The architecture of concrete

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By ANSELM JAPPE*

It is better to beautify the world than to disfigure it in the name of growth and the economy

Concrete is increasingly frowned upon. In just the last few months, we have seen the concreting of access to the Acropolis in Athens, which sparked a storm of angry protests around the world, the collapse of a subway station in Mexico and, shortly afterwards, a twelve-story building in Miami. , accumulating more than a hundred dead. All these developments continued to put concrete in the spotlight.

The 59 concrete plants in the Paris region, as well as the pollution and disturbances they cause, were the subject of a detailed survey carried out by the newspaper Médiapart, which assessed the effects of the cement plants located on the banks of the Seine, as well as the construction of the new subway Grand Paris. The numerous land occupations promoted throughout France by the movements Les soulèvements de la terre [The uprisings of the earth] and Extinction rebellion had as main targets the areas intended for concreting. Non-violent acts of sabotage against the Lafarge Holcim group's cement plants took place at the end of June in Gennevilliers, on the outskirts of Paris.

Apparently, concrete is nowhere near as harmful as oil, plastic, pesticides or hormones injected into meat, not to mention asbestos or nuclear energy. After all, it is just sand, water, limestone and gravel, to which steel is added to produce reinforced concrete, its most frequent use. The problem is not with the properties of concrete as such, but with the fact that it is the most widely used material on earth. Due to the high temperatures required for its manufacture, concrete contributes to global warming, as well as causing respiratory diseases.

Sand mining destroys ecosystems around the world and affects local populations. The massive concreting of soils causes flooding and, in cities, creates heat bubbles. Recycling its waste is costly, and the remains often end up dumped in nature. Finally, concrete encourages unscrupulous builders to use an overloaded mixture of sand, providing buildings that collapse easily.

For a few decades now, reinforced concrete has rapidly approached the end of its career and started to require costly maintenance, often avoided by those responsible, with often catastrophic consequences, such as the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, in Gênes, in 2018.

These are technical and material problems. In order to remedy them, alternatives to concrete are often mentioned, such as the recent construction of a residential complex based on chipped stone in Switzerland, the use of clay, the development of “green concrete” which, according to its promoters, emits less CO2 in its manufacture, etc. In fact, no consideration of the future of housing can escape the issue of “materials”, so visibly neglected by generations of “progressive” architects and urban planners. Even so, it would be equally false to reduce the issue of housing to just its materials and want to continue modern architecture, now with “ecological” materials – that would be the umpteenth way to greenwashing.

In fact, it is not possible to condemn reinforced concrete without criticizing the so-called modern architecture, that is, that of approximately the 1930s, – and vice versa. Continuing the architectural forms of the industrial era, modifying only its material, would not be a strong enough rupture. Concrete simply enabled a way of building whose origins are essentially social and cultural.

It was the central factor in the homogenization of housing all over the world: the fusion of traditional construction styles, which differed from one place to another, always adapted to the context and built with local materials, was replaced by a single material that devalues ancient knowledge in favor of an industrial chain and a form of employment based on the strict separation between the “head” (the architect, the engineer, who applies his rules or his quirks) and the “hands”, reduced to the level of executors disqualified.

This reduction of the place where human beings establish themselves in the world – their home – to an industrial commodity is not only due to concrete – other materials played an equally important role, especially masonry bricks. But it would hardly have happened without reinforced concrete. The latter is the perfect materialization of the logic of mercantile value and, therefore, of money: pure quantity without quality, erasing any particularity in favor of a substance that is always the same and blind to the differences of the subjects that handle it.

To understand this more clearly, let us return to two French authors who, at first sight, do not have much in common: Paul Valéry and Guy Debord. The supreme representative of bourgeois culture at its height and the iconoclastic revolutionary.

Em Eupalinos or the architect,[I] in an imitation of Plato's dialogues written in 1921, Paul Valéry exclaims: “Tell me (since you are so sensitive to the effects of architecture), when walking through this city, you observed that, among the buildings that compose it, some are mute; others speak; and others finally, rarer, sing? It is not their destination, nor their general appearance, that so animate them, or reduce them to silence. This has to do with the builder's talent, or else with the favors of the Muses. (...) Buildings that neither speak nor sing deserve only disdain; they are dead things, inferior in rank to the heaps of stone thrown up by the contractors' carts and which amuse, at least, the keen eye, by the accidental order they acquire in their fall”.

Paul Valéry then underlines the central role of the creative architect, whose way of working is described as follows: Eupalinos “neglected nothing. He prescribed the cutting of the boards in the grain of the wood, so that, interposed between the masonry and the beams that supported them, they would prevent moisture from penetrating the fibers, soaking them and rotting them. He paid equal attention to every sensitive spot in the building. It seems to be his own body. During construction work, he rarely left the site. He knew all his stones. (...) But all these delicacies, ordered to the duration of the building, in no way compared to those reserved for the elaboration of emotions and vibrations in the soul of the future contemplator of his work”, which, Valéry explains, “in the face of a mass subtly relieved of its weight , and so simple in appearance, the mortal did not realize that he was being led to a kind of happiness, thanks to insensible curvatures, tiny and powerful inflections, subtle combinations of regular and irregular that he had introduced and hidden, making them so imperious as they were indefinable.

Paul Valéry described with remarkable finesse the qualities needed to become a good architect (and we could imagine the starchitects, like Jean Nouvel or Frank Gehry, never leaving the field of work and knowing all the stones as if they were their own bodies?). We can only question the way in which Paul Valéry identifies this art of building exclusively with the “builder's talent, or else with the favors of the Muses”, aligning himself with the excessive appreciation of the “solitary genius”, so typical of the bourgeois cult of the arts. , of which Paul Valéry was one of its priests.

The architectures we are talking about here are, mainly, collective creations, the result of a tradition whose origin we can never elucidate and which have no “inventor”, but are generally the product of several generations, if not centuries or more. His material and spiritual qualities, well described by Paul Valéry, surpass the highest qualities that the most gifted of individuals, taken in isolation, could ever have. The architecture of the Cinque Terre in Italy, the troglodyte villages of Cappadocia, ancient granaries in the Maghreb, and Cycladic architecture are not products of the favor of the Muses, but of the collective unconscious that also created languages, cuisines, and systems of classification.

These architectures do not just correspond to utilitarian criteria and do not just serve to “have a roof”. In history, only capitalism has been poor enough to proclaim “shelter” as the sovereign, and often sole, purpose of the art of building. In all other civilizations, much more resources and energies were used in the part that went beyond the utilitarian purpose. Calling this part “ornament” or “symbolic representations” of the social order and the cosmic order would be too reductive. We also find here a playful aspect, a festive appropriation of the world, the preparation of a scene for a social life under the insignia of passions.

We can, then, establish an approximation – somewhat surprising, at first sight – with the “psychogeography” proposed in the 1950s, in Paris, by the Letrista International. This small artistic-political avant-garde born, under the impulse of Guy Debord, as an extension of the original surrealism, would later give rise to the situationist International. One of his main interests was the exploration of the urban environment, its playful appropriation, in order to experience physical decoration from the point of view of its effects on individual and collective “passions”, and not from its utilitarian aspect (work, family).

The labyrinth was then celebrated as the figure of a social space capable of transforming life into a permanent poetic adventure: thus, a new life and a new urbanism were reciprocally presupposed. Given that the existing constructions are almost all due to bourgeois society and, therefore, can only be “resignified” by “superior games” in a limited way, it is necessary to invent houses and cities of a new genre, able to stimulate the “construction of situations”: this would be “unitary urbanism”, as a combination of architecture and the arts.

This urbanism, however, never materialized, and even got confused with the (brief) adhesion of the situationists, in the 1960s, to New Babylon by the Dutch architect Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys. His project of a “utopian” city was quickly rejected by Guy Debord as “technocratic”. The search for a poetic and playful urbanism was then abandoned by the situationists in favor of a very lucid critique of the new urban horrors of the 1960s.

In 1956, Guy Debord declared that “we know that the material forms of societies, the structure of cities, translate the order of concerns that are their own. And if temples, more than written laws, were the means of translating the representation of the world that a historically defined collectivity was able to form, it remains to build monuments that express, with our atheism, the new values ​​of a new way of life. , whose victory is certain. (…) It is necessary to understand that everything that can now be done, in urbanism, architecture or in other areas, will only have a cost as long as we have not answered this question about lifestyle, and answered it adequately. It is not necessary to go too deep to condemn the architecture of Firmin Le Corbusier, who wanted to found a definitive harmony based on a Christian and capitalist lifestyle, imprudently considered as immutable”.[ii]

But, even if Le Corbusier's work is “doomed to a complete defeat” for putting itself at the service of “the worst oppressive forces”, “certain teachings must, however, be integrated in the next phase”. The “style of life to come (...), instead of the present one, will be determined mainly by freedom and leisure”. In the sequence, Guy Debord quotes the Danish artist Asger Jorn, co-founder of the Situationist International, for whom it is necessary to “discover new chaotic jungles through useless or meaningless experiences”, as well as the Belgian surrealist Marcel Marien, who announced: “from the intended concrete, the crooked street, the narrow path, the impasse will take place. The vacant lot will be the object of very particular study”.

Fifteen years later, Guy Debord praised the very private garden that Asger Jorg had built in Albisola, in the Italian region of Liguria, where “what is painted and what is sculpted, the stairs always uneven between the unevenness of the ground, the trees , the assembled elements, a cistern, the vines, the most diverse types of debris, always welcome, all arranged in perfect disarray, make up one of the most complicated landscapes” where “everything finds its place effortlessly”, thus forming “a kind of inverted Pompeii: the reliefs of a city that was not built”.[iii]

The program announced by Guy Debord more than six decades ago is still interesting: building environments that express the values ​​of another life, of another “lifestyle”, and that will give plenty of space to irregular and surprising forms. However, the enthusiasm for a “really modern urbanism”, as he says, and which led him to want to recover part of his “teachings” (as Constant would do shortly afterwards), seems quite outdated since, as Guy himself Debord announced much later, “to be 'absolutely modern' became a special law proclaimed by the tyrant”.[iv]

Fortunately, there is already a huge collection of techniques, knowledge and materials that we can use. If it is not desirable to return to the old social relations, as the reactionaries intend, it is, on the other hand, possible to resort to what has already been invented and put to the test thousands of times. Progress, even material progress, may be necessary in certain domains; in others, however, it is nothing more than capitalism's insatiable need for new markets and, possibly, the narcissism of “creators” who deny the fact that, in the art of building, no need is for “progress”.

Quite the contrary: in many respects, humanity has a lot to gain from resuming proven techniques – with regard to solidity and durability, sociability, “eco-compatibility”, thermal performances, the possibility of future inhabitants making a personal contribution with the construction of their home and guiding it according to their tastes; in all this, traditional architectures no longer need to demonstrate their superiority. And if nothing demeans a human being more than having to obey another, it is just as degrading to have to live in places built by people who didn't ask our opinion. The very fact of repeatedly seeing numerous identical dwellings should raise the suspicion that this is an attack on human dignity. Just as no human face is alike, no traditional dwelling is a simple example of a genre, the reproduction of a model. This does not exist outside of industrial production.

The industrialization of housing is as harmful as that of food. But on the other hand, it allows us some optimism: for millennia, humanity has built wonderful things, and in the last hundred years, they have built horrible things. It is possible that it is just a parenthesis that will close.

Buildings in the commune of Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris. In the center, the building of the French bank Société Générale. On the right, part of the Great Arch of La Defense. Photo: Daniel Pavan

It is probably true that architecture is the domain of culture in which the notion of progress makes the least sense. A city with a long history, if its center has not undergone restructuring (as it often happens), presents itself as a set of concentric circles: going, step by step, towards the outside, one also travels towards modernity . And hardly anyone – at least in this field, as there is a kind of common aesthetic sensibility – would say that, in this progression, we move towards beauty. As we approach the pavilions and hangars of the periphery – even in small agglomerations – even the last defender of architectural modernity is silent.

And yet the same humanity erected cities like Sarlat or Chinon in France, or Ascoli Piceno, Gubbo or Pérouse in central Italy: cities remarkable not (only) for their historic monuments, but for the average quality of their constructions. One of these travertine houses was accessible to all. Here, as elsewhere, it was capitalism that created artificial scarcity, turning the norm into luxury.

If there is, therefore, a sector of life where we can carry out a “return to the past” without running the risk of being socially reactionary, this is the art of building. The objection, however, comes ready-made: it costs too much! It might even have been possible when there were fewer people, but not today! Curious objection, to tell the truth. Modern society incessantly boasts of having increased the means at its disposal a hundredfold – but, soon afterwards, declares itself incapable of offering its citizens housing that is not slums and in which, from the beginning, we foresee that they will not survive the moment in which they live. that the owner decides to pay his debts!

The simplest calculation allows one to realize that residences that are long and “costly” to build, but which will last for centuries, are more “economical” in the use of resources than those that will need to be redone every thirty years. However, here comes into play another actor without which any consideration of “modernity” remains incomplete: capitalism. Why is such a solution not imposed, and hardly ever? Because it is not in line with the market, with the return on investment, with the creation of jobs, with the elections won thanks to this creation of jobs, with changing fashions, with the displacement of entire populations, forced by the economy, with the delusions of grandeur of the “decision-makers” in the economy, politics and technology…

There is little reason to go on building except for the cult of "economic growth". The population is stable and, to give housing to those in precarious conditions, we should start by using the three million empty homes in France, the ministries and offices, the barracks, the monasteries, the tourist villages. Then, as we move forward in building decent housing, we will destroy the buildings of the last 80 years, starting with the most horrible and poorly made. The material does not necessarily have to be chipped stone, but we can also use tiles, clay, wood…

Of course, this reconstruction needs to be done with discernment. The very art of building must be rebuilt, rediscovered, reconstituted. We cannot leave it in the hands of architects and engineers who simply adhered to a fashion that foresees winding streets, squares for social life and ecological materials. A post-capitalist architecture could not be planned from the top.

On the other hand, it will not necessarily be the result of the “self-construction” that is praised so much today. However great the creativity of certain individuals and groups may be, we cannot assume it in everyone, especially after so many centuries of stultification. The ability and sensitivity needed to patiently handle the techniques and materials, described by Paul Valéry, are not acquired in just one day, mainly because there is no longer any live transmission between generations. What formerly were corporations and guilds can now be remade within the scope of a generalized reappropriation of knowledge and its exchange – what William Morris evoked at the end of the XNUMXth century, mainly in his novel of anticipation News from Nowhere.

Sweet illusion? That's what those who prefer to continue with their nightmares of concrete and artificial air conditioning (which could very soon be the primary source of electricity consumption) say. It is more worthwhile to beautify the world than to disfigure it in the name of growth and the economy. It's almost a Pascalian bet.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy. Author, among other books, of The autophagic society: capitalism, excess and self-destruction (Elefante).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Notes


[I] Eupalinos or the architect. São Paulo: Editora 34, 1996.

[ii] “Intervention du délégué de l'Internationale lettriste au Congrès d'Alba” (1956). In: Guy Debord, Works, Gallimard, 2006, p. 243-246.

[iii] “De l'architecture sauvage” [1971], on. cit., p.1194.

[iv] panegyrique, take premier [1989], op. quoted, p.1684.

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