The Saga of Concrete

A Material of Modernity

Jean-Louis Cohen 

In the 1980s, dissidents fighting the late Communist regime in Poland nicknamed the group of men who had fortified in power “Beton” or concrete. In the same area of Europe, the industrial system created in Eastern Germany beginning in the 1960s to deal with the housing shortage, dwelling upon the use of heavy pre-cast concrete components using French and Soviet patents, remain known to this day as “die Platte” – or the panel, related punwise to “die Pleite” – the bankrupt… Concrete today is often dismissed as the principal material of the repetitive, mass-produced, large developments that are the indices of Europe’s urban crisis. One has forgotten the heroic, almost epic dimension it took in its early days.

The amazing politicization of a simple building technology reveals how much it has functioned in the symbolical, imaginary sphere as well as in the sphere of building construction, since the late 1890’s. A seemingly innocuous and ingenious combination of inert substances had become highly loaded in diverse and controversial meanings. This identification of nationalism and politics with concrete is nearly contemporary with the invention of the material and has taken many shapes since... [+]

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