Collection no. 011: Concrete
Editors: Max D. Woodworth (Ohio State University) and Cecilia Chu (Chinese University of Hong Kong)
In this issue of Roadsides, we propose to assemble diverse scholars to contribute work that examines the many applications and meanings of concrete. Concrete is formed through a chemical reaction that hardens its constituent components – fluid cement and aggregate – into a durable building material. As a substance that begins as a fluid, concrete is uniquely malleable among building materials, making it flexible and adaptive to many different specifications and needs. It is used in the construction of most modern infrastructure, mass housing, public buildings, sidewalks and roads, and vernacular dwellings. Concrete thus finds uses in virtually all elements of the built environment and, though often overlooked, possesses multivalent significance and ongoing importance in everyday life, economy, culture, and ecology (Harkness, Simonetti and Winter 2015; Choplin 2023).
Though concrete has been used for millennia, it has had a powerful resonance as a quintessentially “modern” material (Parnell 2015). This association is largely due to its vastly expanded use over the past century and a half and its expanded application not just in architectural construction but across the building trades more generally. The geographical scope of concrete usage has also grown immensely over time, replacing other local building materials as it gets adopted in new places. In a most basic sense, then, the widespread adoption of concrete is tied to the creation of a more flexible (read: cheaper) labor force than the specialized craftsman trades that previously dominated construction. As a result, the growing use of concrete is inextricable from the expansion of cities, industry, and what more broadly gets referred to as “modern development” (Gandy 2003; Campanella 2008). We can scarcely imagine the contemporary built environment without concrete.
Recent scholarship on the modern built environment has also challenged longstanding explanations of new building materials as the result of the march of progress. Forty’s (2012) monograph on the cultural histories of concrete, for example, highlights the varied usages and interpretations of concrete in different spaces and times. While it has been a symbol of modernization under capitalist and socialist regimes (Schwenkel 2015, 2020) and has served as a highly visible material in the construction of iconic modern architecture and infrastructures (Melhuish 2005), concrete is also linked to failures of certain political projects, the incompleteness of which then gives rise to new, unanticipated political potentialities (Pétursdóttir 2013; Arboleda 2017; Gonzalez-Ruibal 2017; Bennett 2021; Littlejohn 2021). Ethnographic studies of cement in different settings capture how such a mundane material achieves significance stretching from the everyday to the geo-political (Abourahme 2014; Elinoff 2017, 2019; Zeeve 2019; Choplin 2020; Zeiderman 2020; Menon 2022). Some of these works are informed by a burgeoning subfield known as new materialism, which argues that matter has a life force of its own and hence its performance does not always correspond with human intentions (Bennett, 2010). The material agency of concrete and its temporality is illustrated in Harvey’s (2010) study of concrete road construction and state building in Peru. Despite its presumed association with stability, durability and strength, the concrete used in road paving that aims to bolster connectivity tended to break up frequently, leading not only to physical hazards but also significant damage to the legitimacy and public image of governments sponsoring these projects (Harvey and Knox 2010). Decay of poorly maintained concrete structures has, in fact, been linked symbolically to various kinds of social and political erosion in contexts as diverse as Sikkim (McDuie-Ra and Chettri 2020) and Italy (Arboleda 2017). Finally, concrete figures centrally in the problem of climate change due to its enormous embodied carbon content tied to the production of cement, its key ingredient (RMI 2023). Attempts to deploy alternatives, such as “aircrete” (Degani 2020), may bear fruit in decades ahead; but, for now, concrete remains the dominant source material of the built environment.
Ultimately, the burgeoning critical literature addressing concrete alerts us to its vitality as a material and symbol dense with contradictions and possibilities, all of them tied to vast geographies and varied histories. Building on insights derived from the scholarship outlined above, papers in this issue will consider the potency of concrete and its social, technical, and political entanglements in a variety of contexts around the world. As a substance that offers ideational promises of modernity, development and nation-building, concrete has long been deployed by industrialists and state authorities to underscore their capacity to improve the lives of citizens and transform the social milieu. At the same time, its widespread informal use by self-builders in poorer regions provides yet another facet to the relation between concrete and the “modern.” By examining the processes through which concrete has been used to construct different assemblages of built forms and its uneven impacts on local economies, communities, and ecologies, we seek to understand the socio-cultural significance of concrete and its material agency in the ongoing reshaping of the forms and norms of the built environment. Furthermore, we expect this issue to also attend to the growing concerns over the environmental sustainability of building materials, as well as the challenges posed by the maintenance of the ever-expanding stock of concrete buildings and infrastructures in the twenty-first century.
For this issue, we invite submissions for short scholarly articles, creative texts, and photographic essays. Across the submissions for this issue, we hope to engage some of the following questions, though this is hardly an exhaustive list:
- How do the visual qualities and material functions of concrete intertwine in specific development projects?
- How does concrete produce new experiences and aesthetic registers through specific assemblages?
- What sorts of everyday engagements with concrete affect its ongoing performance?
- How are economies impacted by the growing ubiquity of concrete in construction?
- How has the growing use of concrete transformed the meanings and significance of vernacular dwellings in specific contexts?
- How is the climate crisis in different settings connected to the use of concrete?
- What is the relation between concrete and ruins and ruination?
Please send a title, abstract (max. 300 words) and a short biography (max. 200 words) by October 1, 2023, with the subject line “Roadsides: Concrete” to Max D. Woodworth (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Cecilia Chu (email@example.com). Please also specify the type of contribution that you intend to submit. We accept short articles, interviews, multimedia and photographic essays, among others. Please consult the “Guide for Authors” for detailed descriptions of the possible formats: https://roadsides.net/guide-for-authors/).
Authors of conditionally invited essays will be notified by October 20, 2023 at the latest. Final essays are due by December 4, 2023 and will subsequently undergo a “double-open” peer review. Publication of the issue is scheduled for April 2024.
Nasser, Abourahme. 2014. “Assembling and Spilling-Over. Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39 (2): 200-17.
Arboleda, Pablo. 2017. “‘Ruins of modernity’: The critical implications of unfinished public works in Italy.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41 (5): 804-20.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Bennett, Mia M. 2021. “The Making of Post‐Post‐Soviet Ruins: Infrastructure Development and Disintegration in Contemporary Russia.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 45 (2): 332-47.
Choplin, Armelle. 2023. Concrete City: Material Flows and Urbanization in West Africa. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Choplin, Armelle. 2020. “Cementing Africa: Cement flows and city-making along the West African corridor (Accra, Lomé, Cotonou, Lagos)”. Urban Studies 57 (9): 1977-93.
Degani, Michael. 2020. “Air in Unexpected Places: Metabolism, Design, and the Making of an ‘African’ Aircrete.” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 38 (2): 125-45.
Elinoff, Eli. 2019. “Cement.” Theorizing the Contemporary: Fieldsights. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/cement
Elinoff, Eli. 2017. “Concrete and corruption.” City 21 (5): 587-96.
Forty, Adrian. 2012. Concrete and Culture: A Material History. London: Reaktion Books.
Gandy, Matthew. 2003. Concrete and clay: reworking nature in New York City. Boston: MIT Press.
González-Ruibal, Alfredo. 2017. “Ruins of the South.” In: Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krystal Ryzewski, 149-70. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harkness, Cristián Simonetti and Judith Winter. 2015. “Liquid Rock: Gathering, Flattening, Curing.” Parallax 21 (3): 309-26.
Harvey, Penny. 2018. “Infrastructures in and out of Time: The Promise of Roads in Contemporary Peru.” In: The promise of infrastructure, edited by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, 80-101. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Harvey, Penny and Hannah Knox. 2010. “Abstraction, materiality and the ‘science of the concrete’ in engineering practice.” In: Material Powers: Cultural studies, history and the material turn, edited by Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce, 124-41. New York: Routledge.
Littlejohn, Andrew. 2021. “Ruins for the future: Critical allegory and disaster governance in post‐tsunami Japan.” American Ethnologist 48 (1): 7-21.
McDuie-Ra, Duncan and Mona Chettri. 2020. “Concreting the frontier: Modernity and its entanglements in Sikkim, India.” Political Geography 76: 102089.
Menon, Siddarth. 2022. “Caste, class, gender, and the materiality of cement houses in India.” Antipode 55 (2): 574-598.
Melhuish, Clare. 2005. “Towards a phenomenology of the concrete megastructure: Space and perception at the Brunswick Centre, London.” Journal of Material Culture 10 (1): 5-29.
Parnell, Stephen. 2015. “The meanings of concrete: Introduction.” The Journal of Architecture 20 (3): 371-75.
Pétursdóttir, Þóra. “Concrete matters: Ruins of modernity and the things called heritage.” Journal of Social Archaeology 13 (1): 31-53.
Schwenkel, Christina. “Spectacular infrastructure and its breakdown in socialist Vietnam.” American Ethnologist 42 (3): 520-34.
Schwenkel, Christina. 2020. Building socialism: The afterlife of East German architecture in urban Vietnam. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Zeeve, Nimrod Ben. 2019. “Building to Survive: The Politics of Cement in Mandate Palestine.” Jerusalem Quarterly 79: 39-62.
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