Ideas in aggregate
Adrian Forty’s new book revisits the topic of concrete, Modernist material par excellence
Concrete has been going through an interesting renaissance in recent decades, driven by the convergence of quite different forces and tendencies within architecture, engineering and materials science. Manufacturing and design innovations − including CAD-CAM produced formwork, fabric formwork, new cements and aggregates, photograph etching, sustainability demands and engineering software to name a few − have coincided with cultural developments including the return among designers to questions of materiality. Together these have opened up new possibilities for the development of forms in concrete.
On its own though, this is not enough to understand the revival of interest. Adrian Forty − whose research into this material over the last decade has finally been published as Concrete and Culture − is one of a number of significant historians and theorists who have turned to think about concrete in recent years (others include Jean-Louis Cohen, Sanford Kwinter and Antoine Picon). These thinkers have in different ways all seemed animated by a suspicion that, somehow, if they were only able to fully grasp this paradoxical material, then they will come to understand something profound about modernity itself. Forty takes a dialectical approach to the subject, observing the unresolved contradictions in the discourse and networks through which concrete is imagined and produced.
He notes the frequently dual character of concrete, through which he structures and narrates his understanding of the material: natural/artificial, stone/mud, advanced/primitive, European/North American, industrial/craft, modern/vernacular, object/process, skilled/unskilled, material/medium, surface/mass, formed/formless. These tensions often feed into each other, and are shown to animate the history of concrete specifically, but also seem to reflect in intriguing ways upon the development of global capitalism and industrial society more broadly.
This account of concrete spans centuries and continents, professions and, indeed, media. He considers concrete through film, photography and broader cultural imaginaries, although he does ultimately remain focused on recognisably architectural artefacts. His account is, however, full of insights, perhaps the most important of which is that concrete is ‘more accurately described as a process than a material’. One theme that Forty returns to on several occasions concerns the discourse of ‘newness’ that has characterised the conceptual language through which concrete has been imagined.
Concrete has, as he wryly observes, been ‘new’ for the best part of one-and-a-half centuries now. It seems that ‘the new’ − such an important concept within the mythology of Modernism more broadly − found one of its most significant reifications (or as Forty prefers ‘raiments’ or ‘dressings’) in modern concrete. There are many reasons for this, but primary seems to be the mode of production within which many of the dominant modes of modern concrete grew as a material process: industrial capitalism. For Western construction entrepreneurs since the 19th century, developments around this material have created ways to expand their practice beyond the constraints of the built environment professions, by patenting their particular material mixes and construction processes.
Naturally, the success of defending these patents has relied upon proving the newness of the technique or process in question. That these patents were privately owned, and that the culture that existed around these products was repeatedly articulated through a very modern ‘new’ or ‘future’, means that concrete has repeatedly seemed like it has only recently been developed. Forty has described this condition as ‘a field littered with truncated techniques’, defining ‘a material without a history’.
Concrete frequently seems to manifest contradictory tendencies. In the West, the flowing matter of concrete, which solidifies as fixed labour, is both an analogical process to, and an embodiment of, capital itself. Yet modern concrete’s other, as Forty intriguingly reveals, is in fact the vast number of other-modern traditions of concrete, often more informal, that can be found in the developing world, where concrete has become one of the primary ‘new technologies of poverty’.
There, he finds fascinating hybrid processes of non-modern social forms based on working with mud as a building material persisting even while transformed through the adoption of modern concrete processes. In, for example, the South American mutiroes or self-build cooperatives, ‘making concrete is integrated into domestic life’ as women collectively manufacture their own precast concrete construction elements.
Here also then, concrete accurately acts as an index of the process of capital in these regions, as ‘like a photograph, a concrete structure is indexical − it carries within it direct evidence of the moment of its making’. These accounts of non-professional and non-Western practices are incredibly revealing when set against more familiar ways of working with concrete, and more space could have been given to the discussion of them.
Still, Forty’s readings of buildings − which range from churches to bunkers, east European housing to lost-in-time memorials − are always insightful, and sometimes brilliant. Notably perhaps, for anyone who has gazed at the Milan skyline and wondered what peculiar mix of forces and desires resulted in the reality of BBPR’s Torre Velasca, his consideration of the complex and quite singularly historicising tendencies within postwar Italian architecture is fascinating. Ultimately, Forty opens up a new critical landscape for reflecting upon concrete specifically, but also upon materials in general, and in this endeavour he speaks to historians, theorists and designers alike, noting that ‘with concrete … there still remains the opportunity for the architect to be his or her own alchemist, and to create an entirely new substance’.
Concrete and Culture: A Material History
Author: Adrian Forty
Publisher: Reaktion Books