chapter
The concrete memory of modernity
Excerpts from a Moscow diary
Pages 20

They say that I am old. Ancient. That I was played with in Imperial China and

christened in the Coliseum and Pantheon of ancient Rome. They say that wage

labour is old too. That on the same building sites of antiquity, workers paid by

the piece or the day laboured alongside slaves. But like myself, the idea of a

wage as a general condition underpinning everything we do is very modern

indeed. I am concrete. I underpin modernity. I think of myself in two ways. As a

noun referring to my use as a building material, and in a more philosophical

sense. To make something concrete. To materialise an idea. To concretise a

revolution. Forgotten in Europe during the dark ages, it took a philosophical and

social revolution for me to be remembered. I was rediscovered in the union of the natural sciences and capitalist economic competition, the crucible of modern technological change. They say it was an ingenuous Englishman, one Joseph Aspdin in 1824, who invented the modern catalyst to building construction by burning chalk and clay together in a limekiln to produce Portland cement. He had no idea of the consequences of his actions. Even more incalculable and unimaginable in its implications for urban development were the visionary activities of a French gardener, Joseph Monier. In an innocuous wire-reinforced flowerpot he inadvertently discovered in 1867 the panacea and pariah of twentieth-century modern architecture. A new opportunity for me to express myself. No longer just concrete, I became reinforced, a single act of genius that opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Stronger than ever before, and capable of being mass-produced under factory conditions.