Concrete Reveries begins with a meditation on concrete, the gray, malleable stuff that turns hard when set and is one of the principal building blocks of modern cities. Mark Kingwell describes the texture as having a tough muscularity and thinks of the iron rebar inside as its skeleton. The rain marks chiaroscuro patterns on its micro-pitted surface. For him, a concrete wall seems to weep in the rain as the water runs down the surface, appearing like mascara on a crying face. Although he finds concrete beautiful, especially in the rain, Kingwell points out that it is a material that people love to hate in preference to natural building products such as wood or finished stone. He admits concrete has been abused as a building material, constructing, for example, Soviet-style apartment blocks, faceless structures such as parking lots, and the soulless academic boxes that have become synonymous with the modern university. In the defense of concrete, however, Kingwell observes that although any material becomes the sum of its treatments, it does not need to be so.
Concrete is not just basic to the structures of the urban moment: It is also central to the perceptions of the city, especially in creating the idea of the contemporary, alienated metropolitan imagination, the concrete jungle that permeates the modern artistic sensibility. “Concrete is also expressive and rewarding, a human material for all its toughness. It is capable of making a complex statement, exciting a nuanced reaction,” Kingwell writes, and he notes that at one time concrete was lauded as a revolutionary building material, as avant-garde as glass. In spite of its solidity and seeming intractability, concrete is nevertheless a plastic material, as architect Frank Lloyd Wright observed, one seeking form by an elemental alchemy of the stuff of the earthsand, rocks, and so on. It is an argument designed to counter the natural materials critics. This back-and-forth debatebetween concrete’s perceived negative aspects and its qualities made positive under Kingwell’s creative gazeforms a tension that typifies the intellectual structure of the book. It is one of the purposes of his study to encourage his readers to learn to observe textures, and by extension the city, as surfaces writ large in new and different ways, expanding his readers’ experience of the urban space.
Kingwell posits that the transnational global city is the most significant machine ever produced by humans. Every major urban center is a testament to a human desire to master nature in the drive for order, cleanliness, and beauty that is the center of the civilizing project, according to Sigmund Freud. As Kingwell notes: We are cities and cities are us. “And yet, we fail,” he writes, “again and again, to understand them correctly. Almost all of our models of metaphors for thinking about cities are inadequate . . . .” Cities are not biological, but they exhibit organic features: They experience growth, disease, and decline. They are more than architecture, violence, or commerce, although all three are part of the city’s character. Kingwell quotes the urbanist Kevin Lynch, who identifies five ways of attempting a unifying model for the city: “an organism, an economic engine, a communications network, a system of linked decisions, and an arena of conflict.” All are helpful ways to envision the city, but none is adequate to sum up the breadth of the ways to experience it.
Cities are not just systems, markets, or arenas but, as Kingwell describes them, collisions of natural conditions, material forces, and human desire. They are tangles of vectors and imponderables. First and foremost, though, cities are places, areas of significance, physical staging grounds. “Places are environments, sites of action, horizons of concern.” With these evocative observations, Kingwell begins a philosophical and physical investigation into what he describes as the built environment, especially the...
(The entire section is 1,678 words.)