The metaphysics of concrete (21 Feb 2012)

Uploaded by UCLLHL on 27.02.2012

>> 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 and 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 in an effective building material.
And this is a building from the [inaudible] and 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 is 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 Moore'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 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 moder and 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 [Foreign language] comes
from a completely different source.
Its root is an old French word, [Foreign language]
which means a massive rubbish in the ground.
And the word [Foreign language] 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 unordinary 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 [inaudible].
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 [Foreign name] 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 [Foreign name] 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 the [inaudible] 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 San 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 [Foreign name]
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 [inaudible] and as he saw it, the upper part
of this building, in a way, is representative
of Brazil's lack of [inaudible].
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 antagonisms once concrete is, is, is 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 laboratory 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 [inaudible] 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 [inaudible] with 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 nonnatural.
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 [inaudible] 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,
but 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 [Foreign name] designed
by [Foreign name] 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 make 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 that's --
and clearly what the architects are [inaudible] 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 [inaudible] this question about the relationship
to concrete's own history because concrete's
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 sports complex in, in San Paolo, called [Foreign name]
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
and satellite [inaudible] 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 --
this is 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 [inaudible] at rational engineering,
the sort of thing that Italian
and engineer [inaudible] 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 [inaudible] this is the Stock Exchange
in [inaudible] 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 [Foreign name].
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 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 [inaudible],
so those -- 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 again.
Thanks very much for a very interesting lecture.
I'm, I'm here with a little group of students
from Richmond College at [inaudible] 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 [inaudible] 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.
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 ]