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The metaphysics of concrete (21 Feb 2012)

The metaphysics of concrete (21 Feb 2012)


>>Well, let’s start
with a statistic, there are around three tons of
concrete produced every year for each person on the planet. And there is no other
commodity that is produced in such quantity apart from
water, it’s second only to our consumption of water,
consumption of concrete. This extraordinary statistic
gives rise to all sorts of questions, like
where does it all go? Where did it all come from? And perhaps where did your three
tons of concrete go last year? And I’m not going to
try and answer that, but what I am interested in because I am a historian
is where, in a sense, we fit all this into our minds. If we think back a little way, concrete wasn’t there, it’s a relatively recent
arrival in our world. And very briefly, concrete
was discovered by the Romans, the art of making it was
lost, it was reinvented in the early Nineteenth Century
and then in the 1880s and 1890s, people discovered how to use
metal reinforcement so as to make it into an
effective building material. And this is a building from about 1900, this is a concrete
building that is — looks pretty familiar and it shows you all the
main ingredients of concrete, that is to say, sand here, sand
and gravel, there are some bits of steel lying on
the ground here. There’s no cement visible,
but then the other ingredient of concrete is human labor. So it’s something that’s made
out of these various components, sand and aggregates, cement
and steel and human labor. Now, as I said, this is a
relatively recent arrival in our world and what
I’m interested is in how we accommodate
this into our minds, where do we fit this material
that is now so abundant, but which a century or a little
more ago wasn’t there at all? How do we find room
for it in our heads? Now most of the discussion
about concrete that has taken place has been
around its technical properties and these are without question,
interesting but my point of view is that as well
as having a physics, concrete also has a metaphysics. That is to say, there is this
question of how we make sense of this new ingredient
in our world. And so that’s the question that
I’m interested in and I’m going to suggest to you a few thoughts about how one might
approach this problem. How do we make sense
of a material which is now I say present which
was not there not so long ago. My perhaps kind of
starting point for thinking about this is a quotation
from Thomas More’s Utopia, which was written in 1516 and he describes the
houses of the Utopians. And he, as you can see,
describes how the walls are made and then he goes on
the roofs are flat and the cupboards were the
kind of cement which is cheap, but so well mixed that it is
impervious to fire and superior to lead in defying the
damage caused by storms. Now this is interesting
because he had conceived in his mind a material
which did not yet exist, this is almost 400 years
before concrete becomes readily available as a building
material. Somebody has imagined
such a substance and it’s this imagining which
is, to me, is, is intriguing and interesting and which I
want to try and, and unpack. But let me say a couple of
other things which are important to what I, I’ve got to say. And the first of these is
that one of the features of concrete is that
it’s everywhere. It’s a universal material. It doesn’t, so to
speak, have a home. It can’t be located as belonging
here or in the United States or in China or in Latin America or down the road,
it’s everywhere. It, it’s not locatable
in the sense as having an origin,
a place of origin. It’s something that’s
everywhere. And this is [inaudible]
it’s something that makes it problematic to
think about, how do you think about something that isn’t
immediately locatable? The second thing that is, to
me, is interesting and is part of what I’ve been trying
to think about is the fact that concrete has a bad name. A lot of people don’t
like it very much. It’s — it, it has both an
element of it that is repulsive and which people would
rather not have near them. And this, again, is, is
intriguing because most of what’s been written about concrete has generally
been trying to persuade people that what they find ugly
is actually beautiful. It’s been conceived in
terms of, of, of an apology, if you like, for concrete. Now I’m not interested in
doing that, I don’t want to do something which is
an apology for concrete. My interest in it is in
the fact that precisely that it is repellant
to so many people. And yet at the same time, it,
it is so much, it’s so necessary to our way of life,
to our world. And it’s so passionately liked
indeed, by many architects and engineers who will
get very excited about it. So, to me, the, the
conundrum about it is that we have something which
is both liked and appalled at the same time
and that, to me, is, is question which is interesting
and which I [inaudible] back and throw some light on. Now, in thinking about this,
what I’ve done is to develop, to think about it in
terms of, of a schema, which takes a series of
oppositions and these are some of the sorts of things which I’ve been interested
in investigating. And in each case, what I
would point out and emphasize that concrete is both one thing and another thing
at the same time. It often is one thing,
but it also its opposite and so we can say that
it’s a modern material, it’s an advanced material, but
at the same time, it’s un-modern and it’s backward and so on. And what I’ve done
in the research that I’ve done is really to go
through a series of these sorts of polarities and try and
unpack what is going on there. I’m going to talk about a few of these now, we’ve only got half
an hour or so. So I’m, I’m not going to
give you the whole story, but I’ll just talk about one or
two of them to give you a sense of the way I’ve been
thinking about it. Well, let’s take this first
one, the modern and the un-modern. We have something which is,
as I say, both, both advanced, but also in a sense, backward. And this is indeed contained
within the various names that the medium carries. So in the English language,
it’s known as concrete and concrete implies
something which is — belongs to the world
of the mind. Concrete, as opposed
to abstract by talking about philosophical
categories here. Concretion, the bringing
together of particles to make matter. Again, an essentially kind of
mental way of thinking about it. The alternative term
for it, in which — by which it’s known in French and German is beton comes from a completely
different source. Its root is an old French
word, betun which means a mass of rubbish in the ground. And the word bitumen comes from the same root. So it clearly has a much more
earthbound kind of origin if you take the French term. Now this, again, these — this
contrast kind of underlies a bit of what I want to talk about. Let’s take this as
an illustration, this is a permanently
incomplete house in Crete and you can see here
something of a building which is both modern
and also un-modern. The lower part of it which is
complete could be a building of more or less any
time, but then above it, there is a clearly
modern structure and one might say is
this building dreaming of a modern past [inaudible]. What is going on here? But it illustrates rather
well this capacity of concrete to be both things at
once, is something that is both modern
and un-modern. Normally speaking, we
think of concrete in terms of its modern characteristics. This is a nice a little quote
from an essay by George Orwell, and you can see that he
situates concrete along with all that modern stuff against on the
other side war and nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors,
poets and horses. It’s not that stuff,
but what I want — I’m interested is in
actually it’s got a bit of that stuff in it as well. Okay. Now most of the time,
a great deal of effort is put by everybody concerned with
concrete into convincing us that it is indeed a
progressive material. And so buildings like this,
this is work of Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect, clearly
drawing attention to the fact that we are using a medium
here, which is progressive. It belongs to the future. This is a modern material. It’s doing things which
could not easily be done with any other medium. And there’s, the tendency of
the industry has been want — to want to emphasize the
essential modernity of the stuff that we’re, we’re using. But at the same time, there’s an
awful lot of concrete used all over the world that doesn’t
have this characteristic. So we look here, this is a
building under construction in a shanty town in Peru and
here concrete is not being used in any way that could
be described as being particularly modern. It’s just an ordinary
building material. It’s, in a sense,
it’s un-modern. And this, in a way, is the
more general application of concrete throughout
much of the world. So when we see it, tend to think
of it as being progressive, we must realize that
that’s been loaded onto it, that this is a particular
attribute which a number of architects sort of
colluded, if you like, with the concrete industry in
order to convince us of. But actually most of
the time, in many parts of the world it’s used in a way which isn’t really
particularly modern, one man with a cement mixer
can produce things like this without any great difficulty. And there’s nothing really
particularly modern about them, it’s just a generic
way of building stuff. To me, one of the things
that’s interesting is the way in which sometimes architects
have managed to recognize that concrete as a medium has
both these characteristics, that is both advanced,
but also not advanced. And a nice example of
this is this building, which is the Unite d’Habitation at Marseille, Le Corbusier’s great housing block at Marseille, seen here
under construction in 1950. Originally, this building was
going to be built in steel, but steel shortages caused
them to decide to build it in concrete and it
was built in concrete, but not very well
built in concrete. And it’s actually
full of defect in it. And Le Corbusier’s response to this when he saw it was not
dismay, but in fact he said, oh this is pretty good, it’s —
actually it’s rather magnificent that it has all these
defects in it. And kind of accommodated
this and was prepared to accept this and see that this, you know, well on the one hand,
this is clearly a piece of modern architecture. On the other hand, it
had something about it which was quite atavistic
and primitive and it’s that, you know, combination
which is, is intriguing. And to take another
example of this where this is even more
explicit, this is a building in Brazil, this is the
faculty of architecture at the University of Sao Paolo and this is building which you see it is quite
puzzling because it seems to be an enormous
concrete box which sits on some very spindly
little legs and it’s, it’s, it’s a remarkable structure
because you, you have all this up here and then very
little supporting it. And if you look at it from the
side under the colonnade here, you can see that at
seen at certain angles, these columns diminish down to
almost kind of needle points which are holding up this
great big concrete box on top. Now this is a building in which
the architect Vilanova Artigas (this was built in the ’60s) was,
I think, aware, was aware of and intentionally wanted
to incorporate something of both the primitive and
the technically advanced in this building. And this was a reflection in
a way on Brazil’s economic and social state, and as he saw it, the upper part of this building, in a
way, is representative of Brazil’s lack of advancedness. This is what Brazil
could easily produce because of its abundance
of unskilled labor. It’s possible to produce bad
concrete in endless quantities. The quantity, abundance
of labor in Brazil means that this is not
difficult to do. So this, in a way, is
one Brazilian product, but beneath it, supporting it,
is another Brazilian product, which is technical
know-how and ingenuity. And the skill which engineered
this particular construction with these extraordinarily
slender columns, exemplifies, if you like, Brazil’s
other resource, which is, is technical expertise. So this is a combination of
two things, of on the one hand, an advanced technical
know-how, but on the other hand, manual backwardness of, of an
economy which is undeveloped. So this, this, to me, is
intriguing, this ability to combine the two in at once. Let’s move to another thing. Let’s look at the
natural and the unnatural. Now most of the time, concrete
is blamed or held responsible for covering over or nature, for
everything that’s wrong is, is, is the, the, the, the overlaying
of nature by concrete. Occasionally nature gets
its own backers here, and takes its revenge
on concrete. But most of the time,
this is the — what is seen as being the,
the, the, the normal state that nature is lost, as
it were, to concrete, with concrete things
over which is taken as, as meaning that,
that we lose nature. Now this sense in which concrete
is, is seen as anti-natural, or if you like, an unnatural
material goes together with the way in which
it’s made, it’s produced, it’s a synthetic medium. It seems not to belong
to nature and a lot of the antagonism towards concrete
is kind of collected together in these feelings that people
have that it is in some way or another, an unnatural
substance. It’s not quite as
clear cut as this — though as this, I mean
it’s more complicated, but just let me say first of
all, that an awful lot of work in concrete has been put
into naturalizing the medium. So this is a public lavatory
outside Notre Dame in Paris, which you see, can
see has been made to resemble a wooden structure
with a thatched roof on it. This is a banal, in a way stupid example, but it, it illustrates what I, you
know, is a common feature of concrete is — it’s
treated as if it, it should be in some way, made like nature. And commonly what happens
is it’s either made to resemble stone, sometimes
timber, sometimes other things. So, as here, steel. This is the Lloyd’s
Building in London. It’s a concrete building,
but it’s made to appear as if it’s a steel building. So the use of concrete
is full of these attempts to make it be something
which is not so unnatural, these attempts to naturalize it. Okay. Now the second kind of
aspect of the unnaturalness of concrete or perceived
unnaturalness of it is to do with the way in which it decays. And it decays in a way
which is often not the same as other sorts of materials. And it’s, as you can see here,
this is the Hayward Gallery in London, its cracks, its
effloresces salts come out of he surface of it. The steel inside it
corrodes and so on. And these, this way of
decaying is perceived as being non natural. Now this immediately asks, well
what is a natural form of decay if this is not natural? And it’s not easy
to answer that, but I think what often
happens is that people think about the way in which the
human body and skin and so on, decays as being the model
for how things should decay. And something which
doesn’t quite conform to that is then perceived
as nonnatural. Anyway. This is a discussion
one could take further. But I wanted to look
at something else in this discussion about nature
and the unnatural and this, this is a still from a
film called Point Blank, which some of you may know,
which was made in the 1960s with Lee Marvin as the lead
character here and he’s standing on the bed of the Los
Angeles River, which was a, an extraordinary project
which was undertaken to, to channel the Los Angeles
River which had flooded parts of lower Los Angeles
previously in the century. Now a lot of this
film, Point Blank, takes place against backgrounds
of concrete and one asks, well what is the
concrete doing there. Well, the answer to this,
I think, is the concrete in this film, as in
many other films, provides an alternative
to the desert. That in the desert
in the western, the, the desert is the place
where men are tested, where people are
stretched to their limits. And in this film, in Point
Blank, we have no desert, but we have a lot of
concrete environments. And these concrete environments
provide the similar points of testing. This is the ultimatum of, the finale of the film where he’s, he’s going to
pick up the money which he’s, believes he’s been entitled to. He finally finds, he finds it. The parcel contains not $92,000
as he’d been led to expect, but a bundle of blank sheets
of paper and he kicks it into the river and
it floats away. But it’s, to me,
what’s interesting about this is creating
a new kind of nature out of this apparently
unnatural medium. And people have called this
sometimes urban nature, a second nature, but it’s become
a medium which has, has — substitutes for traditional
notions of nature in many cases. And this is a theme which
one could pick up and, and develop and take further. The third of these oppositions
which we might briefly look at is between the historical
and the unhistorical, that normally speaking, concrete
is thought of and treated by many architects and
engineers as a medium that doesn’t have a history. It belongs to the
future, not to the past. Now this is puzzling because
there’s also another version that you can develop of
this and you could say that what concrete does,
as in this building here, this is the church at Raincy designed by Auguste Peret, built in the 1920s. What concrete does is
to allow architecture to fulfill its destiny. This is, if you, you might say,
a Gothic building, more perfect than any Gothic building
ever could be. But what concrete allowed
architects to do was to make possible
or made possible for them what had been
impossible to Medieval builders. So you’ve got this
extraordinary church, which the entire
external surface is a skin of stained glass. And this indeed,
is what, you know, Gothic architects
would have liked to do, but weren’t able to do. So on the one hand, you can
say, well actually concrete is, is the material that
allowed architecture to fulfill its destiny. But on the other hand,
a lot of builders and architects have used
concrete as if it had no past. So this is the TWA Terminal
at, at JFK Airport in New York, an extraordinary object this – and clearly what the architect
Saarinen was doing was trying to conceive of something
such as had never been before. This is the interior of it here. So there’s this kind
of conundrum which, which surrounds,
particularly the way in which architects have
thought about concrete, is this something
that has no past, is, is it precisely valuable because
it has no past or does it, on the other hand, have a past. And if so, what is its past? And this is particularly
intriguing because architecture as a, as a, a cultural
activity is something which has always been
obsessed with its past. Architecture is always looking
back to what it has done before, even when it says it’s not
doing that, it is doing that. So when we find a particular
kind of collection of works made out of concrete, apparently
denying their past, this is something to which
immediately raises questions and it’s fun thinking
about this. But generally speaking,
as I say, most work in concrete has tended
to avoid the issue of its past. Now not only do we have
a relationship to history in general, but there is this
question about the relationship to concrete’s own
history because concrete’s been around for more than 100 years. It’s got a history of its own. Have architects been
able to respond to that? Well, very occasionally, yes, so this is another
Brazilian building. This is a sort of sports complex in, in
Sao Paolo, called Sesc Pompeia and on the right-hand side, you
can see there’s this big tower, which is actually a water tower. And if you look closely at
the joints on this building, in this, this very loose
sort of ragged form, and this was a deliberate
reference on the architect’s part to
another concrete monument, which is this, which
is in Mexico City. Satellite towers by Luis Barragan, which again, similarly has this
sort of raggedy joint. So this is a rather unusual case of somebody making explicitly
reference in their work to a previous concrete object. Most of the time though,
concrete, things that are made out of concrete deny that
they have any relationship to the past. A real exception to this
was in post-war Italy, where for various
reasons, quite a — there was a group of architects who were really kind of preoccupied with
architecture’s own relationship to its immediate past. This is the so-called Church of
the Autostrada outside Florence, it’s a really extraordinary
building. It was built in the ’60s. And this seems to be a
completely chaotic interior, where everything,
you know, it’s crazy. You can’t make any
sense of this. You know, these struts and beams
and so on that change shape. It seems to be quite illogical. And indeed it’s meant
to seem illogical. It’s — this is a ‘two fingers’ at rational engineering, the sort of thing that Italian and engineer Nervi had been doing. This is a way of saying ‘so
much for all your rationality, I don’t care about it.’ And it’s, it’s a
response to that. This is another building, this is in Turin, this is the Stock Exchange in Turin which
is a curious building which combines all sorts
of, of architectural themes, but inside it, it has this
curious web-like roof structure, which again, was a deliberate
reference to a church in Paris, which had been designed
at the beginning of the century by Anatole de Baudot. This is a very kind of knowing
architectural reference. So these are some buildings
within which people were trying to make actual reference
to concrete’s own history. And then just to wind up,
let’s talk about, a little bit about the universal
and the local. As I’ve said, concrete’s
everywhere and wherever you go in the world, you’ll find
broadly similar sorts of concrete things. Now this immediately
raises questions about what makes a place local, what is it that gives
a locality to a place? And, again, you know, we
make all sorts of assumptions about this, which don’t
necessarily hold true, is it something that is kind
of embedded in the locality, or is it to do with things that
are brought to it and values that are placed upon it? Are they inherent, the
things, the, the qualities that make a place local
or are they, as it were, part of culture and
that are brought there? And the way in which concrete is
employed throughout the world, I think gives us pause to stop
for a moment and think about, well what is it actually that
makes a locality a locality? Are we always to assume
that it is to do with things that belong there, or is to do
with forces and circumstances and conditions which are
produced from elsewhere and produced culturally? So, at that point, I’m going
to stop and, and just to end, I will say that some of what
I’ve said and more will appear in a book which is to be published shortly
under this title. And that’s the end. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Thank you. Very interesting and
a very unusual view on such a ubiquitous material. We have time for a few
questions from the audience. If I could ask you if
you could wait until the, until the microphone comes
because your question needs to be recorded on the cast.>>Thank you for the
very interesting lecture. There isn’t any geological
background to concrete and I would challenge that the
Medieval Gothic architect would have found that building better
than what they could have done because they wouldn’t be able
to represent their saints and their carvings and their
Michelangelo enfigurements, and so – I agree,
to some extent, it leaves less to
man and to nature. Do you agree?>>I’m intrigued
by your comment, there’s no theological
background to concrete. [ Inaudible ]>>Geological. Oh, I’m sorry. I thought it was theological. [ Laughter ]>>Okay. [ Inaudible ]>>Okay. Okay. Okay. Yup. Okay. Well, two thoughts
about this and one is that no, concrete is not a
carvable material, but it is a castable
material and you can cast it to do many things and
indeed, people have used it as a sculptural medium. There’s a lot of
sculpture in the world that is made out of concrete. It’s not necessarily
figurative, but it may be — have equal value to
figurative sculpture. So it can be used, it — and
is used as a sculptural medium. The geological question
is interesting because obviously although
cement is a universal medium, the aggregates out of which
concrete are made come from localities and people
have tried at various times to give a local inflection
to concrete, according to the particular
aggregate that is used. And you can expose the aggregate
by removing the cement film on the surface of concrete
and if you use an aggregate which is recognizable as coming
from a particular locality, you can, you can
localize it in that way. And it, it, in a sense,
it does have a geology. It’s not completely
a-geological as a substance. Any other — there’s one
down, down [inaudible].>>Yes, hello Adrian. Thanks very much for a
very interesting lecture. I’m, I’m here with a
little group of students from Richmond College, our A level students. And it just happens that we
have been given a question about high-tech architecture
to have a look at this year, and it struck me that high-tech
and low-tech could be a sort of a polarity that could be
applied to concrete in some way. What, what struck
me is something that perhaps you were
sort of getting on in, into what can make concrete
local and you gave the example of the Lloyd’s Building. And I think that there are
other examples of the way that concrete is used
in the Lloyd’s Building which is not an imitation
of steel. I’m think particularly
of the soffits around the ground floor level
where concrete is actually used as concrete, but
maybe reflecting some of the other concerns of
High-Tech architecture, the precision of
construction, the very sort of careful attention give
to joints and jointing. And I wonder that since
the high-tech style, if you can call it that, is
often associated with Britain. It has a sort of, in that sense,
a sort of regional aspect that, that a way of building can
actually give concrete a locality, rather than any sort
of actual material quality of the concrete itself. Taking concrete as a, a
completely plastic substance, it’s more to do with the
way that designers have used in concrete in a way that
reflects a local tradition, which has been very
quickly I suppose built up in the high-tech
style in Britain. Yeah. You’re absolutely right. There are, there are
local traditions or ways of doing things which emerge
and so, for example, in Japan, there are ways of doing
concrete which are not the same as you would find in
Europe or North America. And in that sense, one can
identify certain things. I just pick out though, on this
question about the high-tech because one of the
characteristics of concrete is, or is said to be that
it, its great quality is that it’s monolithic, that you, you make a monolith
with concrete. You’ve effectively produced
a structure which is, is, in which all the forces
are distributed everywhere through it. Now this is contrary
really to high-tech, which is an architecture
of components, it’s all about making parts
which can be assembled. So if you think of high-tech
in relation to concrete, it should — they’re in
conflict because the whole point about a concrete building is
that it doesn’t have components. So there’s a questions there
which is, is in intriguing. But anyway, there’s
more to be said. [inaudible]. Other questions.>>One last question
from the gentleman here.>>I know you said that
you weren’t going to talk about the repulsive
so-called nature of concrete, but I wondered if you
had any comments to make about why you — what most
people find it such a material which they don’t like, compared
to say, brick or steel or glass.>>Well, I think
part of the reason for its repellance is
precisely because it doesn’t fit within categories,
that it escapes from being either
natural or unnatural. It’s slippery, if you like, and
I think that people find that — are uncomfortable
about something which escapes classification
so easily. And my, my answer to
that question which, I mean is one I perhaps
think about a lot is, is precisely that, that it,
it eludes classification within the normal
categories that we use to think about the world.>>At this point, I
think that we should end by thanking Professor
Forty once more. [ Applause ]

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