Can we cure our
addiction to concrete ?

In his latest book, Anselm Jappe unfurls a critical history of concrete as a material, starting with its genesis and moving on to its global expansion and then its supremacy. He questions the intentions of its numerous zealots, ranging from the working-class proletariat to international capitalist class, and discusses the effects of this material that exhaust the land and destroys the environments it colonizes. Can we then cure our addiction to concrete? How so? The article focuses on these two questions, using an inquiry into the common construction material in order to question the way we build our cities.

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Brasilia construction, 1959 © Arquivo Nacional

Anselm Jappe

29 May 2021
11 min.
My book Béton – Arme de construction massive du capitalisme [Concrete. Capitalism’s Weapon of Mass Construction] (L’Échappée, 2020) gained a level of traction that ultimately took even myself by surprise. Naturally, ever since I was young, I’ve always heard complaints about “gloomy concrete housing estates”, about concrete, always associated with “grayness.” But compared with nuclear power and oil, with plastics and pesticides, concrete maintained an air of seeming “innocence”. We used to say that it was poorly used rather than blameworthy in its intimate nature. Little by little, even the most ardent “progressives”, had to admit that there could be no “communist” use of nuclear power, nor could there be any pesticide-driven “green revolution” in poor countries without killing the rest of living along with the parasites. Concrete, on the other hand, long continued to be perceived as a material that primarily warranted moderate and appropriate use (as well as being coated in colors). To have concrete—as a material—bear the whole responsibility of the “inhospitableness of our cities” (Alexander Mitscherlich), and particularly of our suburbs, would have seemed just as illogical as to try to explain war through the existence of iron.
Many grievances against concrete have accrued over the past decades however, and they now seem to be ready to be expressed in broad daylight. Some of them are based on scientific evidence and are beyond dispute: concrete isn’t “neutral” with respect to health and the environment. Its production uses a large amount of energy and emits huge volumes of CO2. Lime quarrying damages mountains. The need for huge masses of sand leads to the devastation of rivers, beaches and lakes throughout the world, with many adverse consequences on the environment and the lives of the local inhabitants. Cement dust can cause respiratory ailments, and concrete floors can cause postural issues. Concrete waste is theoretically recyclable but nevertheless frequently dumped somewhere due to cost. In cities, concrete results in heat islands that, combined with air pollution, adversely impact public health, and impose the use of another source of pollution: air conditioning. Soil artificialization, which is everywhere proceeding at a remarkable pace, smothers the land and causes severe, and sometimes dramatic, land cover change when heavy rain occurs. These are “technical” drawbacks for which other technological solutions, paradoxically enough, are often put forward for remediation purposes, or strengthened regulatory constraints. Slightly higher taxes on coal, a sprinkling of state subsidies to make recyclable more convenient… Is that what this is all about?

In my book, I point to another level of the issue that is probably more controversial. When reinforced with steel, concrete has a life expectancy of approximately fifty years—beyond that, it requires expensive maintenance on a continuous basis, which can also fall short, as was the case with the collapse of Morandi Bridge in Genoa. Nevertheless, this short lifespan can still be seen as an advantage, just as with other forms of planned obsolescence: buildings can be continuously replaced, thereby fuelling the economy, which creates jobs, income, and growth—and saves us from the tedium of having to live with buildings from fifty years ago, as outdated as last year’s smartphone. Endless “creative destruction” is the soul of capitalism, as we’ve known since Joseph Schumpeter. It isn’t however always very good for the environment, nor for public finance—but, insofar as it makes it possible to save the fetish of growth year after year, this form of economic religion continues to have its theologians and its devotees.
There is a wider context to this discourse however. Another criticism that can be levelled at concrete is, according to others, on the contrary, its greatest merit: having made twentieth-century architecture possible. The largest dams, bridges, highways, nuclear plants, and skyscrapers wouldn’t exist without concrete, nor would the shantytowns found all over the world, the “masterpieces” of celebrity architects, suburban tract housing, or high-rise housing estates. The right and the left, communists, fascists and democrats have resorted to concrete. It lies at the very heart of one of the core businesses of global capitalism—construction—and was often celebrated by anticapitalist forces in their capacity as a “people’s” or “proletarian” material.

Collapse of the Paulo de Frontin elevation, in 1971. Rio de Janeiro. DR Collapse of the Paulo de Frontin elevation, in 1971. Rio de Janeiro. DR
Who then suffered from the consequences of this unanimous buy-in, from this progressist front that, in the case of concrete, lasted much longer than for nuclear energy or pesticides for instance? There are victims in a narrow sense, buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings, bridges, and dams that couldn’t have been built to the same size and in the same numbers without concrete. Then there are all the human beings who have been parked into dwellings that are devoid of meaning, perhaps indeed having a “roof” in the physical sense, but not a place connecting them to the world anymore, no attachment point. Modernity boasts much about having developed individualism and enabled a shift beyond the rigid collective identities of yore; but what sense of personhood and one’s place in the world can a child brought up behind the seventh door to the left in Building C, second staircase, 15th floor, possibly have?
The global concrete construction frenzy has also struck traditional architectures, apparently to death, doing away with the infinite variations of the art of building invented over thousands of years. Adapted to the local context, using materials available in loco, variable in their details against an overall background of unity, clever in terms of their thermal properties, often achievable as self-builds, while on other occasions resorting to highly sophisticated craftmanship, laden with symbolic meaning, and sustainable, these ways of building are among the best of what humanity has achieved, a domain where it has deployed its ability to adapt to its environment without destroying it to the largest extent. Just as with languages, cuisines, and clothes, houses are surprisingly diverse, teeming with responses to the very same basic problems. Each human culture is already a miracle, yet it is even more marvelous to observe how many times this miracle has occured, and completely unbelievable how many times this miracle occured again and again!

It is also amazing, but in a completely different way, to see how fast—and indeed with great applause, or at least against a background of general indifference—this human heritage has been tossed aside in favor of modern constructions. And if these present any challenges, the proposed remedies make those new conditions even more final. Are the new districts too far away from the city centers and labor pools? Then the purchasing of cars for each and all is promoted. Do these cars congest space? Then highways must be built right in the middle of the city, and park areas everywhere. Is it too cold during the winter and too warm during the summer in the new houses? Then install electrical heating and air conditions everywhere. Do these use a lot of energy? Nuclear power plants will supply it. Do the residents of these new districts become distressed and their children violent? Then create new occupations: social workers, cultural mediators, psychologists, sociologists. Do residents not care about such assistance? Then the state can double the police workforce and install surveillance cameras everywhere. All of this generates employment, fuels the economy, and contributes to economic growth…

Is it concrete’s fault? Would the world be different should these buildings be constructed in something else than concrete? Obviously, things aren’t that simple. Yet, it is no coincidence that they are made of reinforced concrete either: concrete is the flesh of this world, its substance, its prime material. As I also tried to demonstrate in my book, concrete is a sort of “concretization” of capitalism. Not only through its key economic role, but also on a seemingly more abstract level. Capitalism is based on profit, which derives from surplus value. Surplus value only exists as the part of economic “value,” and this value proceeds from the labor that is applied to produce the commodities in question (including its components, tools, machines, and so on). As Karl Marx showed in the early chapters of Capital, what creates the value of a commodity isn’t the particular and concrete labor that creates the value of a commodity (that it is tangible or intangible doesn’t change this), but labor reduced to the mere expenditure of human energy, measured by time. Considered in this way, work is always identical, devoid of qualities, and the only distinctions are quantitative. Marx refers to it as “abstract labor”, or, better said, the “abstract aspect of labor:” in capitalist modernity, all labor, independently of its content, has simultaneously both a concrete aspect (it necessarily leads to the production of something, be it an item or a service) and an abstract aspect (the work itself is bounded in time). It is the abstract side that produces value, and ultimately a price, and thus determines the life of a commodity in question as well as that of those who produce and purchase it.
Abstract labor must therefore be “concretized” in objects. Considering the English word “concrete,” we can argue, with a play on words that nevertheless expresses a deep truth, that concrete constitutes the perfect materialization of abstract work. All the more so given that Marx refers to the mass of undifferentiated abstract labor as being metaphorically “congealed”—and what other material than concrete could represent this unvarying substance, capable of being molded in any shape, indifferent to any content? Only plastic could take on that role.
Such an indictment of concrete will surely raise plenty of somewhat indignant objections. Nevertheless, as we’ve mentioned, this one will find more acceptance than in the past—even among architects, engineers, and urbanists. The big question is then immediately raised: What is the alternative? What could the concrete be replaced with? How should we be building differently? The criticism of capitalistic urbanism as it has been developed since the 1960s (in France primarily thanks to Henri Lefebvre’s work) has long paid little attention to the issue of the materials being used, instead focusing on the social use of space. Today, the concern for the physical aspect of housing seems much stronger. “Environmentally-friendly” materials are especially “trendy,” from the use of adobe to the return of wood and the development of “green” low-emissions concrete…
There is unquestionably some value in such research. In particular the rediscovery of materials that had been almost completely abandoned, such as mud bricks, which could contribute to creating buildings that are better suited to humans (though we shouldn’t forget that housing only represents a small fraction of the reinforced concrete used globally, dwarfed by the dams, bridges, roads, factories, and so on). There is nevertheless a preliminary question that must be discussed. It is almost never raised and, understandably, especially by architects themselves: Should we still be building anything?

The Santo Antônio Dam is a large run-of-river hydroelectric dam on the Rio Madeira in Brazil. DR The Santo Antônio Dam is a large run-of-river hydroelectric dam on the Rio Madeira in Brazil. DR
If we aren’t using concrete, or less of it than before, must we immediately have a replacement at hand? The question is absolutely similar to that concerning energy: since the hazards of nuclear power have become indisputable, while oil is being depleted and has demonstrated its polluting character, and coal has established its reputation as a source of dirty energy, “alternative energies” are now the name of the game. The landscape is being filled with wind turbines, and roofs covered with solar panels (end-of-life management of the panels pose a significant ecological problem). This might not suit everyone but this is nevertheless the price to be paid if we are to decrease the use of nuclear energy without becoming too dependent on suppliers of oil. Energy must come from somewhere after all…
But why? What if we were to admit that a large portion of the energy that is currently being consumed brings no real benefit to humanity? That serves to capture crabs in Norway, send them to Morocco to shell them, then back to Norway to prepare them for sale? To support the military apparatus? To overheat our flats? For daily commutes of a few hundred miles? To create absurd quantities of concrete?
Elementary common sense shows that we could very well gradually phase out polluting energy sources without replacing them at the same scale with other forms of energy. The problem lies in the excessive use of energy, not only in its sources. There are strong reasons to believe that the new forms of energy will not replace the old ones, but be a mere addition to them: hunger for energy is part of capitalism’s very essence and will only subside with the end of capitalism.
We can apply a very similar line of reasoning to the media: for decades, critical voices have been highlighting the danger posed by television for public mental health, as well as democracy, given its potential for mind control. There are many who have enthusiastically welcomed the creation of the Internet, hoping that this more “democratic” and “participatory” media would end up replacing television. Study after study has shown that the average time spent watching television hasn’t gone down, and the time spent on the Internet simply adds on to it, further increasing total screen time.

How are these questions relevant to those concerning concrete? Just as we do not necessarily need alternative energies and alternative mass media, but of less energy and less mass media, we could perhaps live well while building a lot less. Take France for instance: the country’s population has been stable for some time now. Who are we building for? Secondary residences for everyone? And then what? A third or fourth vacation home? Many people are inadequately housed. No doubt, but how many apartments are empty, subject to speculation or investments? How much space is taken up by offices, the disappearance of which would only increase the level of social happiness? How many malls, warehouses, barracks, and “amusement” parks squander space and materials? How many useless highways are disfiguring the landscape, how many parking lots are despoiling agricultural land? Instead of continuing to build, we should be thinking about de-constructing, and dismantling. Part of the space and materials recovered, could, where that would make sense, serve to provide more decent homes to the new “wretched of the Earth” currently stacked in shoeboxes. The recovered steel could be put to use to rebuild a proper railway network. The list goes on.
Utopian? Unrealistic? No more than the idea that we could continue covering the planet with concrete without bringing about disaster. But what about growth, jobs, private property, mobility made divinity, entertainment conceived for those who are wasting their lives making a living? Good question. We began complaining about the excesses of concrete and ended with a full-blown criticism of industrial capitalist society. Critical thinking has its drawbacks.

Anselm Jappe
Anselm Jappe is the author of Guy Debord (University of California Press, 1999), Die Abenteuer der Ware: Für eine neue Wertkritik [Adventures of the Commodity: For A New Criticism of Value] (Unrast Verlag, 2005), L’Avant-garde inacceptable. Réflexions sur Guy Debord [The Unacceptable Avant-Garde. Thoughts on Guy Debord] (Lignes, 2004), Crédit à mort [Credit to Death] (Lignes, 2011), La Société autophage [The Autophagous Society] (La Découverte, 2017), Béton. Arme de construction massive du capitalisme [Concrete. Capitalism’s Weapon of Mass Construction] (L’Echappée, 2020). He currently teaches esthetics at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Sassari in Italy. He contributed to developing the “critique of value” through the German periodicals Krisis and Exit! as well as the French Jaggernaut.