How Concrete Crumbled: Speculations on the Demise (and Return) of Optimism
Rami el Samahy

The research gathered in this exhibition demonstrates not only the pivotal role of concrete in Boston, but the pivotal role of Boston in the development of architectural concrete in North America. All of which begs the question: what happened? Exposed concrete went from being the building material of choice to anathema in a matter of years.

Naive or otherwise, a palpable optimism is evident in the heroic words and designs of the architects engaged in this period. However flawed, these plans reflected noble ideals of social justice and the betterment of humanity. As the era waned, so too did the feeling that the future held greater promise than the past. That confidence in a better future remained embodied in the buildings themselves, but their very presence served as bitter reminders of their failed ideals. How did this come to pass?

A number of factors conspired to finish concrete off in a drama befitting the demise of Julius Caesar. In concrete’s case, the role of Cassius, leader of the tyrannicide, is played by steel. Envious of concrete’s meteoric rise to the top, steel seized the moment of the economic downturn following the oil embargo to turn conditions in its favor. As a resource, its desirability grew as the cost of labor increased. Faster to assemble, steel minimized the time of construction, requiring fewer man hours and offering a higher pay rate. As labor politics go, the strength of the steel workers union was among the highest in the country. It is no coincidence that even today, areas where concrete construction prevails have a very weak union presence.

Sensing the changing winds, developers quickly followed suit. Buildings began to acquire historical accoutrements in an effort to go unnoticed, to blend in. In the risk-averse climate of a recession, architectural timidity became considered a rational behavior. When the recession ended, however, it was simply more profitable to continue working under this new development model than to revert to an earlier, more intrepid way of building.

And finally, it must be said: in this Caesarian analogy, the architectural community played the part of Brutus. This is not all damnation. It must be remembered that Brutus was the most noble of the conspirators. He drives his dagger in the back not for greed or ambition, but for the good of the republic.

In similar fashion, architects abandoned concrete for its perceived association with the positive, but failed, intentions of big government, urban renewal, and its housing projects. In the name of the people, architects embraced historical preservation, community design reviews, and in the case of Boston, brick. Thus, without advocates, without practitioners skilled in the art of the pour, concrete crumbled away.

Concrete has not completely disappeared in Boston. It remains in our bridges, our overpasses, in our tunnels, relegated to all the discarded infrastructural places that contemporary living demands but wishes it could wish away. It need not be so. New developments in concrete technology, such as fiber-reinforced concrete, offer promises of increased resistance, self- compaction, and durability. The impossibly thin but robust proportions enabled by these new technologies and methods could lead to a central role for concrete, one that speaks directly to our time. Once again, concrete could reflect a new kind of optimism that is no less rooted in a valuing of progress—smaller in scope, with a lighter footprint perhaps, but no less noble.

Rami el Samahy is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, teaching architecture and urban design on both the Pittsburgh and Doha campuses. He is a founding principal of the architecture firm over,under.