From soviet five-year plans to the New Deal in the US and China’s Great Leap Forward to post-war building in Europe, concrete has been the material of choice for revolutionary change
“This process,” wrote François Coignet in 1861 of his new product, “will transform the safety, well-being, health and morality of mankind.” He predicted it would inspire nothing less than a “revolution” – not a word to be used lightly with the events of 1848 still fresh in the French memory.
Coignet’s new product was concrete, and he wasn’t far wrong in his predictions – except maybe for the bit about morality. Coignet was a Saint-Simonian socialist, which is to say that, unlike Marx, he thought social equality could be achieved without class war. He believed that concrete would be a step towards a world in which working people would own the means of production. Wherever the raw materials for concrete – sand and limestone – were available, which is to say just about everywhere, people of no skill would be empowered to build clean, dry, comfortable dwellings and be able to live in dignity. No more peasants’ hovels.
Concrete changes not just people’s material existence. It changes their global self-image
Our species is addicted to concrete. We use more of it than anything else except water. Like that other manmade wonder material, plastic, concrete transformed construction and advanced human health. But, as with plastic, we are only now waking up to its dangers.
Architects and engineers visiting favelas such as Rocinha, left, in Rio de Janeiro have been astonished by the economy and ingenuity of the concrete structures. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/Mauro Pimentel
Concrete transformed infrastructure projects in the 20th century, allowing building on a scale never previously seen, from the Hoover dam (top) Boulder dam as well as road projects such as the Chiswick flyover (bottom left). Photographs: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty
Nikita Khrushchev’s first major speech after the death of Stalin [was] on the advantages of concrete. It lasted three hours
Known as Khrushchevka, this type of five-storey apartment building is made of prefabricated concrete panels, and was developed in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev was in power in the USSR. Photograph: Andrei Makhonin/Tass
Three of the different models of prefabricated housing used in Britain to deal with housing shortages following the second world war. Photographs: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty/Keystone Features/Evening Standard