Stills from filmed material in US, spring 2018: old concrete mining, discovery of concrete, MIT archive post WWII material development, Green Center for Earth Science (EAPS), New England Aquarium, Boston City Hall, Boston Common, Public Garden, United nations General Assembly Building, Holyoke Center, Peabody Terrace, Health and Human Services Building/ Government Building/Lindemann Building, Lincon House, Weintraub permaculture homestead, and Stratton Student Center.
In 2017 I started the long term project Concrete Aesthetics: From Universial Rights to Financial Post-Democracy inroled in a pratical PhD at the university of Copenhagen, The Danish Royale Art Academy and MIT (Art, Culture and Techonology (ACT), School of Architecture and Planning, Massachusetts I
nstitute of Technology).
Concrete is the most widely used building material in the world. Its production is negatively linked to climate change, and its aesthetic to financial speculation and the inequality of what Colin Crouch has termed the ‘post-democratic’ era.
Once the concrete aesthetic once spoke the language of progress, universal rights and a better society. Today, that disrupted political aesthetic demands cultural analysis, just as much as the carbon footprint and techno-fossils of concrete demand scientific attention. What does the aesthetic of concrete mean in a globalised world that regularly teeters at the edge of financial crisis and invites a certain environmental one?
The goal of this project is to analyse the historical movement from the Modern era of universal rights and democracy, toward a new era dominated by the global circulation of finance, and the effect that has on aesthetic language and meaning. This will be explored by examining the contrast between the history of concrete within art and cultural practice in the immediate post World War Two era in Europe and the aesthetic and ideological meaning of concrete in today’s globalised economy. That race for economic resources will partly be mapped in the zones of the ‘Global Commons’ - zones outside the borders of national states, such as the ‘High Sea and Deep Sea Bed’. Those areas are deeply affected by the ‘resource wars’, especially over the sand used for concrete production. What does such extraction mean for economics, political life and, crucially, the environment?
The project is theoretical and practical. The theoretical aspect of the research will focus on the social and ideological beliefs that dominated each era to build a picture of how the cultural meaning of concrete has changed. The histories that differentiate one place, or site of action, from another are crucial. The democratic context that once gave Modernist concrete it’s meaning in Scandinavia contrasts sharply with the post-democratic environment of today’s Special Economic Zones. The practical part of this research will employ research-orientated creative practice to explore the potential of art and architectural interventions to generate new, materially embodied, understandings of these developments.
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Concrete Nature: The Planetary Sand Bank
Right now I am finishing the first chapter, chapter four, of the film, Concrete Nature: Planetary Sand Bank - see images above. It is a component in my PhD Concrete Aesthetics – from Universal Rights to Financial Post-Democracy.
The film was shot around in and around the MIT campus, Cambridge, Boston, New York, Hudson River, High Fall, London, and includes historical images. The film explores concrete buildings that were politicized before they were constructed, before an architect lent them their particular voice; buildings whose political speech is now being overwritten, rewritten, and erased, by the shifting sands of ideology and environment.
As David Harvey observed when discussing the production of space, “space cannot be thought independently from productions of nature” – human interference in nature is a part of nature, not separate from it. Concrete Modernism grew from sand, aggregate and lime, to embody the societal values of 20th century Modernity. But the connection between material and cultural and ideological values has proved ideologically flexible. Look onto a concrete building, and its material surfaces and interior spaces, and we might meet the speech of the democratic era that followed world war two. But perhaps we also see the environmental destruction wrought by today’s ‘extractivist economy’. Or, perhaps we see humankind’s bright, deep-space future, a 21st century concrete modernism to be 3D printed on the moon or passing asteroids, as envisaged by advocates of ‘The New Space Industrial Age’.
‘Spaces’ create images from the perspective of a particular place, set of social relations, and the dynamics of history and time. The material spaces of landscape, housing and urban life, and the material resources we extract to support that particular version of life, are always crisscrossed with human power relations.
Where concrete modernity once appeared a sight of hope, we are now assailed by the concept of ‘Carbon Democracy’ and the fact of climate collapse on a planetary level. From another perspective, democratic agency is being levelled down by an era of rising economic and political inequality. In turn, democratic political power is decentralised and weakened, only for that power to be recentralised in the private boardrooms of post-national corporations. The collapse into ‘post-democracy’ now appears to parallel the collapse into climate chaos. Both quicker and faster than we imagined a decade ago.
In our time, the concrete that once appeared to embody universal and timeless values rots as social ambitions falter and fade. History’s one-way road to progress proved not to be politically inevitable, and experience now reveals its disastrous environmental consequences. Dissipating democracy parallels planetary realignment – the political body and the planet choke on hope.