Concrete & Culture

Does it matter to Modernity what mediums it uses?

My answer is no. Forty’s book is a grand art historical narrative of concrete that glosses over the development of concrete to describe its use and applications by select realms of architects. The chrysalis of his notion is that concrete is a material that exemplifies the ethos of modernity par excellence. My question is, So What? By ignoring its ancient uses, which he self-acknowledges in his introduction, he vaults over the importance of its use then and now.  Both the ancient world and modernity used this material for the same basic reasons: Economy. Not necessarily for money savings, but speed, ease, convenience, and reliability. Most concrete in the ancient world was not left exposed, but this is a function of its technology alongside aesthetics. Cements in the 19th-20th century became stronger and harder, and in combination with ferrous reinforcement could achieve possibilities impossible for the ancients, but so too did all building materials and technologies. Architects’ use of these materials corresponded to these advancements indeed, but not just with concrete, we could just as easily follow plywood or gypsum board.

The juggernaut of modernity, that ceaseless advancement of technology and economy with the presumption of social betterment through reasoned understanding and rationalised optimisations, is concerned with the end-goal, and the means are only considered insofar as they help achieve that end. Concrete, like all other technology, becomes a tool to be picked up and discarded for whichever ends it is most suited. His arguments would have been made much the richer had he more thoroughly engaged with notions of Technics (Mumford, 1934), and acknowledged the simultaneous importance of the other host of new building materials/technologies.


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