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.
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.