Things around us shape us, influence us, and create an experience. They shape our environments, our economies and our life in perhaps not so obvious a manner. Things around us are part and parcel of our lived experience.

Human geography delineates and details how people relate to the world around them, including the human response to landscape. Going beyond immediate factors like economic conditions, the human geographer may study, for example, the materials used in constructing a house, architecture, morals and others, qualitatively researching a facet of culture. As such, it combines geography, philosophy, psychology, religion, art and most importantly, the human self.

Among many ways of studying human geography is a methodology based on open-ended conversations, which allows researchers to collect data about what people say and what they do.

A built space, a piece of concrete, a dam, a water pipe—any piece of infrastructures can ease a human geographer into studying equations of power, poverty, access and deprivation, of power and politics.

For Siddharth Menon, it is built space. Rather than focusing on aspects of design of built space, he focuses on the tangible: the actual materials of the built space, with what materials buildings are made, where they come from, who are involved, what it is doing for them, what it is doing to the landscape.

That way of thinking connected him to places and people.

“That was my focus as a practising architect and I have continued to think about building materials as a critical social scientist,” he says.

Menon got his undergraduate degree in architecture from Mumbai University in 2011. The degree took him to drawings—plans, elevations, sections of the built environment, but it did not prepare him to ask critical questions about the built environment. He then worked as a professional architect in rural India from 2011 to 2016—Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Odisha. He encouraged building with local materials, techniques, and skills. In 2016, he decided to study the structural conditions under which communities across rural India are shifting house building materials from kuccha to pucca or mud to concrete, and entered a Masters programme in Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, USA. He is now a PhD student in Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. 

The social sciences have traditionally used cultural and social categories as frameworks of analysis. But the recent direction has been to study how materials around us shape our social life. Menon is writing a thesis on the ethnography of concrete. He is exploring the social and material life of concrete in rapidly urbanising South Asia, especially in Kerala and documenting its impact on economies, environments and on us.

As we have a social life, concrete has a social life. Oh, sand has it too.

For Fountain Ink, Menon maps the terrain of his thinking and walks us through the geographies of his work.

 

Infrastructures: it’s physical, visual structures, as commonly understood. But what do they connote, what is their implication.

There’s been a huge interest in infrastructure construction in the recent past. Recent data suggests most of India’s urbanisation will be fuelled by private housing and infrastructure building. There has been quite a lot of interest on infrastructure in the humanistic social sciences. Until now, scholars started their analysis from social categories like class, gender, caste, and other identities trying to understand how these were being challenged, contested, and transformed, or not. The study of infrastructure inverses that process.

One starts with what you call ‘physical visual structures’ and then unearths the social process those structures conceal. For example, a road or a house in India is about the materials and the form of it, but also about the dreams, aspirations, and desires that come with it. That may be the desire for modernity, aspirations for economic progress, and security. All of these emotions are used by governments to push infrastructure projects because they are known to produce economic activity. These projects also bring forth a whole set of technocrats and experts, like bureaucrats, engineers, contractors, labourers, involved in its construction and who try to engineer this thing and make it happen. So infrastructure is more than just technical physical things, it is an assemblage of materials, identities, landscapes, states, people, dreams, etc.

 

When and how did you encounter this web, these assemblages and felt like figuring it out for yourself.

After years of practice, I realised that most clients who wanted to build with mud were well-meaning elite members of India: social activists, NGOs, intellectuals, entrepreneurs. Local masons I worked with didn’t want mud at all, everyone aspired to concrete. I was interested in understanding their reasons and hence decided to study urban space through a theoretical lens, and hence human geography.

During my travels across rural India, I witnessed first-hand the wealth and diversity of indigenous building techniques across the Indian subcontinent. There exist rich time-honed practices of building houses with local materials, techniques, and skills. I never learnt this in architecture school. That’s what first got me hooked to building materials.

Thereafter, elite urban India thought people in rural India were switching to concrete only because it was cheaper than local materials, because of its political economy, they were not aware of the environmental consequences. Very soon, I realised that is not the case. That’s when I understood that popular knowledge about the shift in construction practices is limited and I needed to study it further.

Before starting research, I was  strongly against concrete use because of the environmental damage it caused. I advocated against concrete both through my practice and my writings and teachings. But I realised that like other things in life, it wasn’t as black and white. Concrete can also be an excellent material under certain conditions and one needed to understand them and its connection to shifting cultural values in our cities.

So infrastructure is more than just technical physical things, it is an assemblage of materials, identities, landscapes, states, people, dreams, etc.

 

So, what are thoughts on the meaning of social and material life of concrete. When we use term ‘life’ it implies existence, growth, and others.

It refers to a recent move in the humanistic social sciences to take seriously the agency of non-humans things to shape how social life unfolds. Concrete has a social life. These are the connections, networks, and relationships that are formed during concrete construction in cities. Between bureaucrats, cement retailers, contractors, cement companies, builders, civil engineers, labourers, sand dredgers, etc. My research aims to reveal these complex structures and actors that control concrete construction.

But, for a long time in the social sciences, the science of the material and how it shapes ways of living has been neglected. Therefore, I will also study how the material life of concrete shapes different political economic aspects of cities. For example, sand is a crucial component of concrete. Where is it coming from, what is it doing to landscapes and people involved in dredging, how is it creating conditions of extreme climate change events like the 2018 Kerala floods and landslides, etc?

 

Concrete...Why? Why does that ring a bell for you...drive you to study it?

My interest in concrete comes from my work as a grassroots architect in rural India. Traditionally all buildings across the world used locally sourced materials like mud, bamboo, stone, wood, etc. In India, one still finds places where this takes place today. But this is changing, as people rapidly replace these kuccha materials with modern pucca materials like cement, concrete, steel, glass, paint, etc. My personal interest in this narrative emerged when I witnessed this transition taking place right now. I was particularly interested in the cultural politics of this transition where the urban elite critiqued it while living in fancy city condominiums and second homes.

Rural and peri-urban communities aspired for the same things as their urban counterparts, they wanted materials like concrete. And they were well aware of the environmental damage they caused. I came to know when speaking to Bihariji, a mason from Himachal Pradesh who worked with me. He said that all these rich city people are coming to our villages to build their second homes in mud, we’re not inspired by it. We just want to build in pucca.

 

Concrete is a political material and one needs to study how so...could you please explain. It’s also economic, environmental material and artefact... 

Concrete is used in almost every urban infrastructure. This makes it the second most consumed material on earth after water. The material is assembled together on building sites using cement, stone aggregate, water, and the labour of construction workers. The cement industry has been a great help to the economy of countries. This can be witnessed with China’s investment in urban construction requiring cement. This can also be witnessed with the growth of the Indian cement industry post-liberalisation and with the amount of jobs the cement and concrete industry provides.

If cement is the muscle of concrete, sand and stone are the skeleton that give concrete its robust shape. Sand and stone are extracted from rivers and hills. For concrete, the best sand is river sand because of its lower salinity and jagged edges. There are numerous reports of violent contestations around sand mining across India and of illegal sand mafias.

In Kerala, sand mining from rivers has been banned except for a few rivers. This forced builders to look to M-sand or manufactured sand, produced by blasting quarry rock into fine particles. Rock quarrying has sprung up across the Western Ghats, most of them illegal, and a lot of them were responsible for the severity of the Kerala floods and landslides in 2018 and 2019.


Traditonal methods of building houses using mud bricks and local materials have given way to concrete. Photo: Special arrangement

What about your observations on Kerala, in terms of your research.

I’m still at initial stage of research in Kerala, but it’s a unique case study. First, the consecutive 2018 and 2019 floods and landslides caused massive death and destruction. It was well-publicised that this was a human-induced disaster. One of the causes was excessive development, particularly around cities like Kochi, which led to unchecked sand dredging and stone quarrying in local rivers and hills, and all this increased the severity of the disaster. The study on the use of concrete in urban construction in Kochi and Kerala will be timely in terms of understanding its role in the environmental degradation climate change disasters.

Kerala is also important because it has the been at the forefront of sustainable building initiatives through the work and legacy of Laurie Baker. It will be important to see how his values are being challenged, contested, extended in today’s Kerala.

 

Could you give personal examples of how concrete affected the local environment, how it redrew social relations, and how it affected local economy.

In the Kangra valley of Himachal Pradesh, houses were always built with adobe or sun dried mud bricks, bamboo, stone, wood, and slate tiles for roof. All these materials were sourced either from your land, village or within a 35 km radius. With the rise of pucca houses, there have been changes. Local rivers have been licenced to the kedaars or contractors who arrive with tractors and extract sand and stone from the riverbed. This alters the rate of flow and course of rivers. Coupled with climate change and precarious living in the Himalayas, there is a disaster waiting to happen. When houses were built with mud, all the skills were also sourced within in the village, the money spent on a house circulated in the village economy, to the mason, carpenter, stone cutter, all of whom were neighbours.

This has changed with market products, where the money is funnelled straight to the banks of fancy corporations in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru, leading to stagnation in the village economy. In terms of social relations, earlier all building tasks were performed by a master mason along with a team of apprentices and helpers. Everyone knew what they had to do and how the overall project would evolve, they were skilled to different extents.

Concrete has given rise to building contractors who come with truck loads of migrant labour, low paid and tasked with the menial and laborious job of mixing and pouring concrete. This has led to de-skilling of local labour force and a strain on social relations in the village. The contractors are invariably from higher castes, thereby widening existing social inequalities. Also, it increases the gap between higher-paid experts like contractors, engineers, architects, and lowest-paid labourers, who are mostly migrants and primarily women.

 

How does concrete get entangled in socio-material realities and how did it become part of human life and hence of politics.

Politics happens when there are contestations around something. With the social transformation that is being fuelled by concrete construction, it’s leading to more contestation between different sections of society. Some communities are benefiting from it, others are not. Historically, cities use concrete because of its robust, timeless qualities. While the material is associated with modernity its roots are also very rudimentary; almost any person can with minimal training use concrete to build. This aspect has really led to democratisation of building practices, since anyone can buy a bag of cement and build it. These aspects have made it so pervasive across the Indian landscape.


How does concrete provide a framework or lens to study different aspects of life such as power, poverty, access and denial and so on...

After water, concrete is the second most consumed material on earth. One can’t walk two feet in a city without encountering this basic material. It is the de facto material of urbanisation across the world. Hence, it becomes a fundamental part of contemporary life in cities; in concrete are hidden dreams, desires, ideas, discourses. For example, in Himachal Pradesh, people liked to build with pucca because it represented progress and development, people felt emotions like pride and prestige when they owned a concrete house; concrete became a useful means of storing value, concrete also opens up a lot of historic questions in terms of state-led development initiatives.

Historically, concrete has been around for more than two millennia; it was used by nomadic tribes in west Asia and by the Roman empire, so it is not a new material. The main thing about contemporary concrete is that it used Portland cement, which was patented in the 19th century in England and then exported to every part of the British empire to make colonial and military infrastructure. It could do things that traditional materials could not, like span longer distances and carry heavier loads. It created a feeling of awe for the colonised people. Thereafter, in postcolonial India, big projects like dams and canals were promoted by the state as “temples of modern India”, new modernist cities like Chandigarh were built out of concrete. In these ways, concrete became a synonym for development and modernity in India. These reasons make concrete a good analytical lens and framework to look at larger social relations in contemporary Indian cities.

Concrete is a great way of storing value, both cultural value and economic value, people call it liquid rock. Once you build a house in concrete, it should last 2-3 generations, that’s the goal for people, so it’s a great place to invest money since a well built concrete house will last long.  

You say you have gone from critic of concrete to believing it works under some circumstances.

As mentioned, contemporary concrete came to India through British colonial rule in the late 19th century. Thereafter, it was used by the postcolonial state to build dams and modern cities, it came to be associated with modernity. Today people will go to any length to make a concrete house, even if that means going into debt. They might just have money to make the house half pucca and half kuccha, an incremental way, they will do that; some houses might only have a pucca plaster, it might be kuccha from the inside, people will also do that, so the cultural value of using concrete plays out in different ways on the ground.

Concrete is a great way of storing value, both cultural value and economic value, people call it liquid rock. Once you build a house in concrete, it should last 2-3 generations, that’s the goal for people, so it’s a great place to invest money since a well built concrete house will last long.

There is also an issue of maintenance. Mud houses need to be maintained every day/week in terms of mud and cowdung plaster. This has also changed with concrete houses, since maintenance costs have gone down, but heating and cooling costs have gone up, because mud houses are thermodynamically much better. So, there are many factors why people are building concrete house, and all of them need to be taken into account.

 

Why is this research important?

We live in an increasingly urban world where two-thirds of world’s population is set to live in urban settlements by 2050 according to the latest UN study. India is set to add more than 400 million urban residents by then. Most of this urbanisation will take place through housing and infrastructure in peri-urban regions of cities with concrete. It is imperative that this widespread concretisation of the Indian landscape occurs as equitably as possible without further social and environmental inequalities. My research on concrete construction in peri-urban Kochi will have important policy implications for these expanding peripheries.

The first goal is to identify the structures of the phenomenon of ubiquitous concrete use. The next goal is to inform policies of both urban planning and environmental regulation regarding concrete construction. The latter is still a while away.

One should care because we live in a world where climate change is a daily part of reality, and our actions have a direct impact on all our interdependent lives. Concrete is a crucial part of this reality as it is the de facto material of urbanisation across the Global South. Across India, we see how sand has become a rare commodity with violent struggles for its control, a lot of which is for concrete. Therefore, it’s important to study how we build our houses, why we do so, and its effects of social and environment.

 

What role do architects have in urban and rural India...given climate crises impacts like flooding, heat, heat island effect, and disease.

Architects don’t have much of a role to play here, because in developing countries like India, less than 10 per cent of all buildings are built by architects. The rest are built by home-owners, contractors and local masons. I would argue that the impact of architects in India is negligible. It’s more important that we understand how the remaining 90 per cent of India builds, especially in times of extreme climate change events, because they are going to be more frequent and more severe.

 

You have travelled a lot. Please share your personal experiences in some of the places you had been to.

I worked in different part of the rural India, there exist fascinating ways of building in different parts of the country. Himachal Pradesh uses sun-dried mud brick or adobe, UP also uses the same, Telangana uses cob construction, Sunderbans uses wattle and daub, etc. These techniques are time-honed and linked to agricultural lifestyles. Since agricultural lifestyles are changing, so are the ways of building homes; roads are connecting remote villages to the market, trucks come in and bring factory-made commodities like cement and steel. So  there is a whole political economy of urbanisation that make some of these energy intensive materials very cheap to use as compared to local materials. Here you also have state-led policies that promote pucca houses as a part of development, which promote more cement, but because of concrete’s colonial and postcolonial history, it has also cultural significance.

It’s not just any material; it’s a material that carries with a great deal of cultural significance, as it is the material of the elite. These ideas are also propagated by the cement industry with their ads for cement taking it to different parts of the country. According to the last census, India has 833 million people in rural areas, by 2050, 430 million of this population is going to be living in urban areas, so that means 430 million people will be building concrete houses. Environmental damage will be huge, both in terms of carbon dioxide emissions while manufacturing cement, and sand and stone extraction for making concrete, especially in light of how these contribute to floods and landslide in Kerala.

Combined with global climate change, which we know is happening, this really will spell trouble for all of us. But the problem with natural disasters is that while everyone might be using concrete, floods and other disasters, affect people differently, depending on their position in society. We understand that concrete has a lot of benefits to build our cities, but important thing is how we use it judiciously.