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Reviewed by:
  • Concrete and Culture: A Material History. by Adrian Forty
  • Amy E. Slaton (bio)
Concrete and Culture: A Material History. by Adrian Forty. London: Reaktion Books, 2012; distributed by University of Chicago Press. Pp. 335. $40.

In recent years, concrete has increasingly drawn attention from architecture, business, technology, and labor historians. Happily for those of us fascinated by the stuff, Adrian Forty’s cultural history of concrete represents still another disciplinary embrace of this ubiquitous material, in this case as an object of critical praise, distaste, and general aesthetic curiosity over the last century. With this book in hand we can now ask something of a meta-question: Among arbiters of culture, who has cared about concrete, and why? [End Page 279]

Forty writes about architects, builders, photographers, critics, entrepreneurs, and politicians who have engaged with the material since its commercial introduction around 1900, covering global contexts both developed and developing. He considers the highest of high design (concrete structures by Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret, Louis Kahn, Moshe Safdie, Rachel Whiteread, and others) alongside the routine and anonymous (Estonian telegraph poles and modest favela homes). The book describes disparate ideological drivers behind concrete’s expansion in the twentieth century, ranging from American capitalists to Communist leaders to the Catholic Church, tracing the value of the material to cultural authorities whether as an object of excitement (variously heralding avant-garde genius, institutional power, or unprecedented economic expediency) or dismay (as when it has signified for tastemakers the crude default modality of commerce or a regrettable recourse of the poor and aesthetically naive).

In tracking a single commodity across many times and places the book doesn’t always hold together (and unfortunately the same is literally true of Reaktion’s binding: the volume fell apart at first reading). I’d definitely commend Forty, however, for denying simplistic cultural trajectories, as functionalism and brutalism have driven previous studies of concrete architecture. Instead, here we follow concrete’s deployment in cathedrals, homes, and barns, in stadia, bridges, and war memorials, all of widely varying expressive intention. We see technological innovations come to seem praiseworthy for different audiences at different times and watch the physical manifestations of that fervor take shape. In this way the book could help us see more clearly the rightist political instrumentalities of technological novelty, on which so much state and private investment is based globally today, as well as citizens’ uptake of or resistance to those enthusiasms.

Forty, however, doesn’t orient the account around such broader lessons, and it’s sometimes hard to know what to do with a book that documents primarily historical indeterminacy: the weathering of concrete is seen by some actors as welcome, by others as disagreeable; the material expresses political liberality in one instance, reactionary zeal in another; it is banal and depressing to some, exalted and sensual to others. …

What readers of Technology and Culture might miss most here is a potentially unifying engagement with the question of why bodies of technical knowledge or practice gain value in any historical setting—a way of interrogating what we customarily call progress. While Forty nicely shows relative degrees of conventional expertise involved in different episodes of concrete use, he skirts the bridging question of how the same knowledge (how to mix concrete so one’s structure stands up; how to impress one’s patrons) can come to comprise different activities for different practitioners. There are other interpretive angles that might knit these fascinating cases together. For example, I was glad, if a little confused, each time the author dismissed as reductive a binary on which he had just appeared to rely analytically (say, competing historical characterizations of concrete as [End Page 280] modern and not modern, or natural and not natural). But Forty spends little time asking why these categories and not others have historically dominated influential conversations about concrete (the book points to examples of non-expert concrete construction but does not generally discuss non-elite understandings of the medium). Crucially, Forty never really sinks his teeth into the modern cultural efficacy of modernization itself as an analytical category: Who has cared about change over time, and why? Surely Forty himself is one such...


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pp. 279-281
Launched on MUSE
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