Flying Panels – How Concrete Panels Changed the World

Project

Millions of square metres of living space have been built with prefabricated concrete panels. In ArkDes’s newexhibition, curated by Pedro Ignacio Alonso and Hugo Palmarola and designed by Note Design Studio, modelsand original material are gathered to reflect on how concrete panels influenced culture for the construction of anew society, both in Sweden and internationally.

The exhibition tells the story of a time when flying concrete panels became a symbol of the future, both inpolitics and in art, and embodied the dream of a better world, from the second half of the twentieth century to thepresent day. In connection with the exhibition opening, ArkDes will publish a comprehensive publication with the same name. The exhibition curators received the Silver Lion award for the exhibition MonolithControversies at the 14th Venice Architectural Biennale in 2014.

*Showing at ArkDes, Stockholm until March 1st 2020

Flying Panels – How Concrete Panels Changed the World gives an account of the evolution of concrete panels, buildingcomponents often derided as a dull face of our cities. But in the optimistic post-war period, concrete panels would build thefuture, cure the housing shortage and raise living standards for millions of people. Prefabricated concrete panels were atthe heart of construction systems that spread to over 70 countries following the Second World War. The systems werefurther developed and adapted to local needs and circumstances in the different countries, with the new techniqueproviding almost endless scope for variation.

Flying Panels – How Concrete Panels Changed the World is the result of years of research by curators Pedro IgnacioAlonso and Hugo Palmarola, who have gathered original material and catalogued and produced 3D models of concretepanel systems used across the world. Erik Stenberg, architect and Associate Professor in Architecture and Erik Sigge,architectural historian, both from KTH, has contributed to the exhibition with new research material.

“Alongside air travel, the space programme and nuclear power, concrete panels were once considered to be aninnovation that would help bring about a new, rational future for society and the world. In the second half of the 20thcentury, heroic images of concrete panels soaring across the sky began to emerge in popular culture,” say curators PedroIgnacio Alonso and Hugo Palmarola.

Images of flying concrete panels were frequent in the 1950s and ’60s. The exhibition illustrates the cultural impact anddissemination of the panels through examples of posters, paintings, films, toys, cartoons and even an opera set. Focalpoints of the exhibition are a suspended 1:5-scale model of one of the most representative concrete panel systems,and 60 models of panel systems from six continents.

“The exhibition is about one of the most mass-produced objects in design history and brings together a staggeringand exciting collection of objects to help us understand the concrete panel and through it, the modern world. Flying Panels – How Concrete Panels Changed the World uses the concrete panel as a lensthrough which we can see how technology, society, politics and art are interconnected. The exhibition proves thatconcrete panels were much more than just a convenient solution to provide a roof over the heads of the rapidly growingpopulations of the 20th century,” says Kieran Long, Director, ArkDes.

Interview

What prompted the research?

At some point in 2006 we started to look to something that, for our Chilean context, was a rather unique kind of buildings, built out of prefabricated large-concrete panels. They were quite odd and noticeable, having their façade panels both carved and perforated. We knew they were the result of the arrival and installation in the early 1970s, of a Soviet factory for the prefabrication of housing. Despite of some existing literature from the time, mainly one article in a magazine, and about 3 or 4 engineering theses conducted in different universities, we saw here a kind of historiographical blind spot. During the last 30 years, nothing was written about such episode. This silence, perhaps, was the result of the complex and traumatic political connotations of the arrival of the factory, a donation from the USSR to Salvador Allende’s Chile, that as we know, was then brutally repressed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. All in all, we soon realized this was not an isolated case. In the previous decade, the USSR also donated the very same type of factory to Cuba, a gift from Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro. It was clear that large-concrete panel buildings did not work in isolation, but in series, in transiting factories, and within a transnational context connecting technology, architecture, city making, and politics. At this wider scale, it also seemed that these panel systems were little studied in their global impact, at least in terms of an appraisal from within the histories and theories of design and architecture. So, we’ve kept exploring such relationships, extending our work to the rather global distribution of such systems.

What questions does the project raise and which does it answer?

Over all these years many questions arose, and at different scales, from the more architectural and technical point of views, to the aesthetic, the visual and the political. If we shall try to summarize this in terms of one question, it would be precisely to wonder the manner in which all these different levels are intertwined. How the political was carried out by aesthetic and visual means, in the production of strategies that would allow for the global distribution of systems of prefabrication that, as we know now, arrived in every continent, to more than 70 countries. But together with the movement of factories from one country to another, there was another flow that caught our interest, in seeing the heroic image of the panel, symbolizing the utmost possible level of modernity, as it started to appear in many ways and formats, moving from drawings to photographs and posters, then to paintings and films, including animations for children, and even toys, revealing the engagement – not just between architecture and technology – but between panel houses and society as a whole, dreaming of a better world. This is why we have called the exhibition Flying Panels, appealing to all these different ways of moving – from the factory floor to the building site, from one country to another, and between different media. More than answering one particular question, we’ve been interested in disclosing all these different materials in order to expose the many different layers involved. We’ve gathered all these levels, not by date, place or kind, but by proposing what we call ‘visual arguments’. Making an exhibition like the one we’ve done at the ArkDes, has being the perfect format to explore these issues.

What defined the curatorial strategy and the visual arguments through which the exhibition is articulated?

We were not interested in trying to embrace the rather impossible task of having a panoramic view of such a global phenomenon, going country by country in setting up some chronology. At the same time, provided the wealth of different types of materials and formats, we wanted to avoid having clear cut divisions between them, like putting all drawings in one place, or all posters in another, etc. We didn’t want this because all these pieces, no matter the format or the medium, would be talking about common ideas, or performing very precise set of ideological, or rhetoric arguments that could be only explained by the careful articulation of, let’s say, one film, a poster, a series of photographs, and the mock-up of a panel system. So, we came to understand these thematic units as composed by diverse type of materials, under the idea of ‘visual arguments’, that ended up being 6 in total, namely: The rise of the panel, Weightlessness, A global history of panels, The social crane, The fall of the panel and the Panel as a Black Square. For instance, in this last case, we pursued the idea that concrete panels are to architecture what Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square is to painting, that is to say abstract, timeless, and irreducible elements, a call to simplification taken to its very end. In order to make this point, we put together a Malevich’s sketch of the Black Square as drawn for the opera Victory over the Sun (1913), in tandem with an original volume of El Lissitzky’s book About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale of Two Squares in Six Constructions (Berlin: Sycthian Press, 1922); a photograph by Margherita Spiluttini of Herzog & de Meuron’s Antipodes I project, a student housing they did in 1992 for the Université de Bourgogne, and a series of images where concrete panels really perform in the abstractedness of black squares when making up the façade of buildings.

How do the diverse mediums explore the concrete panel in relation to diverse social, cultural and historical contexts?

It would of course depend on the medium, the time and content of each specific piece. We have a number of films, for instance, that in quite utopian terms present the concrete panel as a powerful flying icon, portraying it as a weightless object, despite of the obvious paradox of it realty being a very heavy building component. This is particularly clear in films like Things to Come (UK, 1936), Cheryomushki (USSR, 1963), or the animation How the House Was Built for the Kitten (USSR, 1963). But then a more critical stance, actually quite harsh and bitter, came a decade later when panels started to represent the failures of modern cities, and so panels started crumble in films like Panel Story (Czechoslovakia, 1980), Block/Blok (Poland, 1982), The Stone Face (Sweden, 1973) and of course Good Bye Lenin! (Germany, 2003). The exhibition tries to unravel these critical confrontations.

If you should isolate three objects within the exhibition which were revolutionary in defining the power and potential of this, what would these be?

In terms of films, certainly Cheryomushki, by Gerbert Rappaport (USSR, 1963) would be a relevant piece to highlight, but in terms of its revolutionary scope, a Cuban movie seems even more powerful, We have no right to wait, by Rogelio París (Cuba: ICAIC, 1972). I trust the whole exhibition aims at disclosing the revolutionary power of the image of the flying panel. Perhaps a very clear example is a pamphlet by Fluxus’ Henry Flint and George Maciunas, entitled ‘Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership In Culture’ (1965) which we have the chance to exhibit thanks to the Emily Harvey Foundation. The pamphlet praised the Soviet panelized prefabrication method as the most efficient way of providing housing because it proposed design solutions based on technological advancement rather than national traditions or stylistic choices. For Flynt and Maciunas, panel houses exemplified the three principles of revolutionary leadership in culture: they increased productivity, promoted equality and solidarity among workers, and satisfied the workers’ desire to cope with reality. This pamphlet also allows us to show that the cultural debate on panel system was not just confined within architecture, engineering or city planning, but got well into the realm of contemporary art. At the same time, it is telling of a debate that largely exceeded Europe, Russia or the Eastern Bloc, arriving also to the USA.

What informed the multidisciplinary selection of contributors you called to discuss and explore their thoughts and perspectives? How do they each challenge and offer diverse reading of the latter?

As you say, the main scope was to invite a multidisciplinary array of contributors that would reflect on the differed aspects of the role of panel construction within a broader cultural debate, so all of them, Boris Groys, Maria Lind, Adrian Forty, Natalya Solopova, Michael Abrahamson, Jennifer Mack, Philipp Meuser, Erik Stenberg, and Christine Varga-Harris, provided very interesting and diverse reading of the many different episodes that during the second half of the twentieth-century have concrete panels as the centre of debates.

What informed the necessity of articulating and sharing this within the format of an exhibition and a publication? How do these two formats complement each other?

We don’t think this publication as the catalogue of the exhibition. We are not very much interested in producing catalogues in the sense of volumes that would somehow list all the pieces in display. We conceive this more in terms of another piece within the show, one that would provide further readings, and would open new alternative roads for discussion. Of course, many of the pieces in display are also in the book, but only insofar they would play a role within the specific argument authors would be proposing.

What do you envision as the future of the concrete panel? To what extent do you share the idea of an architecture which is no longer made of prefabricated components as challenged within spaces as the MIT Lab?

In many countries, including of course Sweden, concrete panels are quite present. Their future, however, does not seem challenged only by novel technologies that would make redundant the making of prefabricated components, but by the increasing criticism on concrete itself as the most unsustainable building material in terms of its CO2 emissions. Of course, this is a difficult question, since any material has its own environmental impact, like the timber industry and its role in the replacement of native forests by the sole exploitation of pinewood, etc. But forecasting the future is always difficult. For the last 100 years there have been countless moments where very smart people have tried to play the role of prophets, failing miserably. Things never happen from one day to another and are not often pure and pristine in the way they end up being applied. I would rather expect a rough and hybrid future, where new technologies and materials would merge with the old in producing unforeseeable results. At the same time, the problem must not be placed at, let’s say, the level of the ontology of the object (whether or not 3D printing technologies will radically transform the building), but at the level of the scale of production and distribution. Concrete panels are still being widely used in many places, but no longer under the idea of panel systems for the prefabrication of mass housing. The systemic approach is gone. That’s of course fine if you use panels to make one-off buildings or to produce customized facades but the problem is rather different if what is at stake is the mass production of social housing. The collapse of panel systems, as systems, is not a technological problem, but an ideological one. Societies, and governments, no longer think that providing housing is their responsibility. So the question about mass production has been abandoned altogether. In this sense, I am sure the MIT Lab is in the right path, provided they stay within their very narrow ideological framework.

You mention the potential of the panel as a medium through which to see how technology, society, politics and art are interconnected. What is that 'object' today?

Almost every object you could think about, including buildings, are places where all these forces are at play. We could say that objects are shaped by these forces, and panels too. But what makes large-concrete panels interesting and different from any object, is that they’ve been individualized as these kinds of very discrete components, the panel itself, almost a character, or a persona, the main figure within a visual tropes where these forces of technology, society, politics and art, came together in the heroic image of the flying panel symbolizing modernity and modernization, the dream of a better world, the final solution to the housing crisis, and above all, the construction of a more just and equal society. It is not just about realizing that technology, society, politics and art are intertwined, but, as we aim to show in the exhibition, it’s about discussing the values, the dreams, the expectations and ultimately the kind of utopia that are contained and summarized by the panel as fundamental icon.

If the concrete panel represented a new society in the 1960's and 70', what is the symbol of the future within contemporary architecture?

I don’t know. The future is elusive, and in principle, no more than a word we use to talk about things that have not yet happened. We could of course speculate about it, and that’s fine, but we may also be reluctant to always play the role of speculators. We must learn to mistrust foretellers. In 1953, only a year before Nikita Khrushchev delivered his now famous speech ‘On Wide-Scale Introduction of Industrial Methods’ to the All-Union Conference of Builders, Architects, and Workers, there was no way to foresee that because of that speech, in less than a decade, the concrete panel would become the flying symbol of a new weightless society. The future is shaped by rather specific events (and speeches). And transformative (even traumatic) events, can happen any minute.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

I do think architecture is a conceptual practice. And so, the architect’s most important tool is language. This is not to say that architecture is some kind of language (as if going back to debates on structuralism). I refer more to the way language uses words to abstract concepts, much in the sense portrayed by Jorge Luis Borges in his tale about Funes the Memorious.

About

Curated by: Pedro Ignacio Alonso and Hugo Palmarola

Curator at ArkDes: Carlos Mínguez Carrasco

Exhibition Producer: Sofia Liljergren

Exhibition Design: Note Design Studio

Graphic Design: Brand Union

Content developer: José Hernández

Research: Michael Abrahamson, Erik Stenberg, Erik Sigge.

Exhibition Team: Daniel Golling, Markus Eberle, Tina Helmersson Landgren, Stefan Mossfeldt, Halla Sigurdardottir, Sandra Nolgren, Maria Östman, Elisabet Schön, Frida Melin, Lena Biörnstad Wranne, Eva-Lisa Saksi,Madeléne Beckman.

ArkDes is Sweden’s national centre for architecture and design. It is a museum, a study centre and an arena for debateand discussion about the future of architecture, design and citizenship.

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