Decorative Concrete Blocks In Mid-Century Modern Homes

Jason Davidson is a Landscape Architect in Melbourne, Australia, with a passion for Mid-century Modern that started when he and his wife bought their home in Beaumaris, Victoria, that happened to be from 1956.

In the last few years Jason has specialised in landscaping for Mid-century houses, with the help of his blog AustralianModernistLandscapes, that has helped put him in touch with potential clients.

palm springs - decorative concrete blocks wall

After reading about Frank Lloyd Wright’s La Miniatura, he decided to share some of his knowledge with us – the best way to use decorative concrete blocks, to re-create a perfect Mid-century style.

Whether they are called breezeblocks, screen blocks, cinder blocks, textile blocks or even Besser blocks (in Australia) the hollow concrete block has long been a popular construction material for both architecture and landscape.

The manufacture and use of hollow concrete blocks can be traced back to the 1860s in both the United States and Britain, where they were created as a more viable option than blocks of solid concrete.  

Developments in machinery to manufacture these blocks also lead to a range of finishes. This included smooth, raised margins, rock-faced or with other ornamentation to the face panel (Lewis 2015).

frank lloyd wright - la miniatura - living

While the use of hollow and decorative concrete blocks occurred throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s it was the Californian textile block houses of the 1920s, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s La Miniatura and Ennis House, that propelled the material into use in modern architecture.

Prior to World War II in Australia, concrete was seen as one of the key materials of Modernism, along with stainless steel and glass (Aitken 2011).  So with today’s appeal of Mid-century Modern style, it is little wonder that the use of decorative concrete blocks in all their forms has again become a popular and attractive solution for a modern garden.

Decorative concrete blocks can be used in many different ways.

Walls: finishes and designs for decorative concrete block walls are limited only by imagination and availability of products.  The repetitive pattern of a breezeblock wall creates a garden screen that is a decorative point of interest and an offset to the solid structure of the house. Concrete blocks can be used in combinations of solid and patterned to create a unique style for your wall.

Edging: besser,  Cinder or textile blocks are perfect for a solid, clean and minimal border for garden beds or lawn areas.

Planters: blocks used in raised planter beds create solid and attractive built form for your garden.  The straight lines of smooth faced cinder blocks provide modern and streamlined borders for a courtyard and unique patterns and planting opportunities are possible by alternating the direction of the blocks.

palm springs - concrete blocks - william krisel - darren bradley

Paving: textile or breezeblocks can be used in pavement and laid on mortar for a solid finish or a flexible sand bed with pebble infill as shown below.

Grass-crete: decorative concrete blocks are also sold as a pavement material under the name ‘Grass-crete’.  The intention of these blocks is to provide a structural path or driveway pavement that allows grass or turf to grow within the block cavities.

While the ideas for decorative concrete appear limitless, the actual limit to using these materials in your garden is sourcing them.  Cinder or Besser blocks are readily available, however if you are after a more decorative option the search can be more difficult.  In Australia, there are very few manufacturers of traditional breezeblocks and mid-century devotees must hunt second hand yards, or ebay listings for that rare find.



The Leiahua Apartment Complex - Honolulu - darren bradley
frank-lloyd-wright---la-miniaturafrank lloyd wright - ennis house - flickr michael locke

Thankfully there are some companies who manufacture these blocks and your search may not have to be so difficult:

Besser Block Centre – Sydney
Natural Image Group – Melbourne

A1 Block Corp – Orlando
Roanoke Concrete Products Co – Illinois

Jason Davidson is an AILA Registered Landscape Architect for Genus LA (Melbourne Australia) with a passion for mid-century style and modernist landscape design.

Photos by Darren Bradley and Flickr user Michael Locke.

Sources: Aitken, Richard, 2011, The Garden of Ideas, Melbourne, p 167. Cilento, Karen, 2010 ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’s Textile Houses’, ArchdailyLewis, Miles, 2015 ‘Australian Building: A Cultural Investigation’.