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Objects That Matter: Concrete

More than 130 Berliners died trying to cross the "death strip," the no-man’s-land between two massive concrete walls that divided their city for nearly 30 years.
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Germans have a new word that hints at the rising global value of concrete, as populations multiply and the need for low-cost housing blooms like a poppy in the California sun: Betongold. It translates, literally, to "concrete gold."

There's a reason concrete is the world's most widely used synthetic material, and it's not because concrete is great to look at. Like successful authoritarians, concrete only gets stronger with time: Romans mixed cement with animal blood and volcanic ash to build city-wide fortifications; in Imperial China, concrete was made with sticky rice, one of the secrets to the Great Wall's longevity. The molecules of cement are stacked like a pyramid of oranges, allowing concrete to stretch and compress, to withstand natural disaster and political unrest.

For decades, concrete was the backbone of much of the architecture that rebuilt the world's urban areas in the post-World War II era, in a school of design dubbed Brutalism. In 1959, one of Brutalism's foremost practitioners expressed hope that the style would leave a legacy of "town building."

Instead, concrete is now the currency of the Trump administration's war on immigration. The Department of Homeland Security solicited proposals for a U.S.-Mexico border wall made totally of concrete. California's governor, Jerry Brown, has referred to the project as America's Berlin Wall.

Still, for a president who has praised dictators and expressed contempt for environmental regulation, the idea of building a monument to xenophobia from one of the least environmentally friendly architectural materials on Earth—slightly less than one metric ton of carbon dioxide is released for every metric ton of cement that's mixed—makes a certain sense.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.