.
At some point in Spain’s recent history there must have been a major move to cover many attractive older buildings with cement and pull down anything with an architectural history and replace it with functional dwellings and badly designed developments.
Perhaps if you want to see the best or worst of the new wave of Spanish buildings, just look for any village, town or city ayuntamiento or town hall. Invariably, it is the newest and smartest building you can find. Always well-lit and with ample parking, no expense will have been spared – after all it is the local tax payer who has funded these overwrought towers of Babel!
John-Louis Lambot would, I suspect, have been horrified at some of the buildings that his invention has created although, no doubt delighted by others. Mind you, I bet if he knew the extent to which his invention has been used he would have wished to have kept his patent – if only for Spain…
Iain lives in Spain, was a professional soldier and is a businessman who has lived in many different parts of the world. His lovely villa in Valencia, Spain is available for rent during the summer months.