Can concrete addiction be cured?

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By ANSELM JAPPE*

Concrete is not “neutral” in terms of ecology and health

The echo found by my book Concrete: mass construction weapon of capitalism (L'Echappee, 2020) ended up surprising myself. Naturally, since my youth I have heard complaints about the “sad concrete cities”, about that concrete always associated with “gray”. But compared to nuclear power and oil, plastic and pesticides, concrete still had an almost “innocent” air. He would be, it was said, more misused than, in his inner nature, blameworthy.

Little by little, even the most “progressive” had to admit that one cannot have a “communist” use of nuclear energy, nor a “green revolution” in poor countries using pesticides without killing, with parasites, the rest of human beings. alive. Concrete, on the other hand, continued for a long time to be considered a material that essentially mattered to make moderate and appropriate use (and paint it with colors). Attributing only to concrete – as material – the “non-hospitable character of our cities” (Alexander Mitscherlich), especially of our peripheries, would have seemed as incoherent as explaining the war for the existence of iron.

However, many objections against concrete have accumulated over the last few decades and now seem about to come to light. Some are based on scientific evidence and are undeniable: concrete is not “neutral” in ecological and health terms. Its production consumes a lot of energy and emits large amounts of CO2. Limestone mining causes damage to mountains. The need for gigantic masses of sand triggers the devastation of rivers, beaches and lakes in various parts of the world, with its succession of consequences for the environment and the lives of the inhabitants.

Concrete dust can cause respiratory illnesses, and concrete floors can cause posture problems. The rejects are, in theory, recyclable, but, due to the high cost of this operation, they are often abandoned anywhere. In concrete cities, heat islands form which, combined with air pollution, deteriorate the health of the inhabitants and impose the use of another source of pollution: air conditioning. The concreting of the soils, which is progressing on all sides at an impressive pace, suffocates the land and causes severe alluvium, even catastrophic when there is heavy rain.

These are “technical” inconveniences, which it is generally proposed, in a very paradoxical way, to remedy with other technological solutions or by means of reinforced legal restrictions. A little more taxes on coal, some help from the State to make recycling more appropriate… Is that the essential?

In my book, I put another level of the issue up for debate, which undoubtedly lends itself more to discussion. Concrete, if it is “reinforced”, combined with steel, has a useful life of approximately fifty years; beyond this duration, permanent and costly maintenance is required, which may also be lacking – as in the case of the Morandi bridge in Genoa.

However, this short life can still be seen as an advantage, just like any form of planned obsolescence: it makes it possible to permanently renew what has been built, thus turning the economy around, which creates jobs, income and growth – and avoids boredom. of having to live with fifty-year-old buildings, as outdated as last year's cell phone. Incessant "creative destruction" is the soul of capitalism, we've known since Joseph Schumpeter. However, it is not always good for the ecology, nor for public finances – but, insofar as it allows saving the fetish god of growth year after year, this form of economic religion continues to have its theologians and its practitioners.

The issue, however, is broader. Concrete can be criticized for what, according to others, is, on the contrary, its greatest merit: having made XNUMXth-century architecture possible. Neither the most important dams, bridges, highways, nuclear power stations and skyscrapers, nor the slums around the world, nor the “masterpieces” of the most famous architects, nor the peripheral pavilions and “towers” ​​would exist without concrete. Right and left, communists, fascists and democrats turned to him. Concrete is at the heart of a core business of world capitalism – civil construction – and is generally celebrated by anti-capitalist forces as a “popular” or “proletarian” material.

Who got the worst of this unanimity, this progressive front that, as far as concrete is concerned, lasted much longer than, for example, in the case of nuclear energy and pesticides? There are victims in the strict sense, buried under the rubble of buildings, bridges and dams that collapsed and that could not have been built in the same dimensions and in the same quantities without concrete.

Then there are all human beings who have been confined to meaningless dwellings, perhaps thus having a “roof” in the physical sense, but not a place that connects them to the world, a point of fixation. Modernity is very proud of having developed individualism and overcome the old collective and rigid identities. But what sense of individual identity and place in the world can a child develop growing up in a C building, second staircase, fourteenth floor, seventh door on the left?

Global concreting has also, apparently fatally, affected traditional architecture: the infinite variations of the art of building invented over millennia. Adapted to the local context, using available materials on-site visit, variable in details on a background unit, ingenious on the thermal level, generally achievable with self-construction, at other times resorting to very sophisticated know-how, but handcrafted, laden with symbolic meaning, durable, these ways of building count among what humanity did her best, and where she most manifested her ability to adapt to her environment without destroying it.

Like languages, kitchens, clothing, housing is surprising above all for its diversity, for the abundant emergence of answers to the same basic problems. If every human culture is already a miracle, it is even more miraculous to see how many times this miracle has been repeated!

It is equally miraculous, but in a totally different way, to see with what speed, and to general applause – or, at least, with indifference – this heritage of humanity was thrown to the nettles in favor of modern buildings. And if these present problems, solutions are proposed that make the new conditions even more definitive. Are the new neighborhoods too far from city centers and workplaces? The purchase of a car for each person is favored. Do these obstruct space? Highways are built in the middle of the city and parking lots are built everywhere. In new houses, is it too cold in winter and too hot in summer? Electric heaters and air conditioning are installed everywhere. Do they consume a lot of energy? Nuclear power plants will provide it. Do the inhabitants of the new neighborhoods become sad, and their children violent? Professions are then created: social workers, cultural mediators, psychologists, sociologists. Do the inhabitants not care about this assistance? The State will double the number of police and install surveillance cameras everywhere. All this generates jobs, makes the economy spin and contributes to growth…

Is this the concrete's fault? Would we be in another world if these buildings weren't made of concrete? Evidently, this is not so simple. However, it is also no coincidence that they are made of reinforced concrete: it is the flesh of this world, its substance, its predilection material. As I also tried to demonstrate in my book, the concrete is a kind of “concretization” of capitalism. Not just for its very important economic role, but also on a seemingly more abstract level.

Capitalism is founded on profit, which derives from surplus value (or surplus value). Surplus value only exists as part of economic “value”, and this value is the result of the work carried out to produce the commodity in question (including its components, tools and machines, etc.). As Karl Marx demonstrated at the beginning of The capital, it is not particular and concrete work that creates the value of a commodity (whether it is material or immaterial, it does not change anything), but work reduced to the simple expenditure of human energy, measured by time.

Considered in this way, work is always the same, without quality, and knows only quantitative distinctions. Marx calls it “abstract work”, or, to put it better, the “abstract side of work”: in capitalist modernity, all work, regardless of its content, at the same time has a concrete side (something is always produced, be it an object or a service) and an abstract side (all work has a duration). It is the abstract side that corresponds to value and, finally, to price, and thus determines the life of the commodity in question and of those who produce and buy it.

The abstract work must, therefore, be “concretized” in objects. Whereas the concrete [Concrete in French] is called concrete in English, we can propose, with a play on words that nevertheless expresses the truth, that the “concrete” constitutes the perfect materialization of the abstraction of work. And he is even more so because Karl Marx metaphorically calls the mass of abstract work, which knows no differences, a “jelly” – and what material better than concrete represents this ever-equal jelly, capable of being molded into any shape or form. form, indifferent to all content? Only plastic could compete with him for this role.

Accusation such as that of the concrete will undoubtedly give rise to numerous refusals, more or less indignant. However, as we said, it will find more approval than in the past – including among architects, engineers and urban planners. Which immediately raises the question: what is the alternative? What to replace concrete with? How to build differently? The critique of capitalist urbanism, in the way it was developed since the 1960s – in France, mainly thanks to the work of Henri Lefebvre –, for a long time was very little concerned with the question of the materials used, concentrating attention on the social use of space.

Nowadays, the sensitivity regarding the material side of the habitat looks much more alive. It is above all “ecological” materials that “are on the rise”: recovery of the use of adobe, use of wood, development of “green” cement that emits little gas during production… This research certainly has its merits. In particular, the rediscovery of almost abandoned materials, such as raw earth bricks, could contribute to creating more “humane” constructions (but one should not forget that housing represents only a small part of the reinforced concrete used globally, given the dams , bridges, roads, power plants, etc.). There is, however, a preliminary issue to discuss. It was almost never mentioned, and even less, for understandable reasons, by the architects themselves: should one still build?

If concrete is no longer used, or less used than before, do you need to have a substitute immediately available? The issue is completely parallel to that of energy: since the danger of nuclear energy has become undeniable, while oil is heading towards exhaustion and is also showing its polluting power, and coal also suffers from a dirty reputation , we only talk about “alternative energies”. The landscape is filled with wind farms and solar panel roofs (the management of which, after the end of their life cycle, constitutes a huge ecological problem). Doesn't this also please certain people? It is, however, the price to pay if we intend to reduce the demand for nuclear energy without relying too heavily on oil suppliers. The energy has to come from somewhere...

But why? What if we admit, instead, that much of the energy consumed today is of no real benefit to humanity? That it's used to catch crabs in Norway, send them to Morocco to be cleaned, then send them back to Norway to prepare them for sale? To maintain the military apparatus? To heat the apartments? To travel 200 kilometers a day to make the journey from home to work? To create absurd amounts of concrete?

The most basic common sense shows that we could do without polluting energies without replacing them on the same scale with other energies. The problem comes from the excessive consumption of energy, not only from its sources. It is to be feared that the new forms of energy do not replace the old ones, but are added to them: the thirst for energy is part of the deepest essence of capitalism and will only be quenched with its end.

A completely analogous reasoning applies to the media: critical voices had highlighted, for decades, the danger that television represents for the mental health of the population and for democracy, due to its power of manipulation and hypnosis. Many would then enthusiastically welcome the creation of the Internet, hoping that this more “democratic” and more “participatory” medium would eventually replace television. Nowadays all the studies show that the average time spent in front of the television has not decreased and that the time devoted to the Internet has simply been added to it, increasing even more the total time spent in front of the screens.

How are these questions similar to that of the concrete? Just as we do not necessarily need alternative energies and mass media alternatives, but with less energy and less mass media, we could maybe live well by building a lot less. Take the case of France: its population has been stable for a long time. What to build for? Secondary residences for everyone? And then the third and fourth? Are a lot of people poorly accommodated? Undoubtedly. But how many apartments are empty, objects of speculation and investment? How much space is occupied by offices whose disappearance would only increase social happiness? How many shopping centers, hangars, barracks, “amusement” parks waste space and materials? How many useless highways litter the landscape, how many parking lots are robbing farmland?

Before continuing to build, it is necessary to think about de-constructing, dismantling. A part of the recovered space and materials, where it is worth it, could be used to provide more dignified housing for the new “wretched of the earth” currently confined in cubicles. The recovered steel would make it possible to rebuild a true rail network. The list is long. Utopia? No more than the idea that you can continue to concrete the earth without causing catastrophes. But what will become of growth, of jobs, of private property, of mobility erected in divinity, of the amusements conceived for those who lose their life to gain it? Good question.

We started by complaining about the excesses of concrete and ended up criticizing capitalist and industrial society as a whole. Critical thinking has its drawbacks.

*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: Pedro Henrique de Mendonca Resende to the website Crisis & Criticism.

Originally published in Pavillon de l'Arsenal.

 

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