Concrete Evidence

"Concrete, produced at an estimated rate of five billion cubic yards per year, is the second-most widely consumed substance on Earth, after water."

Introduction to "Liquid Stone: New Architecture In Concrete."

One of the most fascinating aspects of Washington, D.C., is its collection of unusual museums. The International Spy Museum was a big hit at last year's NSPI Leadership Conference. There's the National Capital Trolley Museum, which houses (you guessed it) trolleys and streetcars that served D.C. until the system was retired in the late '50s. The super-secret National Security Agency allows civilians a peek at its work at the National Cryptologic Museum. The Textile Museum and the Postal Museum are both gems that mount fascinating exhibits. But the museum that I visit every time I am in Washington is the Building Museum. In fact, I like it so much I'm a member.

The building that houses the museum is worth the trip alone. The former Pensions Bureau features a great hall that soars to nearly 15 stories in height. Windows and vent systems allow the hall to fill with air and light. And its eight faux-marble Corinthian columns are among the tallest of their kind.

At the Building Museum through Jan. 23 is "Liquid Stone: New Architecture In Concrete." The exhibit comprises a range of recent and under-construction projects, from a seamless temple in Japan to a free-form, multi-level aquatic center in Norway. The common thread is testing the boundaries of what we normally think concrete can do, both with regard to utility and sheer beauty. One of the most lovely projects is a complex in Kobe, Japan, that includes a fountain and a large, shallow pool whose concrete floor is set with over 1 million carefully arranged scallop shells.

The exhibit is divided into four parts: structure, surface, sculptural form and the future of concrete. Perhaps most intriguing is the future of concrete. The curators present three innovations: Self-consolidating concrete stays exceptionally fluid during the pouring process without compromising strength. It can be poured into intricate molds and has a fine, smooth surface texture. It also does not require vibration to remove air pockets. Ultra-high-performance concrete contains fibers that make it self-reinforcing and suitable for use as thin structural members. Finally, translucent concrete — still in development — actually transmits light.

A fascinating exhibit at any time, "Liquid Stone" takes on even more significance as the Portland Cement Association reports on a cement shortage hitting many regions of the United States.

If you can't get to Washington to see the exhibit, take a virtual tour online at nbm.org. And check back periodically for unusual and interesting exhibits covering the built environment in all its forms and functions.

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