Recently I became hyper-aware of a cool design element. I’d noticed it before, but suddenly I saw more of it and was fascinated. Isn’t it funny when you suddenly become attuned to something you know was there before, and you wonder why you hadn’t become interested in it much sooner? Do you know Decorative Cement Block? I LOVE it! A little background on what I dig. I’m an artist and an architecture enthusiast, so I tend to notice architectural elements. The neighborhood where I live is a 1950s and 60s development of Ranch-style houses. Ours was built in 1958 but has no cement block. However, there are two houses a few blocks away with decorative cement block. In my immediate neighborhood of several hundred houses, why are there only two with this decorative element? I want more back story!
Today my newfound infatuation with the decorative block led me to drive through a neighborhood a few miles away, where I’d seen decorative block. I slowed down to take photos, wondering if the owners were inside, thinking that my camera and I looked suspicious. Of course, with my ponytail and red Mickey Mouse shirt, I probably looked unlikely as a spy but maybe that’s what real spies do—they try to look unthreatening! Upon returning home I raced to the computer and (with anticipation mounting) Googled “decorative cement block.” My heart raced with excitement at the images. Google is a treasure trove of info about these blocks, and it connected me to sites created by others who are as excited as I am about vintage architecture and design. I had a memory of seeing a Frank Lloyd Wright design as a child, and decided to research Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of cement block. Here is his quote:
“What about the concrete block? It was the cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world. It lived mostly in the architectural gutter as an imitation of rock-faced stone. Why not see what could be done with that gutter rat? Steel rods cast inside the joints of the blocks themselves and… why would it not be fit for a new phase of our modern architecture? It might be permanent, noble, beautiful."
As ideas and images of the blocks swirled through my head, I recalled the first two times I was aware of them. It was when I was a kid. I remember seeing decorative blocks used as a room divider in someone’s house. I’m not sure whose house it was, but there were some 1960s houses not far from where we lived. I must have been less than ten years old, but I remember it. I was intrigued by this divider—the materials were not what I associated with the inside of a house. It divided the space, but let in light. As a child I drew daily and as a teen discovered architecture, but at eight or ten years old I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to identify what I saw and liked. And yet 25 years later I remember this room divider. It made quite an impression.
My other memory about cement blocks involves my Aunt Betty. She is an artist and teacher and when I was about ten, she took me to an art exhibit where she had a piece of art. I remember the experience, and her telling me how I could apply to enter exhibits, too. For that particular show you had to be at least eighteen, which seemed light years off. But I remember that day! I recall the bright lights from the ceiling, the white walls, the art displayed, and all the people milling about. We must have gone to Hollyhock House that day, too, as it was in Barnsdall Park, where the exhibit was. At ten I’d never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, but seeing Hollyhock House was my introduction to the legendary architect. (Thank you, Aunt Betty! I’ll always appreciate that you wanted to nurture my creative spark, showing me art beyond my own collection of crayons.).
The block is interesting to me in its geometry. When made into a wall it has vertical and horizontal lines but also has creative shapes within it. It is structural and functional but also decorative. I like that it is humble, too. Cement can hardly be called pretentious, but it still has such a cool look. I read today that decorative block was a staple in midcentury modern design, a style I like for its geometry and innovative use of space. A trip to Palm Springs to ogle the 1950s architecture is in the works. I drove by another house today, a mile from mine. Just a few days ago I'd noticed its wall of decorative cement block, which is painted a Notice Me shade of turquoise (bravo to them for appreciating their block, as well as color!). Why had I not noticed the house before? I started to really look for more block and discovered three more houses on the next street, houses I’d driven by hundreds of (or a thousand) times. How could I have missed it? Now I’m on a hunt for block. Some people might not understand my appreciation of this material, but if it’s a block party just for one, that’s ok by me!