Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Concrete and communism

I was on holiday in Bulgaria last week. As I walked back to the hotel from the resort centre, something caught my eye. Another hotel had a long, sweeping concrete walkway leading from ground level to an upper floor. This futuristic looking construction was supported by elegant and narrow concrete pillars. There was definitely something stylish about it but there was also something distinctly derelict. I don't think anyone had walked along it for many years (it may even have been blocked off at one end) and I could see large patches of crumbling concrete on the underside - cracked and fractured by the rusting and expanding reinforced steel structure within.

What a shame. The walkway would've looked cool once - part of an architect's vision of the future. And that's what got me thinking...

Crumbling and neglected concrete is absolutely a feature of the former Eastern Bloc countries I have visited. It seems like concrete suited the communist planners. Concrete was used for everything - apartment blocks, public buildings, public art, train stations, lamp posts, telegraph polls, bus shelters, road signs, park benches, litter bins...the Berlin Wall - the list could go on. It's like there was a belief in concrete as the building material of the future. It was used extensively in the West too - often part of Britain's post-war New Jerusalem. There was nothing concrete couldn't achieve - a universal material that levelled the old inequalities, applied to all and took society into a newer, fairer future.

These are exactly the qualities (or myths) that appeal to communists. And maybe the concrete and communism parallel goes further? Over time they both fade and stain. The early ideals become compromised by clumsy, ugly and lazy application. The inner structure or principles corrode and weaken and the whole thing becomes unsound and liable to collapse.

Maybe I don't know very much about politics or architecture? Probably not, but until I find out otherwise (or maybe you can tell me?), I'll keep thinking about the parallel between these two things. But at least I've explained to myself why I'm drawn to Eastern Europe's crumbling concrete structures? And maybe that's why I feel so sad whenever I see these futuristic designs looking so decrepit and broken?

And you know what? As I walk amongst modern Manchester's redevelopment and new architecture, I can see that concrete is still being used. It's almost made a comeback. If done properly, there's a future for concrete. If only someone could work out how to 'do' communism properly, maybe there's a future for that too?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was a really good exhibition on at the Whitworth just over a year ago called 'Concrete Thoughts' by Steven Gartside and Sam Gathercole. I'll lend you the catalogue it has some stuff you might be interested in following up. Sarah.