Building on Momentum



Volume 4, Issue 03
October 4, 2018

To what do we give weight? This phrase is usually meant in a figurative sense – what is it that we care about, what is it that concerns us – but moving between metaphor and blunt application might show a way to think about things that are heavy and seem to stay still, like buildings. What does all that weight afford them?

We might say, with the historian of technology Thomas Parke Hughes, that weight gives things momentum.[1] Hughes developed the concept of “technological momentum” as a byword for the ways in which certain systems – in particular “large technological systems” like electricity grids – take on an ever-larger scale and scope. He showed how political, economic circumstances inform such systems and how those systems, in turn, reform those circumstances. Large technological systems become “both socially constructed and society shaping.”[2] Following this process can be complicated. Hughes first explored “technological momentum” in a 1969 article about the German chemical concern I.G. Farben. In the early twentieth century, the firm developed the Haber-Bosch Process – a series of chemical reactions that extract nitrogen from the atmosphere. This nitrogen is a key element in creating both synthetic fertilizer and explosives. It was said to make Brot aus Luft, that is, bread from air (not to mention the large quantities of coal required). Today, still 1% of global energy is expended on Haber-Bosch, and roughly 40% of current global food supply is dependent upon its unaccountable addition to agricultural productivity.[3]

Scaling up Haber-Bosch required a large amount of advanced technical and physical equipment, including “large double-jacketed reaction or contact ovens capable of withstanding corrosion and extremes of pressure and temperature; compressors of previously unattained horsepower; gas circulation pumps of hitherto unachieved capacity; and monitoring instruments providing a unique combination of sensitivity and ruggedness.”[4] This physical apparatus and its requisite technical expertise constituted the system’s “momentum.” Once in place, Hughes explained, this infrastructure informed the shape of future decisions – in particular, I.G. Farben’s subsequent attempts to use its equipment for “coal hydrogenation,” or making gasoline from coal. But different from the huge successes of Haber-Bosch, coal hydrogenation proved more difficult and, importantly, expensive. I.G. Farben’s synthetic gasoline could not compete with prevailing market prices, which, just as the firm completed its research and development, fell to extremely low levels due to both the discovery of new reserves and worldwide economic depression.

This set of circumstances, Hughes argues, drove I.G. Farben to lobby the then-new National Socialist government to impose high tariffs on imported gasoline, providing space for its product to succeed in an altered market.[5] If I.G. Farben’s synthetic gasoline could not compete within the economy, the scale of its technological apparatus both compelled and allowed the firm to bend political economic forces, fabricating circumstances in which their “failed” experiment might prevail. Technological momentum and political direction fed on each other.

Hughes’s analysis looks at crucial and non-negotiable systems – electricity, oil, synthetic fertilizers – that support the modern world, a world we continue to inhabit, even if under today’s mounting political, economic, social, and environmental tensions, its directionality seems in ever greater doubt.[6] Consider the recent, wonderfully at-odds-with-itself statement by Vaclav Smil: “Modern civilization has engineered a veritable explosion of energy use and has extended human control over inanimate energies to previously unthinkable levels. These gains have made it fabulously liberating and admirably constructive – but also uncomfortably constraining, horribly destructive, and, in many ways, self-defeating.”[7] That Smil writes this not as some sort of critical theorist, but rather as the foremost elucidator of energy technocracy, makes the sentiment all the more striking.

This raises a parallel question, namely, how might we think about other heavy structures? I refer here to the so-called built environment, the “world we have built” in which architects and others intervene.[8] These structures are sustained by ceaseless flows of energy, of course, but they also might be understood as energy, as the built form of many of the assumptions granted by fossil-fueled civilization, making up a large part of the momentum that carries it forward. Hughes himself indicated this possibility, when he wrote that “[d]urable physical artifacts project into the future the socially constructed characteristics acquired in the past when they were designed.”[9]

One way to grasp these relations returns to the physical definition of momentum: P = m • v, or momentum equals mass multiplied by velocity. To understand momentum, the speed at which things move is important, but so is their physical weight. Building and unbuilding, the work of architecture, moves slowly, but the sum weighs an awful lot, both individually and in aggregate.[10]

This weight points to another way to read the built environment and its history, looking to how energy is employed and embedded in things, how the built environment serves to fix flows of energy and capital that reverberate on all sides. Energy and momentum, in short, provide another code through which to evaluate architecture – not simply as reflections or manifestations of social or political forces, but to understand the building as a pivotal device that turns social, political, cultural, and economic ideas into material form through the capture of energy.[11] The momentum of different aspects of architecture and infrastructure – its heaviness or lightness – is conferred onto the ideas it supports.

Of course, these paths of transformation are more muddled when not driven by clear political economic directives, as in Hughes’s large technological systems, which are designed towards particular energetic ends, like the production of electricity or of synthetic nitrogen. The mass of the built environment, while intertwined with such systems, deploys weight to route paths towards ends that are more difficult to define: the securing of property, the continuation of cultural and social norms, or the provision of bodily comfort, among many others. The discipline of architecture remains in a unique position, capable (if not always willing) to examine both the means by which buildings are created and the ends to which they are put to use. How might the physical stuff of buildings and all they carry – what they look like, what they are made of, where things come from and where they go – be used to reinforce or undermine concepts of property, or enclosure, or common good, among many other possibilities?

Weight and momentum provide a way to appraise things not in monetary but in energetic terms.[12] We should ask why some buildings last and others do not, or why certain parts of them can persist while others are replaced endlessly.[13] Historian Daniel Abramson recently examined “obsolescence” in the built environment, a crucial and brilliant case in how the logic of modern finance was able to overtake the logic of heaviness, weight, and labor.[14] But only a certain set of momentums allowed for the warped evaluations he describes. Obsolescence relies upon abundance, upon the assumption that every destruction, justified in financial terms, will be followed by a subsequent and more profitable creation. Against this history of capital flows and “spatial fixes,” thinking differently about the built environment might reorient itself in weight, substance, and duration.[15]

Understanding buildings as momentum, in other words, provides a potential ethics of durability. The duration – the relative durability or ephemerality of a structure – is the basis of both its contingently described social function (as a physical limit that bounds society into certain forms) and of a longer-term ambivalence (the extent to which parts or wholes are disposed or can be repurposed towards new or shifted uses). In short, some things should probably persist for centuries while other things should perhaps last only months or days, and figuring out what weight to give to which aspects of architecture is the work of seeing the built environment as momentum. Individual buildings, each on their own, do not comprise the same, heroic operations of Hughes’s world-altering systems. They do, however, provide countless smaller sites and tangible opportunities for intervening in what seem like the inexorable paradoxes of our moment. Thinking about the ways in which things last compels us to think about the future and what forms we want it to assume.

[1] Hughes, who died in 2014, was once, and perhaps remains, the “900-pound gorilla” within the history of technology. See: Gabrielle Hecht, “On the Importance of the Visual … and of Mentoring,” Technology and Culture 55, no. 4 (2014): 964–969.

[2] Thomas P. Hughes, “The Evolution of Large Technological Systems,” in Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas Parke Hughes, and T. J. Pinch, The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), 51. See also: Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

[3] The process has been called the most important invention of the twentieth century, as it enabled agricultural production on a scale that radically altered the carrying capacity of the planet. Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2017), 307–309. See also: Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).

[4] Thomas P. Hughes, “Technological Momentum in History: Hydrogenation in Germany 1898–1933,” Past and Present 44, no. 1 (1969): 110–111.

[5] This was, of course, a volatile period of German history, rocked by successive economic and political crises, swinging between an engagement with accelerating global trade networks and a paranoia for national survival under a protectionist, autarkic anxiety. This latter impulse found its ultimate expression in the Nazi concept of Lebensraum (“living space”), which led towards various programs to promote a ruthless national self-sufficiency in resources. See: Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015).

[6] This was true even for Hughes, himself — Bernard Carlson summarized his intellectual journey as one “from order to messy complexity”. See: W. Bernard Carlson, “From Order to Messy Complexity: Thoughts on the Intellectual Journey of Thomas Parke Hughes,” Technology and Culture 55, no. 4 (2014): 945–52.

[7] Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History, 296. These sentences bring to mind Joseph Schumpeter’s famous concept that capitalism works through acts of “creative destruction.”

[8] Jedediah Purdy, “The World We’ve Built,” Dissent Magazine, July 3, 2018,\_articles/world-we-built-sovereign-nature-infrastructure-leviathan. See also a related concept of “energy deepening”: Jeff M. Diamanti, “Energyscapes, Architecture, and the Expanded Field of Postindustrial Philosophy,” Postmodern Culture 26, no. 2 (November 6, 2016).

[9] Hughes, “The Evolution of Large Technological Systems,” 77.

[10] Buckminister Fuller’s famous question — “How much does your building weigh?” — remains relevant. But we also have to consider, as outlined here, towards what ends weight is used. In more quantifiable (if also sublime) terms, Purdy mentions a study led by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, in which he “and twenty-four co-authors estimated the total weight of human infrastructure—buildings, roads, vehicles, intensely cultivated cropland — at thirty trillion tons, roughly three thousand tons for every human being.” Jedediah Purdy, “The Unequal Distribution of Catastrophe in North Carolina,” The New Yorker, September 18, 2018,

[11] The built environment, in other words, mediates between scales that can otherwise seem incommensurable. Scale and the relations between scales are now vital concerns. See: Deborah R. Coen, “Big Is a Thing of the Past: Climate Change and Methodology in the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 77, no. 2 (June 14, 2016): 305–21; Julia Adeney Thomas, “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” The American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (December 1, 2014): 1587–1607; Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales,” Common Knowledge 18, no. 3 (2012): 505–524.

[12] For a rendition of this idea in reference to a single building site, see: Kiel Moe, Empire, State & Building (New York: Actar Publishers, 2017). On energy and economics more generally, see: Philip Mirowski, More Heat Than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Allen MacDuffie, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[13] See: Anique Hommels, “Studying Obduracy in the City: Toward a Productive Fusion between Technology Studies and Urban Studies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 30, no. 3 (July 2005): 323–51; Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built (New York, NY: Viking, 1994).

[14] Daniel M. Abramson, Obsolescence: An Architectural History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[15] The concept of the “spatial fix” is David Harvey’s. For a helpful summary and elaboration, see: Giovanni Arrighi, “Spatial and Other Fixes of Historical Capitalism,” Journal of World-Systems Research 10, no. 2 (2015): 527–539. Neither Harvey nor Arrighi connect the problem of capital flows with energy flows.

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Volume 4, Issue 03
October 4, 2018

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