Conquering (with) Concrete. German Construction Companies as Global Players in Local Contexts

Forschungsschwerpunkt: Zeitgeschichte und Archiv

Projektleitung im IRS: Dr. Monika Motylińska

Projektteam: Paul Lennart Sprute María Ignacia Jeldes Olivares Juliane Richter

Förderorganisation: VolkswagenStiftung: Freigeist-Fellowship

Laufzeit: 01/2020 - 12/2024

flyover on Lagos Island (part of the Ring Road), built and maintaned by Julius Berger Nigeria Ltd._Source-photo by Monika Motylinska
Focus regions and case studies of the Conquering (with) Concrete Project
flyover on Lagos Island (part of the Ring Road), built and maintaned by Julius Berger Nigeria Ltd._Source-photo by Monika Motylinska
Focus regions and case studies of the Conquering (with) Concrete Project

Research topic

Global construction companies impact our futures. Beyond the edifices and infrastructures they construct, they also fundamentally influence governmental development aid policies, or dislocate people to build a new dam, for example. Yet the role of these major global players and their persistent presence in different world regions has barely been reflected upon.

Our project investigates how major German construction companies conquered markets and spaces, thereby cementing their presence in different regions of the Global South, and it will trace the footprints left behind, long after the dust of the construction sites settled. It draws on the observation that it is impossible to fully understand the complexity of the built environment in these regions without acknowledging and analysing the role of construction companies such as HOCHTIEF AG or Bilfinger Berger as actors, stakeholders, transnational legal entities and major driving forces in the processes of globalised construction business. However, in previous bodies of research this perspective has been overlooked, except for rare exemptions.

Thus, the intended research frees itself from narrow disciplinary boundaries, and instead explores construction companies as the intersection between architectural and planning history, urban studies, economy, ecology, governance, history of technology, construction history and anthropology. Focusing on production cycles, a research team of the PI and three PhD candidates, each with a different disciplinary profile, and a student assistant will scrutinise global flows of capital, labour, know-how and construction materials such as concrete in the “Global South”. The investigation runs along three main lines of inquiry, each linked to necessary expertise from particular disciplinary fields: (1) it starts by looking at the production of concrete as the most widely used building material of the 20th century and a conditio sine qua non for the majority of construction activities. Complimenting the existing research (Forty 2012), it follows both the material side of cement production and the extraction of raw materials as well as capital flows and multi-layered interactions between various actors and institutions (economic geography/urban history/construction history). (2) Then, it moves on to the analysis of other types of infrastructural and architectural investments with the goal of unveiling the enduring phenomenon of the label ‘Made in Germany’ from past to present (architectural history/economic history). (3) In the final stage, it focuses on the analysis of the tangible and intangible legacies of the German entrepreneurial presence in selected regions of Latin America, Africa and South Asia (anthropology/heritage studies). In doing so, this project presents a major contribution towards a genealogy of globalised architectural production and the myriad of foreign and local actors involved.

We consider construction companies a prism enabling a fully new perspective on the complexity of transnational and global ties and their impact on particular local settings. It does not seek to establish simple causalities, but rather, aims to present a complicated mosaic of motivations; projected, vocalised and exerted desires; social and material resistance and manipulations and failures, with a particular attention for the dimension of the brut de décoffrage – the rough and the unfinished.

Research group and research environment

The research team combines approaches from urban and architectural history, global history, (economic) geography and social anthropology. The junior research group – still a relatively novel concept in the German academia – enables intense exchange (in person and digitally) of ideas and a compelling learning process. Each PhD student works on their own doctoral thesis while coincidentally contributing to the joint research (e.g. in form of co-authored papers). The first PhD candidate with a background in global history begun to work in April 2020. The research group is integrated in the Department for Historical Research at the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS), Erkner (near Berlin) where their members share an office and closely affiliated with the Faculty for Architecture and Urbanism at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar where they participate in doctoral colloquiums.  

Further collaboration exists with Prof. Dr. Johan Lagae and his research unit at Ghent University: www.ugent.be/ea/architectuur/en/contact/staff-members/johan-lagae. The project is embedded in a broad academic network in Berlin and internationally. Doctoral positions are offered for the duration of three years. Budget for archival/fieldwork travels, conferences etc. is available. PhD candidates have the opportunity to gain teaching experience at the Bauhaus-University. The team is supported by a student assistant.

02. Mai | 2024
Wie eine historische Datenbank für Bauprojekte entstand

In mühsamer Kleinarbeit sammelten die Forschenden der Nachwuchsgruppe „Conquering (with) Concrete“ Daten zu Bauprojekten deutscher Bauunternehmen außerhalb Europas im 20. Jahrhundert. Ziel war es, die Globalisierung des Bauens durch deutsche Unternehmen zu dokumentieren. Die Datenbank zeigt wechselnde Konjunkturen der Globalisierung und kann dabei helfen zu verstehen, wie globale Produktionsnetzwerke der Bauwirtschaft entstanden. In diesem in IRS aktuell erschienenen Beitrag beschreibt Doktorandin María Jeldes, wie die Datensammlung vor sich ging. mehr Info


Motylinska, M. (2020). 'A Cross Section of Colonial Technology'? Zooming in and Zooming out on a Photograph of a German Trade Fair from the 1930s. Architecture Beyond Europe, 2020(17). https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.8193
Fivez, R., & Motylińska, M. (2022). Cement as Weapon. Meta-Infrastructure in the ‘World’s Last Cement Frontier’. in J. Heathcott (Hrsg.), The Routledge Handbook of Infrastructure Design: Global Perspectives from Architectural History (S. 40-50). (Routledge International Handbooks). Routledge.
Motylińska, M., & Verlaan, T. (2022). Architects as Global Entrepreneurs (1850-2000). (Architectural Histories; Band Vol. 9-10). https://journal.eahn.org/collections/806/
Motylińska, M. (2022). Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai (eds.), Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa. Architecture Beyond Europe, 2022(20). https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.13452
Motylińska, M., & Verlaan, T. (2023). Architects as Global Entrepreneurs in the long 20th Century – Introduction. Architectural Histories, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.16995/ah.8777