A Global History of Cement

Concerned with multiple disciplinary perspectives, in this research project I study the restructuring and impact of a globalizing cement industry at the local and planetary scale – and the profession’s and discipline’s relation towards this kind of extractivism. Moving beyond a celebratory approach to a modernist architectural culture based on concrete, my focus is on how processes of urbanization and the provision of infrastructure in the name of sustainability on the one hand, and continued belief in progress and growth in the name of development and modernization on the other hand, play out globally. Through case studies in both the Global North and South, integrating approaches from architectural history, economic and urban geography, cultural and material anthropology, urban political ecology, to environmental history and humanities, Cement. Building Material of the Anthropocene investigates the environmental impact and the geopolitical disrupture of the current way cement is produced, used, advertised and distributed.

Starting from historical research concerned with how the cement industry was nationally syndicalized and internationally expanded, this research project is concerned with the geographies of how cement production became globalized, which in the past called for corporate social responsibility. While Africa is portraited as the next frontier for cement producers, the big players once again divide the global markets anew. China, which in the five years after the 2008 crisis has used up more cement than the US did during the 20th century, now with its “Belt and Road”-initiative is pushing the frontiers of the urbanization of capital through cement use forward to the next level. In a corporate perspective, new driving forces for cement are seen in the accelerating expansion of infrastructure across the globe, as well as the need for costal fortification and eventually the relocation of megacities. In contrast, the production and use of cement is central in claiming political, national and cultural emancipation while with the withdrawal of the state from the provision of housing and services, the commodification is at the base to raise living standards.

Today, as a beginning has been made by a relatively small but influential group of architects and academics to challenge the international cement business precisely because of the life span of the energy embedded in the building material, a comparative analysis of cement production and use is largely unexplored and the careful formulation of a critical perspective in architectural studies, as one of the humanities, based on ethical principles has yet to happen. While the self-proclaimed global market leader, the Swiss-French LafargeHolcim, over the last 15 years has invested in a widespread marketing campaign, encompassing a global awards for sustainable construction, and an international conference series, as well as further greenwashing through corporate funding for academia and culture, with the project I aim to develop new perspectives on how to think and act in a global perspective, to decolonialize and decarbonize architectural knowledge, and how to position the research project in a global perspective to strive for social and environmental justice.

In the framework of this research project, I have lectured at the HafenCity University Hamburg, DE; TU Cottbus, DE; in the context of the 2022 SAH conference in Pittsburgh, US; Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, AT; Vi Per Gallery, Prague, CZ; FHNW, Basel, CH; TU Berlin, DE; HSLU Lucerne, CH and in the context of the 2018 SAH conference in Minneapolis, US.