Built to Last

Concrete is ubiquitous in our modern cities. We walk on, live in, and see concrete every day. Yet concrete was not always so present in everyday life. In the early 1900s concrete’s ascendance was inextricably linked with an emerging canon of modernist principles including permanence, progress, and a faith in technological advances. Over the past century the uses and meanings of concrete have changed, but its material consequences in our day-to-day lives endure. I don’t mean its perceived material attributes that were attractive to modernism, such as quick-drying, strong, long-lasting, fireproof, or earthquake-proof. What I mean are concrete’s cultural and economic impacts and the ways in which it profoundly disrupted the spheres of artisanal craftsmanship and physical labor. The rise of concrete fortified distinctions between labor considered to be unskilled or skilled and manual or mental–distinctions that powerfully dictate how people and practices participate in, and are valued by, our society. In concrete, society found support for new systems of economic stratification, helping pave the way for the rise of the engineer and scientific expertise. This focus often came at the expense of intuitive knowledge and physical craft.

Concrete kitchen countertops made by Robert Lundberg in 2015. Photography by Rob Lundberg, 2016.

Concrete kitchen countertops made by Robert Lundberg in 2015. Photograph by Robert Lundberg, 2016.

Today, the aesthetics depicted above in the photo of my kitchen countertops are desirable and the act of creation emblematic of an idealized do-it-yourself self-sufficiency. Concrete construction has become seen as something anyone can do. While there has always been physical labor in concrete construction requiring kinesthetic knowledge, the notion that this work could be carried out by someone “unskilled” was a new and exciting feature at the beginning of the 20th century. This perceived “deskilling,” attractive to industry, had the opposite effect for residential design. During this period concrete was seen by the North American elite as “cheap,” and there was an idea that working with concrete was inferior compared to craftsmanship such as brickwork and woodwork. It would be several years before concrete became attractive outside of industrial design, but the early 1900s saw the earliest phases of concrete’s burgeoning relationship to modernist ideals.

In the 1930s, businesses throughout the country restructured their workplaces, changing the ways labor and profit were valued and divided, and shifting towards managerial supervision and efficiency. The labor required for building with concrete fit well with this rearrangement. For industrialists, the perceived “deskilling” meant they could pay workers less, and the balance of power between skilled craft labor, unskilled labor, and professional experts shifted to the advantage of professional experts in conjunction with unskilled labor.1

For many years prior to the rise of concrete, carpenters using wood and masons using stone and brick were considered highly skilled artisans who took pride in their craft. In these trades, techniques may have been passed down from family to family or village to village. Yet, in the new “high tech” world of concrete, scientists became fascinated with finding codified and definitive approaches. Reinforced concrete, along with the highly specialized process of developing cement, thrust concrete construction from the world of craft and invention to the world of science and proven methods. Figuring out how to design with concrete and rebar soon became a matter of science, and before long engineers became integral to any design with reinforced concrete. Methods for calculating where and how to position steel bars were sought out before building could begin. Small firms and builders that experimented with inserting steel and iron into concrete and simply “hoping for the best”2 were quickly replaced by college-trained experts to avoid dangerous trial-and-error methods. Uniformity and regularity gave rise to “quality-control,” work became more procedural, and what was once a “piecemeal accumulation of bricks became a steady concrete pour.”3

With new replicable protocols predetermined and then conducted by the worker, different bodies could carry out the thinking and doing, whether the labor was deemed mental or manual. Like many 20th century industries, concrete both bolstered and was bolstered by technical expertise, particularly that of white collar workers like engineers, material scientists, architects, and managers. In line with the modernist ethos, people began to turn to scientific expertise, which was intricately tied to university training, for answers on how to build safely and efficiently. Work could be conducted off-site before any building actually took place, allowing for a more paint-by-numbers construction process. Those who conceived of ideas also became valued more than those implementing them. This new structure replaced the influence of wood and stone artisans with a small cadre of highly trained, well-paid specialists. Furthermore, many employers believed that weakening unions would lead to a world without strikes and without restrictions of trade, and concrete construction offered an opportunity to break with traditional craftsman and thus bypass their unions.

Workers in 1930 laying bricks for 28th Street in Manhattan. Image from New York Municipal Archives & Daily Mail.

Workers in 1930 laying bricks for 28th Street in Manhattan. Image from New York Municipal Archives & Daily Mail.

With this move towards “unskilled,” meaning lower-paid labor and weaker unions, there was plenty of resistance from artisans. They didn’t want to lose respect, see wage cuts, or no longer have the right to advocate for better working conditions. So they encouraged people not to use concrete, sometimes by trying to show that concrete was unappealing and undesirable. For example, in 1916 the editors of the Journal of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America recorded a waitress remarking about her new job at a restaurant with a concrete floor: “I have done this work all my life, but since I came to work at this place I am so tired at night I can hardly move.”4

1913 issue of The Carpenter, the monthly trade journal of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

1913 issue of The Carpenter, the monthly trade journal of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

The pervasiveness of concrete in the contemporary landscape shows that these early efforts did not succeed in making concrete undesirable. As trade unions diminished, trade organizations of industrialists and scientific experts formed. The American Society for Testing and Materials and the Portland Cement Association (PCA) were two of the most influential. The PCA initially formed to figure out what to do with reusable cement sacks. This soon developed into a major organization with labs designed for the development and promotion of cement, with the mantra “concrete for permanence.”

Given that site workers were no longer allowed to make judgments about quality, there was pressure for artisans to learn technical skills in order to maintain their status and responsibly. Universities were advertising to attract those who had been in craft professions to give them the new tools of technical expertise. Courses to supplement their practical expertise, like reading blueprints, were offered to increase their earning potential. A 1914 advertisement from the School of Scranton, Pennsylvania, proclaimed: “Today is a battle of wits – and brains win! Muscle and brawn don’t count as much as they used to.”5 The path toward success was moving away from artisanship and tradition towards scientifically trained cerebral labor.

Reconstruction of roadway with concrete foundation, northwest Bronx, 1925. Image from Creative Commons.

Reconstruction of roadway with concrete foundation, northwest Bronx, 1925. Image from Creative Commons.

Having decisions made by college-trained engineers was very attractive to those who believed these methods were safer and more efficient, but this distinction created barriers to upward mobility. In construction, the physical laborers could not be promoted unless they had college degrees. This was not likely to happen as getting that degree was deeply connected to social privilege. Engineering programs spoke of manliness, which excluded women, and of the inherited characteristics of a good engineer, which excluded other races or ethnicities. Who newcomers are, and the xenophobia and bias against them, changes throughout time. In the early days of concrete, Catholic Italian and Irish men made up most of the manual labor workforce. Despite the workplace experience of these immigrants, however, the engineers and supervisors who were white Protestant men were deemed more “trustworthy” and “best” for the job. Hiring was affected as craft unions, family, and regional networks had diminishing influence and immigrants were hired for unskilled jobs instead of union artisans. These new workers were chosen because they were thought to be more isolated, less privileged, and therefore “less likely to resist interference with their working practices.”6 In other words, they were not as likely to demand better working conditions or higher pay. The rise of concrete brought with it ways of working that fit well with the industrialist, capitalist, and modernist goals of the 20th century, prioritizing cerebral knowledge and formalized training over the day-to-day production and handy-work now conducted by dispensable bodies and lives.

In today’s social and political landscape people are increasingly questioning scientific expertise, as epitomized by climate change denial (Trump is not a “believer”). There is also confusion as to how expertise is built; on-the-job training competes with academic certification. Questioning scientific expertise is interlocked with the contested realm of public versus private economic ideologies, and challenges to institutional support are mostly in service of a question: can the free market provide equal knowledge, quality control, innovation, and expertise? Yet, the modernist ethos of functionality, permanence, and progress remains strong, and techno-utopianism is now sought via techno-liberal assumptions that limited control alongside increased access to technology will lead to innovation and culminate in social gains.

Concrete is symbolic, carrying with it the modernist ideals of the early 20th century, as well as the economic and social stratification it propelled. To see this confluence means not only examining the concrete we walk on, but also the influx of support to “STEM” fields and the increasing size and enrollment in college engineering programs. Concurrently, it means noticing the predominantly immigrant day laborers waiting in front of informal sites such as hardware stores, gas stations, and busy streets. It also means questioning how we choose to address this divide. In order to democratize who can rise in this system, instead of re-evaluating attitudes about progress, growth, intuitive knowledge, or craft, there has been a concerted effort to enable a more diverse demographic to go to college and, even more importantly, to join this value system.

While the forces of modernism have contributed in many ways to egalitarianism, it is important to notice the ways in which these qualities can be exclusionary: prioritization of product over ongoing labor; permanence over ephemerality; functionality over decoration; fact over feeling; and “high tech” industry over crafting and other work seen as “low tech” or domestic. These choices historically have had material consequences to anyone outside of the heteronormative stereotype of the white Protestant male, the one who was “best” for the job. Concrete affected the entire composition of the building industry, and by extension, of our modern infrastructure. But its rise is indicative of an ideological system that leaves behind innumerable forms of knowledge, ways of learning, working, and living. The laborer, forgotten and under-supported, is only one aspect of an entire invisible hegemony dictating who and what we value. Concrete surrounds us; it can also remind us of the recent past and our shifting relationship to that which we find attractive: structurally, aesthetically, and ideologically.

Featured image: University of California, Berkeley, Wurster Hall: College of Environmental Design. Iconic concrete structure opened in 1964. Image from Rocor

Alexandra Lakind is pursuing a joint PhD at University of the Wisconsin-Madison in Education & Environmental Studies with cross-field appropriation from Science and Technology Studies, Public Humanities, and Cultural Studies. She is interested in cooperative environments that moderate pressures born out of our market-driven society. Through implicit and explicit, academic and performative routes, her work aims to recognize and foster supportive communities prepared to process unanswerable dilemmas together. Contact.

  1. “Skilled” or “unskilled” labor doesn’t have to do with the work itself, but with who does the work and what is required to be allowed to do it. This distinction has as much to do with the training required to become involved in the trade as with the perception of involved skills. That is, how much expertise people believe is required to work with a given material. 

  2. Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture: A Material History (London: Reaction Books, 2013), 17. 

  3. Amy E. Slaton, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American Building, 1900-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 4. 

  4. Slaton, Reinforced Concrete, 156. 

  5. Slaton, Reinforced Concrete, 192. 

  6. Forty, Concrete and Culture, 239. 

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