Some Reflections on Concrete Formwork

Every building material symbolizes something, and the most modern building materials are no exception. Glass, we have been told, is representative of “transparency” and democracy, even though glass is never entirely invisible. Similarly, we have been educated to believe, after visiting countless airports, that brightly coloured steel, or better yet, chromed or stainless steel (along with glass to the point of being a default material) is a symbol of technological advancement, precision and scientific progress. Meanwhile, another kind of steel, one whose surface is intended to rust (Cor-ten), has come to symbolize a certain ‘artiness’ in architecture, perhaps because so many public sculptures are made out of this material. Wood, meanwhile, a material once associated with home-grown, back-to-the-land hippy houses in the middle of nowhere, has in the last years suddenly become seen as the building material of the future, since it is the only building material that is carbon-neutral.

Concrete retaining wall near Barcelona

And then there is concrete, the building material that is loathed by all except for a minority of passionate aficionados who could only, possibly, have a background in architecture. Concrete is the most carbon-intensive material, the most difficult to re-use or recycle, and the most criticizable material from an ecological perspective, but it is the only material that can take on virtually any form imaginable. This very plasticity reveals a great deal about the way it is used; even about the socio-economic state of a society.

In countries where labour costs are high, such as Europe or North America, concrete structures tend to be thick and unrefined, while in countries with low wages, concrete tends to be used much more sparingly and carefully. This is why we usually see the most elegant and efficient concrete structures in places such as Latin America, where it makes economic sense to invest in innovative design and laborious formwork if that means saving on material costs. In a country like Spain, on the other hand, concrete tends to be poured thickly and generously into highly standardized formwork, and only in the rarest occasions into custom-made formwork, because concrete is still relatively cheap compared to labour costs. And yet, as we know, since the start of the crisis, Spanish wages have fallen dramatically, though somehow still not enough to satisfy the neoliberal agenda of the Troika and the Spanish government. Perhaps conservatives will only be happy with Spain’s socio-economic health on the day they see concrete poured sparingly into architect-designed formwork crafted painstakingly by slaves.

Curious how a bad deal for workers all too often means a good one not only for conservatives, but also for architecture.


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  1. In middle east, the story is a bit different. Almost all of construction labor in Middle East are very very cheap and maltreated. In Iran, most of workers in the construction sector are Afghan refugees who have fled their homeland because of war and who do not possess a residence permit in Iran. Thus, their labor is very cheap. They are not insured, and they often work without helmets and safety equipment. In Lebanon, it’s the same story with Palestinian and Syrian workers. In Egypt, the cheap workforce often come from Sudan, Lybia, and deprived southern villages of Egypt. In Arab states around the Persian Gulf such as Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the cheap and enslaved workforce come from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Pakistan. These workers have had absolutely no official training in construction. They have to quickly -and often through try and error- learn how to wield steel and pour concrete. When a client commissions an architect (and that is rare because most of the buildings are drawn -and not designed- by civil engineers or clients themselves), the architect’s first challenge is how to design something which is ‘constructable’ by these untrained workers. Thus, bulky and unrefined concrete boxes are the inevitable result. many people say why should we commission architects? They also design concrete boxes like others!! Except for some iconic buildings in Dubai (which I believe do not possess any quality except being dis-proportionally big and tall), that is the story across Middle East. Here, cheap labor doesn’t result in innovative designs.

  2. Thanks, Mostafa, for sharing your insight. Now that you mention it, the svelte Latin American concrete architecture I refer to is largely from a certain period, 1940s to 1970s; i.e. BEFORE the neoliberal global onslaught. What you say makes me realize that I may be wrong in facetiously assuming that the finesse of concrete work might improve if / when Spanish labor becomes even cheaper. It may in fact result in what you say.

  3. Is it a labour issue, or is ‘labour’ the synecdoche for unskilled thinking? I did an endless series of posts on concrete a couple of years ago in the run up to On Site 29: geology: that included Le Corbusier’s Tsentrosoyuz Headquarters of 1936. There was a vocabulary of concrete in the 1920s-50s that seems to either have been lost, or else subsumed into covered-up structure or the pre-cast industry.

    What is more simple, labour and cost-wise than a concrete sidewalk? In 2012 our 1910 sidewalk, which was in great shape, was removed in favour of a new, narrower sidewalk poured by a crew of young South American boys, foreign workers perhaps but who had landed a good job with the concrete construction company with a City contract. They laughed and joked and sang their way over block after block of sidewalk; the day they did my section keeping up on their iPads and iPhones with Ecuador’s qualifying match for the world cup. This isn’t a romanticisation of the happy workers toiling in the service of the rich first world, it is just a job. It is the specifications for the sidewalk that is the problem: costs were cut, the concrete was too shallow, the mix too fresh, and then it rained, two years later the surface is crumbling. The Italian head of the crew shook his head all through it: they all knew how it should be, but time and materials were cut short.

    There might be a connection between corruption and form: both can be hidden.

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