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A brief history of concrete

There are many things about concrete that made us fall in love with its aesthetics, versatility and the atmosphere it creates. This love led us to decide to dedicate years to explore its potential and make beautiful objects from it. Needless to say, during our concrete-producing journey we had to research and learn quite a bit about its history to truly understand what we’re working with. As a substance, it’s quite simple, but it’s impact on how we shaped our world is monumental. So, if you’ve ever wondered how our cities turned into ‘concrete jungles’, we’re sharing what we know so read on.

In 200 years, it’s become a silent – barely noticeable – and ubiquitous observer of our lives

It’s the most prevalent man-made material in the world. There’s so much of it to go round that each person on this planet could own three tons. By all accounts, that’s a lot of concrete. Yet, if you think about it, we rarely think about concrete at all. It’s existed in its modern form for only two brief centuries. Yet the cement- and sand-based substance has seeped unstoppably to all four corners of the world. It’s done this in such an unassuming manner that it seems like it’s always been here, that it isn’t a relatively new kid on the block. In those 200 years, it’s become a silent – barely noticeable – and ubiquitous observer of our lives. It’s just ‘there’, a bit like the air, or the sky. But is it really as invisible as all that?

 

Boston    |     photo by Gunnar KlackBoston | photo by Gunnar Klack

 

Let’s be flat-out honest here. There’s a side to concrete that has always been repellent, right? It’s often seen as the poor, basic, unloved sibling of other substances. Little wonder that whenever concrete is mentioned or referred to, the first associative thought that crystallises in many a mind is a faceless urban landscape, deprived of – and, in turn, depriving others of – the greenery of nature. Who is the worst (but by no means the only) culprit? Enter the commie block.

No other material divides opinion to the extent that concrete does

This infamous reputation is a real shame because, as with most things, there’s two sides to every coin. The other side is the side that made it the most widely-used man-made medium: it’s a remarkably good building material. It props up the foundations and holds rigid the lanky sides of ridiculously tall buildings and cheap housing blocks for millions of people.


But enough about how much concrete there is. Because if you really think about it, buildings of wood, stone, brick, steel, and glass abound too, right? However, none of those divide opinion to the extent that concrete does. So why is that?

Hydroklinika, Druskininkai    |     photo by Nicloas GospierreHydroklinika, Druskininkai | photo by Nicloas Gospierre

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, people believed they’d discovered an everlasting substance, something stone-like that could be moulded into all sorts of new forms. As soon as architects realised they could make smooth, uninterrupted surfaces stretch out for longer than ever before witnessed, they got creative.

A great idea on paper, but in reality it was taken to extremes

This creativity is perhaps most evident in the futurist-looking utilitarian structures and large communal spaces that were built all around the world. Often, these constructions are labelled as of a ‘socialist’ style, even if they had nothing to do with any form of socialism. In fact, there wasn’t anything particularly ideological about concrete as a material that drove the Eastern Bloc to use it like it was going out of fashion. Concrete just happened to develop roughly around the same time as the emerging Communist movement, and provided a perfect base for the colossal ambitions of the newly emerging system.

KyreniaKyrenia

 

Concrete really came into its own after the Second World War, when destruction across an entire continent had driven urban areas to overpopulation. The idea was to prefabricate a few building models and keep reproducing them to meet the feverish housing demands. A great idea on paper, but in reality it was taken to extremes as hundreds and hundreds of blocks, like the Khrushchyovka, were churned out by factories in a construction frenzy. These concrete prefabs are much maligned today, but they actually offered privacy to those who were doomed to live with three other families in a single flat due to the shortages of affordable living spaces up until then.

Concrete Mixer    |     photo by Jim WaddingtonConcrete Mixer | photo by Jim Waddington

 

Aside from the fact that whole city blocks were now being produced in factories, what also made concrete unique is that it has made the building process democratic. Preparing a mixture and setting up a mould can be a fairly simple process that can be done with very little skill. Suddenly, anyone can be a builder. You don’t have to rely on craftsmen and experts anymore – just rope in your family, friends and neighbours and you’re all set.

Suddenly, anyone can be a builder

Sometimes the end result is a success – and sometimes perhaps not so much. Landscapes from eastern Europe to Latin America and back are peppered with half-built concrete buildings in a state of architectural limbo. Perhaps there’s a lack of funds; perhaps the owners’ interest in these houses wanes; perhaps they can’t decide what type of house they want. But in the end it doesn’t really matter, because even an unfinished concrete construction can provide a functional living space.

Tate Modern    |     photo by Alexander SvenssonTate Modern | photo by Alexander Svensson

 

When exposed to weather, concrete doesn’t age very well – it stains, it cracks, it generally looks ‘off’. But even decaying concrete has creative potential. If nothing else, it’s brilliant for one thing: to provide a home for culture. The way contemporary culture has found its place among concrete reflects its industrial character, as seen in repurposed abandoned warehouses and other industrial objects.

An atmosphere that elevates the experience of art

Bare concrete creates a perfect juxtaposition to art in warehouse-converted cultural spaces. In an attempt to find a new purpose for many empty industrial properties, the unsophisticated becomes the perfect bedfellow for the sophisticated. And this combination has shown that it works well – it creates an atmosphere that elevates the experience of art. Stripped of any fine touches, concrete is like a blank canvas that holds so much character naturally, even before anything is placed inside it. The concrete space itself serves as pure complementary function.


So, once you think about it a bit more, you realise that this supposedly basic and dull material actually has a complex underlayer. It’s actually surprisingly versatile, and has vibrant stories to tell.

The Star by Jun Ong    |     photo by Ronaldas BuozisThe Star by Jun Ong | photo by Ronaldas Buozis

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