The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Concrete and Culture: A Material History

by Adrian  Forty (Reaktion Books, 304pp, £27)

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

This is not a straightforward history – architectural or otherwise – of the development and use of concrete, but something even more fascinating.  I say ‘even’, aware that many might say ‘marginally’ more;  for concrete, once greeted with euphoria, is now seen as an awkward subject, although things are definitely shifting.   Adrian Forty is Professor of Architectural History at London University’s Bartlett School of Architecture, and has given lectures to the Society. I was not surprised by him recounting that ‘when I told people I was writing a book about concrete they would raise an eyebrow as if to say, “you can’t be serious”’. I’ve been there and beyond;  try telling anyone you are working on a book about the conservation of historic concrete, as I’ve just been doing, and see the response you get.

I’m really pleased by the appearance of this book, and by the enthusiastic response it has had. Sorting out our complex reactions to concrete is critical to successfully campaigning for the preservation of concrete buildings, and although Forty insists that his book ‘is not an apology for concrete, meant to win people over to it’, I am optimistic that his thoughtful and intelligent exploration will, even if unintentionally, do just that.

Forty explains that ‘It’s the place this medium occupies in our heads’ that interests him: what are our gut reactions to concrete?   What associations and connections do we make when we see a concrete surface, or the image of a concrete structure?  And by ‘we’, he means not just architecture enthusiasts, but the general public, people who probably react only subconsciously to concrete in their home or the wider environment.   Despite this main focus, he also includes a comprehensive history of cement production and casting techniques, with an even-handed and geographically wide-ranging set of examples.  He says that it’s more productive to think of concrete as a medium rather than a material: it’s the ways in which it has been used that are critical, while the exact nature of the material is a slippery thing to pin down. He quotes Frank Lloyd Wright: ‘Is it stone? Yes and No.  Is it Plaster? Yes and No.  Is it Brick or Tile? Yes and No.  Is it Cast Iron…’ etc.).  He explores (among other topics) the often challenging and ambiguous relationships concrete has with nature and memory, drawing not just on buildings, but on engineering infrastructure, films, novels and minimalist and other artworks (including  Rachel Whiteread’s House and the large scale installations of Donald Judd).

It is not a book that provides tidy answers, but rather a meditation on ‘multiple ambivalences’, which seems appropriate.   On our recent Lyon trip (to be reviewed in our next issue) I stood and stared at the curious lump of concrete by the entrance to Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, and felt newly challenged – it seems charged with meaning, but it remains a mystery.  Forty concludes by predicting that ‘the instability of the relationship between concrete and culture will remain’, and that it will shift further in the future, in ways as yet hard to anticipate.   For now I agree with him that ‘Concrete is but one symptom of our discomfort with modernity and everything that comes with it’, but seeing how far attitudes to buildings such as the South Bank Centre have already changed, this may not be so for much longer. Forty says he thought writing this book ‘was going to be an excuse for some fun trips’, but that it turned out to be a major intellectual tussle. Either way, I highly recommend what is a very good read.

Published May 2013