The Metaphysics of Concrete
By news editor, on 27 February 2012
Professor Adrian Forty (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture) began the Lunch Hour Lecture on 21 February by capturing the audience’s attention with the startling statistic that almost three tons of concrete are produced every year per person. It is now second only to water in terms of human consumption.
Although, perhaps the obvious question would be, how is this massive amount of concrete used each year? This was not the focus of the lecture. Professor Forty, instead chose to concentrate on the less mainstream topic of the metaphysics of concrete. “As well as having physics, concrete has metaphysics,” he explained.
For the laymen (myself included) Professor Forty explained that this was basically a consideration of how we make sense of a material, which is now so present in our lives, but has been around for little more than a century.
Concrete is abundant within our world, but it seems to evoke very different opinions in different people. In Western countries, it gets the blame for ‘erasing nature’ and making everywhere look the same. Despite this antipathy from some, it remains a medium of interest to many architects and engineers.
It was quickly clarified that the point of this lecture was not to convince us all of the various different merits of concrete. Instead, Professor Forty suggested a hypothesis for why concrete was disliked by so many.
The hypothesis was based on the premise that we, as humans, like to be able to categorise materials. The problem with concrete, therefore, stems from the fact that it does not easily fit into basic categories of materials.
In Wells, Hitler and the World State (1941), George Orwell uses the following contrast, “On the one side, science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side, war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses.”
George Orwell is not alone in considering concrete a modern material. It is often a major component in modern architecture, as it allows constructions, which would be near enough impossible with other materials.
In contrast, common applications of concrete are generally not considered modern. There are many basic uses, which are simply generic ways of building.
Professor Forty reiterated the concept that concrete is seen as overlaying nature -although a quick look at a photo of a tree root erupting through a pavement demonstrated that sometimes nature wins!
Certain design features have been developed in attempt to ‘naturalise’ concrete. For example, making it look like timber, brick or steel (as in the case of the Lloyds building, London).
Professor Forty then made the suggestion that perhaps concrete could be part of a new kind of nature, a second, urban nature. He offered the example of the 1960s film Point Blank, with its concrete backdrop contrasting with the historically favoured desert backdrop.
Professor Forty continued with the comment, “Concrete allows architecture to fulfil its destiny”.
Various illustrations clarified this point, including an image of the TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York. The building was designed with the directive to “capture the spirit of flight,” and the architect was inspired to create something that hadn’t been conceived before.
On the other hand, Professor Forty discussed the idea that architecture commonly reflects on the past, and concrete can also be useful within this context.
An image of a seemingly gothic church was in fact a 1920s concrete structure. The concrete allowed features to be incorporated that in the past would not have been possible.
Concrete is everywhere, therefore, it could be defined as universal. Having said this, the aggregates and the methods of use can be local. Again, there is a lack of distinct categorisation – which is what Professor Forty believes makes the metaphysics of concrete so complicated.
Professor Forty’s book, Concrete & Culture – A Material History discusses the issues further and will be released soon.
Jessica Lowrie is an intern in UCL Communications & Marketing