An Environmental History of Cement
Critical Building Material of the 20th Century
Dr Sarah Nichols (Rice University)
Dr Matthias Schmelzer (University of Jena)
Given that certain building materials (concrete, steel, glass, plastic) are at the heart of our modern lives, of society and culture, and of architecture and urbanism, this methods workshop studied architecture and its history through the lens of one building material, cement (mixed with water and aggregates, sand and gravel main ingredient of concrete), its specific histories and geographies, in the UK and beyond.
Cement as crucial, if not critical material, was studied in a transdisciplinary approach; next to architectural history and urban history this included a material history. The workshop primarily applied one specific approach, the environmental history as coined by William Cronon in his classic study Nature’s Metropolis (1991), to cement and its production and use over the 20th century.
Cronon’s approach, considered a proto-Actor-Network-Theory, has previously been utilized to study commodity chains at different scales. In this workshop the environmental frame was extended to cement, the most used material after water, energy intensive and carbon emission, through the lens of a new materialism, as well as political economy, political ecology, and political geology.
The aim was to approach a material history, of cement and concrete, in a twofold perspective, critically and speculatively, by looking back and by projecting, e.g. encompassing issues like patents and production, codes, standards, specifications, and regulations, commodity, supply and value chains, price mechanisms and economies of scale, carbon and environmental footprint, path dependencies, etc.
The students had the task of working in groups on aspects of architectural, urban, environmental, economic, and political histories of cement, in terms of three thematic clusters: “Building/Culture”, “Economies/Ecologies”, “Landscape/Territories”.
During the workshop, which combined phases of research, presentation, critique, and production, the students acquired knowledge, skills, and abilities by:
- conducting case-based research into a specific building material on the basis of a transdisciplinary perspective
- applying and developing architectural skills of visualisation, combined with those of narration
Harry Edward Tate
Sally-Ann So Kei Ho