Concrete Thinking: Expanding the Architecture Lens

Vyta Pivo, PhD, examines architecture not just as a building but as an urban issue. Pivo is a postdoctoral fellow with the Michigan Society of Fellows and an assistant professor of architecture in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In this episode of Michigan Minds, she describes her goal to reimagine how society thinks about architecture.

Vyta Pivo, PhD on Michigan Minds

“I was really interested in broader questions and then thinking about the way that architecture is an opportunity to have these bigger social political conversations — and that architecture is a language through which we have these conversations,” she says. 

“My goal is to expand the purview of architecture and the lens that we have for studying architecture from the building and the site to also include the manufacturing of construction materials, the construction process itself, and also where the demolished buildings go. Through my work, I really show that architectural production is not just an issue of design; It’s really an issue of kind of slavery, of colonialism, of climate change.”


One of Pivo’s current projects, “A World Cast in Concrete: How the US Build its Empire,” is her first book and is structured from her dissertation research that thinks about concrete not just as an aesthetic material, but as a material of empire. She explains how her work examines the transformation of concrete in different geographical contexts and throughout history. 

“My argument is that the US basically exported this form of manufacture to shape building cultures across the world, and that process has had really severe consequences both for kind of labor but also for climate change. Cement is the second most consumed material on earth after water, and it produces more CO2 than the trucking industry or the aviation industry, which is really quite surprising,” Pivo says. Concrete has a history, she emphasizes, and as society continues to rely on it, existing issues of labor continue. 

Pivo was named a University of Michigan Public Art and Engagement Fellow by the U-M Arts Initiative, which she describes as “absolutely amazing.” The Arts Initiative is committed to amplifying the role and significance of the arts, and the fellowship aims to expand public understanding of monuments, memorials, and collective memories at the intersection of the arts, humanities, and social and racial justice. 

“The initiative brings together scholars from across campus, from different disciplines, and we basically engage with the monument lab out of Philadelphia to study public monuments and memorials in Michigan, but also on a national and global scale,” she says. 

Pivo’s work naturally engages with the public and she strives to bridge the gap between the more in-depth scientific literature on concrete and the design aspect of the material. “For my work to be legible, I really want the construction workers to understand what I’m talking about and to kind of see themselves in this history too. And so it’s really nice to connect to other scholars on campus who have the same commitment to communicating with the general public, but also a commitment to rethinking everyday environments around us and really digging deep and uncovering the layers of stories that are just everywhere.”

Pivo hopes that going forward, more people keep in mind that concrete has a history, it has politics, and it has a culture. “Every time you walk on a sidewalk or walk into a building that is built of concrete, ask my classic question: where did this cement come from? I think it’s really productive to think about materials in that way, that they’re not abstract or they’re not history-less or story-less, it’s just a matter of putting them into focus.”