Cancel Concrete!

It was only yesterday when we praised and hailed the architecture of exposed concrete: we enjoyed quoting Le Corbusier who said that “The business of Architecture is to establish emotional relationships by means of raw materials" or Alison and Peter Smithson who thought that the concrete architecture "drags a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces that are at work." We melted when Rami Karmi shared with us phraseologies such as "The concrete is a material full of darkness".

We were impressed by the honesty of concrete, we believed that it is always a "Truthful, honest negative of the formwork to which it was molded"; we endlessly philosophized about the ethics of the aesthetics and the aesthetics of the ethics; we attributed to concrete qualities and values, "not only honesty, directness and righteousness but also dryness, aggressiveness and imperviousness". We contemplated those concrete structures as if they were philosopher stones that have something to tell us. We wrote that "they expressed what we wanted to be, the way we wanted to see ourselves and what we were demanded to be: bare, real, direct, strong, and above all - irreversible."

Some of us made the pilgrimage to Marseille, Chandigarh, Tokyo or Brasilia to see their grey wonders with their very own eyes. Those who couldn't make the trip could have easily found their wish in Beer-Sheva, Qiryat-Gat, Ein-Guedi, Nazrat-Illit or even in Tel Aviv. We wrote articles, essays and books, we organized exhibitions, symposiums, seminars, tours. We signed petitions and protested against damages that might be caused to brutalist masterpieces, we published fiery articles whenever someone dared to paint them or worse to whitewash them. Some of us even wrote or promoted official plans that assured the preservation of those concrete structure forever. Sometimes we even erected such concrete structures for us and our families.

It is needless to say: today Béton is bon-ton.

All this might have happened even without all this fuss and even without bothering much about concrete's bare appearances. Concrete is today not only bon-ton but above all the most common building material, its use is widespread all over the planet. And even when we don't really see it we know that it is there, somewhere under the ground, behind the claddings or the plasters. We cannot think of our planet's surface without reinforced concrete, this new "Artificial Stone" that turned into the new earth's geological layer. We are addicted to concrete. We cannot do without it.

But let us listen to the German philosopher Anselm Jappe who argues in a recent book that concrete is the "mass construction weapon of capitalism" and that its past and future damages could pare only those caused by capitalism's two other "flag-materials", plastic and oil.

Jappe brings up few important points: Almost in all the countries in the world, concrete is a product of a dubious chain of production in which from one side there is a state-owned or controlled monopolies that are responsible for the quarrying, importation and the production of the cement while the quarrying and supplies of the sand are always handled by organised crime monopolies. And even though in most countries of the world sand quarries are illegal, none of those regulations diminishes the use of concrete, on the contrary. Same goes with all the direct and indirect damages caused by this industry which is usually not taken accountable for its impact - the production of cement itself is extremely polluting. 

The concrete production and supplies chains are completed by those of the architecture and the construction. This universal technology, this absolute abstraction of a material that could be easily transported in a form of powder but could easily be solidified into the form of a dam, this Unbearable Lightness of the architect who can sit in his office, imagine a wall and draw a double 0.5 line, or that of the engineer or computer program to calculate it - all these are part of a broader regime. This division of tasks is what enables the industrialization of the planning and the construction process. Concrete is transforming our cities into markets and our homes into financial products, and by the way it transports materials, tools and people from one place in the world to another. Concrete has brought not less than a social revolution that created all over the planet few new billionaires and many new classes of enslaved immigrant workers. If in the past, building sites were places of craftsmanship, creativity and expertise bringing artists and artisans together, today those places have become alienated, sometimes deadly spaces of exploitation and abuse, bulling and lawlessness. 

Since the first half of the 20th century, when it started to be massively used, and in few years, concrete eliminated the use of local materials and led to the extinction of centuries-long construction traditions and technologies. In that it had a major role in transforming the whole world into one concrete country in which the differences between places or cities disappear. The result is equally alienated and sometimes ugly in every place on earth.

But above all: reinforced concrete is the newest construction material. It is in use for a century only. Nobody can really tell if this combination of cement, aggregates, steel and water can hold for centuries and what would really happen during the prolonged encounter of those materials with the sun, the water, the air, during the general movement of things towards the unavoidable entropy. 

According to Jappe, his main motive in writing this book was the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa in 2018,half a century after its completion. This collapse of this bridge, which had been a major circulation artery of the city, caused the death of 53 people, the injuries of dozens and paralyzed the whole city for a long period of time. The failure of the bridge was due to corrosion that attacked the still cables in its prestressed beams. At the time of its construction, in the 1960s, the Morandi bridge was considered as a technological achievement, but still, it did not last more than half a century. In smaller scales and in much more mundane uses we can see very often typical failures associated with concrete. In many cases they are caused by the unreliable chain of production which enables using unqualified workers and occasional groups. But even when the execution is correct there are quite many known pathologies - capillary cracks, leaks, poor thermic and acoustic performances and gradually, with the material fatigue, we witness crumbling, corrosion, exposure of the steel to air and water and finally, from time to time, columns crack, ceilings collapse, balconies fall. Last year, in the city of Holon, a whole apartment building collapsed. Just like that, because of the light, the air, the utopia.

We must admit that though it has been a default option of almost any architecture of our time, at the moment we do not know how to make concrete last. We can no more say that it is too early to tell if concrete would last forever. We already know it will not. And in the meanwhile, not only we don't actually know how to preserve it when it is really needed, we also don't know what to with it when it becomes obsolete. Briefly we can say that we are not so sure that all this concrete that we have been pouring in the last century would hold for one more century (it is quite likely it will not). We know already that most of what we have built would be either demolished intentionally or collapse spontaneously, but that we do not know what to do with the debris.