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Concrete as Utopian Building Material


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In The Guardian, architectural historian Adrian Forty looks at the surprisingly progressive history of concrete, which was invented in 1861 and slowly spread around the world. As Forty notes, concrete as a building material has been especially appealing to the world’s poor, since its ingredients (sand and limestone) are plentiful and it doesn’t require advanced technical skills to work with. Communist countries like the Soviet Union and China have also built extensively with concrete in order to catch up with the industrial development of nations like the US. All of this leads Forty to suggest that concrete might be a distinctly left-wing building material. Here’s an excerpt:

The deliberate linking of concrete to these sudden and dramatic transformations of the 20th century has associated concrete with the politics of the left, rather than of the right. Although the fascist regimes of the 1930s played the same card – social renovation through new infrastructures – and indeed had sometimes used concrete to do so, as with the autobahns in Germany, the dominant association of concrete was with socialism.

Insofar as leftwing politics were about radical change and rightwing politics about the preservation of tradition, concrete was more readily aligned with the left, and the Soviet Union particularly cemented this idea in the popular imagination. As late as the 1990s, Virginia Bottomley, the UK’s Conservative secretary of state for national heritage, when asked to approve the listing of the Alexander Fleming House complex at London’s Elephant and Castle that had once housed the Ministry of Health, allegedly responded: “Oh no, we can’t list that … it’s concrete … it’s communist.”

Image: This five-storey apartment building made of prefabricated concrete panels was ubiquitous in the USSR under Khrushchev. Via The Guardian.