Concrete Ruminations from the Middle Ages

As I cross the threshold into my fiftieth year, I find the need to take stock of the world I came to live in, and the times that made me.  I was born in 1963, nearly eighteen years after cessation of hostilities of the Second World War.  It was a time when once former allies who together had defeated Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, were themselves at each other’s throats.  It was their turn now to bring the world to the edge of extinction with even more soaring iconology than the fascists could ever produce, and technologies that could assure the promise of their predictions.  The Cold War, as it came to be known, was made even more engaging by the illusion of instant communication, allowing the potential spectacle of instantaneous destruction to be expansively and expensively delivered into the psyche of every member of the evolved societies, whose governments and major institutions were each perpetrating their own dystopian vision of the other, measured against the domestic empire’s ideological dream.

This was an exciting time.  History has always been a parade, but never before had a stadium been so well created that a totality of audience could be reached.  And as theater, the show was anything but dystopian.

Architecture and technology had refined to the point that materials could be made to make a political point all of its own.  The concrete used for the Berlin Wall became a star in its own right as a touchstone for geopolitical tension.  And using the corpse of Nazi Germany’s capital was the perfect place to plant such a material monument to gain the attention of the global audience.  Nazi Germany after all, had been no slouch in using concrete in the service of the multifarious ways of statecraft.

East German workers begin the construction of the Berlin Wall

So too was concrete used to harden the missile silos used capture the imagination and awe of anybody who cared to think about them.  Hardened concrete was used to protect the vision of how the skies could turn against us. The soaring skies above were now to be billboards too.  For the achievements capable by competing ideologies, combined with a none too subtle reminder of how near the end might be, needed to be as close as the air we breathe, and as distant as the sky that shelters us.  The nightmare was thus wrapped in a dream.

Hardened concrete at the maw of a Titan 2 missile silo.

Concrete also became the foundation, structure, and face of the renovated skylines, and brand new metropolises on each side of the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’.  Architecture soared on the back of this very plastic material, just as state security in its turn, used the same concrete as the visceral image of a safety blanket that spoke volumes about how unsafe the world they proposed actually was.

For either, and indeed both visions to become true, whole new technologies and concomitant materials had to be developed.  Concrete was only one of these material meditations.  Indeed the same technologies that brought us all the vision of the oasis of life our Earth is, also helped us realize the methodology of our own removal.  The good Earth’s willingness to sustain us would not stand, should we be willing and eager to kill ourselves for political principle.  And that was the logic used to inspire us to work towards the correct ideological ends.  Anything was possible, unless we killed ourselves; but if we did, it would be total, and in a blaze of glory.

Far from being a time of pessimisms, this was a time of great deeds.  The greatest of political powers in the world, having forgone the combined human, emotional, material, and financial costs of actual war, had turned the energies of their respective populations to theatrically demonstrate the material manifestations of their ideological prognostications.  They needed their optimism as much as they demanded their obedience.  And great progress was made in almost all fields of human endeavor.  Mercantile colonialism’s yoke had been thrown off in many parts of the world, and the former colonies began to gather themselves together to forge a newly possible national identity and global prowess, even if in so doing they were casting their national experience into Colonialism’s ideological successor’s notion of ‘Spheres of Influence’.

Tweedle Dee
Tweedle Dum

All around the world women were becoming more and more equal participants of the societies they lived in. People were living longer, and there were far more of us.  Agricultural systems that only a few generations earlier could barely sustain a billion people were robust enough to handle the nutritional need of more than three times that amount when I was born, and were seemingly well set to handle even more.  And this was happening all over the world, regardless of ideological stripe.

I arrived in the United States in 1970.  The Vietnam War was in full swing, but the US was still writing its mythology in future tense.  Captain Kirk was as real a vision of this country as the mythologized exploits of the Revolutionary forefathers.

Captain Kirk, once a very real part of America’s Destiny

Everywhere I looked, things were being invented.  Virtually every house that had sufficient extra space had a workshop of often surprising sophistication as part of its compliment of resources, whether it was basement, attic, or garage.  People were making things.  Back then, the building of a modern and capable society required it.

This state of affairs continued until the late eighties, when the cost of the theatrical performance outstripped the Soviet Union’s ability to continue to be a part.  The Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed.  China adopted a free market system, former ideological client states were allowed to founder, and the United States declared itself the ‘One Remaining Superpower’.  An era of prosperity was supposed to have been launched.  But that is not what happened.

In a sense global capitalism had won the day.  It had been most efficient in exciting the desires of a worldwide audience, and delivering material manifestations of those desires to those in societies who could afford them.  Global communism, for reasons often of national cultural incompatibilities and egos, could not compete, could not be as mercurial as the unfettered movement of capital, which required no real national or cultural alliance.  Which is unfortunate, because while the competition continued, certain things were held in check on both sides of the ideological wall; things that global capitalism does not require to the same degree that directly competing internationalist ideological systems do.  One of these was the constant attention to the maintenance and upgrade of infrastructure.  The other was a keen governmental attention to maintaining the spirit of their peoples.  Global capitalism simply requires a system that will enable the infrastructural and social requirement that sales be made.

So what does this have to do with materials like steel, concrete, and wood?  It has to do with the hands of the maker, and the senses of the individuals who can appreciate the concrete exigencies of the making.  And the need to maintain these abilities in the person of a human being in the face of the inevitability of ever greater mechanical manufacturing capabilities.  It has to do with a resistance to making the things that surround us mere commodities.  I have at times made my living making concrete countertops. Real materials can function in many ways.  Concrete is a real material.  That it can also be a countertop; a shelf for all the stuff that keep you alive and comfortable, is immaterial.  That a market can compare it to other surfaces, is more about the market than the material.  After the sale is complete, the material will remain.  The material is what will reflect our touch, and not the sales job that got the sale.  It is within our concrete engagement with a material that a relationship is made.  We must carefully choose how we make decisions that have the consequence of leading to a relationship.  Even if it is only about a countertop.

We are at an important point in our history.  We as a society have discovered that we as a society can make just about anything.  And we discover this at a time when most individuals in the ‘developed’ world have ceded their personal ability to make things to the infrastructure of industrial combines who too often farm the making of things to hands in the ‘undeveloped’ world.  Products too expensive for those hands to ever buy, are sold to us at a price that we could never afford to make them for, even if we remembered how things were made, and how our hands were used.

Designed in California, made in China

We were not born to inhabit a market strategy.  We were born to a world and made of the stuff of that world.  Materials matter.  And we need the honesty of the hands that craft material objects to matter too.

Artists and artisans are valuable to the feel of our culture at a macro level regardless of the media combines that brought them to our global attention.  Artists and artisans are critical to the places and ways we live on a local level.  The nature of a safe and supportive place does not really need the former.  But it requires the latter.

Broadly prosperous peoples have always had a wide and open interplay with those that parse their aesthetics, and convert materials to useful objects.  Empires are often built on focusing attention away from local values, by co-opting the local need for art and materials into the aesthetics of the controlling establishment.  This can be beneficial at times.  Think of clean water delivery, communication services, transportation infrastructure, a codified legal and financial system, as well as a language that allow large amounts of people to understand each other.

But it also can often harm the close places we need to build our homes and communities.  Small towns’ centers shrivel when big box stores park themselves just outside them.  When Nike comes to town, a small self-sufficient fishing village in Indonesia loses those things that used to make it alive, in exchange for sweatshop conditions and unattainable dreams. When IKEA becomes their neighbor, what happens to the generational furniture maker?

In our world, things made next-door cost far more money than things made half a world away.  But if you think about it, is that so strange?  Home is valuable.  To have a home, one must have a place.  That place must be protected, and cared for, and shared.

To do this each of us need to invest in the whole notion of place itself, its durability and survivability.  Just because a lawyer makes more money than the concrete artisan, or the woodworker, or the blacksmith, or the farmer, does not mean a lawyer is more important to the health of the local community.  The pay scale of the attorney does reflect their value to the larger society, and how it sees and constructs itself, but those constructs will never be able to complete a home without the local hands and specialized knowledge to build it.

Concrete home by Atelier Zhanglei; designed in China, made in China.

In order to keep ourselves active in building the society we live in, we need our neighbors. Because sharing the warmth of their presence, we confirm that we have a home.  We need access to the cultural machinery that only close and voluntary cooperation can provide. We need our hands, because they are similar in size as our face, and most of us have two of them… and they allow the mind behind the face to make things that only that mind could.  And it is with the hand-in-hand collaboration of others, where the capability to inspire and make new possibility is built.  We need each other.  And we should want to need each other too.

I want to know that humanity will survive its journey into the stars.  And I want to help get us there.  Amongst other things I make concrete.  Concrete is a human meditation balanced between the extant possibilities of our mineral environment, our ability to see those possibilities, and our ability to manipulate these elements into a fertile condition, making real something that has never been made before.  We will need to be inside this ‘concrete’ meditation to survive on Mars, and elsewhere in the cosmos.  But we will not get there unless more of us invest our interests into that vision here at home, on Earth.

2 thoughts on “Concrete Ruminations from the Middle Ages”

  1. Well stated Mike. You’ve clawed into the underbelly of (what I see as) the oft-professed discomfort underlying so much of the paradoxical ‘participation and disdain’ that forms the meat of political and social commentary. Participation has become commoditized (blogs, tweets and bombs) and the false mediation around the commodification has become (what passes for) craft.

    While reading this I came to more fully grok that during the cold war, using the auto-industry as a model for this, it was more important that we all buy a car than the car be worth the effort of its creation or that it be worth the effort we expend towards it’s acquisition. It was only important that we perform the symbolic act; after all, the Russkies couldn’t perform that act. And the act implied that we in the West were all united under the correct ideology, after all, the proof was in the pudding. Too bad if the pudding dribbled quarts of oil each week and sucked you dry; you’ve got pudding!

    I see and fight every day the loss of craft in my work. Judgement is sales, quality is the judgement; “Why is your team taking so much time to build this? You are slowing sales.” Bonus’s to the sales team, kudos to the marketers and you engineering types? you work too slowly; speed it up. Community isn’t in the sale, community is in the craft and in the necessity of mastery. These things are only accomplished in the right environment – invariably environment in this sense, is community.

    The company I work for is very concerned about this community. So concerned in fact that they publish their “core values”; they have 7 of them. They do this because they value our culture (at work) and they know that we value our culture (at work) so they are fostering our culture – at work. I know this because they tell me so. And they completely miss the point, or more correctly, expect that I will miss the point and not understand that the act of proselytizing your values cheapens and weakens the proseltyzer. In this case, the same tools that promote the commodity are drastically ill-suited to promote the goodness of the salesman.

    There is nothing exceptional in this, companies across the land are professing their innate goodness through ‘value statements’ and ‘healthy work environments’ while demanding artificial efficiency at every turn. Perhaps one day we will return to an understanding that craft and art are not add-ons but are present before and without papers of incorporation and value is innate, not sold. Now eat your pudding.

  2. Enjoyed reading your posts, even though i was interrupted to repair a pumping station so the peoples’ poop will continue to follow its dedicated path under the streets I lovingly crafted years ago. 🙂

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