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Perspectives Materials

Immaterial: Concrete

What makes concrete so controversial? Well, it’s complicated.

Jun 8, 2022

Detail of a concrete object with a crack running up the left side with the text

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Read full transcript with artwork images here


Concrete. Love it or hate it, it’s completely unavoidable in the modern world. It contains many dualities; it can be as smooth as marble or so rough it tears your skin. In summer, it retains heat; in winter, it amplifies the cold. It’s liquid but can turn hard enough to hold up elevated highways and dam rivers. It’s not just a cheap construction material for official buildings or the poignant centerpiece of brutalist architecture, it’s a substance that has been transforming the world around us for more than two hundred years. But what makes concrete truly divisive is the way it communicates power… simply by existing.

In this episode, you will meet some curators at The Met with very strong opinions about concrete. According to architecture curator Abraham Thomas, it was seen as a “sort of utopian material” that inspired “bold new visions for architecture” but failed to live up to these aspirations through no fault of its own (although that didn’t stop Frank Lloyd Wright from choosing it as the ideal medium for creating his textile block houses). Architecture expert Adrian Forty lays out the importance of concrete to the rebuilding of the world after World War II, and explains how its strength makes it a poignant and powerful tool for the construction of memorials. Met scientist Marco Leona dives into the chemistry of concrete (spoiler alert: it’s more of a kind of material than one specific formula), as well as the ways empires and autocrats have employed concrete as a means of expanding their rule.

The second half of this episode focuses on Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, who has been using the material in her art for decades, developing a vital, sharp, and evocative visual language that responds to violence in its most abstract and universal sense. In one very special work of art in The Met’s Modern and Contemporary galleries, Untitled, Salcedo uses concrete to create a memorial that evokes an overwhelming feeling of absence while acting as a catalyst for internal reflection and public dialogue about trauma and grief. Modern and Contemporary Art curator Iria Candela describes the importance of Salcedo’s work, her relationship to concrete, and the journey her work took to arrive at The Met.

Listen for the whole story, and scroll through the gallery below to take a closer look at the art mentioned in the episode and some highlights made from concrete in The Met collection.

Audio © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Recorded by Danny Hoshino on November 2, 2016, Harvard Art Museums

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Irving Penn's "The Tarot Reader (Bridget Tichenor and Jean Patchett), New York" with two women in stylist black clothing reading tarot cards with a diagram of a hand behind them