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 1848still 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.
Since Coignet’s time, concrete has often been referred to as revolutionary, but this revolution has taken on three very different guises.
The first has been the one envisaged by Coignet, through which a superior means of construction has been brought within reach of the world’s poor.
The second revolution of concrete has been to transform building with a new structural technique. It has allowed constructions that could only be imagined before the 20th century: dams, bridges, tunnels of a scale never before possible. These are the sorts of achievements that the cement and concrete industry does like to celebrate – and there is no question that these structures have transformed people’s lives, too, by overcoming nature, speeding up communications and bringing us closer together.
But of all the features of concrete that might be considered revolutionary, what has perhaps been the most important has been its use to bring about rapid change. When sudden or urgent transformations were called for, whether it was five-year plans in the Soviet Union, the New Deal in the USA, the Great Leap Forward in China, or post-second world war housebuilding in Europe, concrete was pressed into service.