5 Materials That Shaped the World

And the legacy they left behind...

Read time: 5 minutes

Iraq’s answer to the pyramids: the Great Ziggurat of Ur (before and after restoration)

From the ruined walls of the earliest Mesopotamian cities to the skyscrapers of the 20th century, the story of civilization can be told through five main building materials.

Without brick, concrete, stone, wood, and steel, the world would look totally different. But culture itself would also be unrecognizable — because at the same time civilization was shaping these materials, they too shaped civilization. 

Today, we explore a new side of the human story by looking at the five elements that helped (literally) to construct it…

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Brick: Humility and Humanity

The ziggurat’s ancient brickwork — several million mud bricks make up its core

The earliest building block of civilization is also its most enduring. That’s because all it requires are the basic elements of life: water, earth, and sun.

Mud bricks were easy to mix and bake under the harsh sun of the Mesopotamian desert. More available than stone, easier to make than concrete, and more lasting than wood, the humble mud brick rose from the desert floor to create the first works of human architecture.

The clay-based unit of construction is still used worldwide, both in its original mud-based form and in more refined formulations, but the most astounding testament to its power is the Great Ziggurat of Ur. Enduring over 4,000 years, the ziggurat is a silent monument to human creativity, manipulating even the most uninspiring material to create a structure of titanic power.

Concrete: Civilization Refined

The Pantheon’s great dome (c.126 AD) — making concrete weightless

As civilization tamed the wildness of the elements, builders experimented with more sophisticated mixtures, methods, and materials. 

Concrete, a mixture of sand or other aggregate held together by cement, emerged under the skillful hands of Greek and Roman designers. Once they discovered that the chemical properties of limestone would cause it to harden into a rock-like state, they used it to cast exciting, imaginative shapes. 

The Romans, for example, believed in wide open spaces — uninterrupted by columns and interior walls. Concrete allowed for building expansive domes like that of the Pantheon. It remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, having never been outdone even by modern industrial methods. 

Though concrete’s popularity in the 20th century was linked to ahistorical design movements like Modernism, the material boasts a far deeper historical significance. Specifically, it was concrete that first allowed architects to move beyond brick’s limited shapes and embrace new imaginative forms of architecture. 

Stone: Works of the Gods

Amiens Cathedral (c.1270): one of the first Gothic wonders — built from local limestone

Harnessed by the Greeks in elegant temples, mastered by the Romans in their expansive infrastructure, and taken to inspired heights by Middle Ages cathedrals, stone is the universal material of nobility. 

Temples and palaces around the world demanded granite, limestone, and sandstone for their construction. Quarrying, transporting, and cutting it was so labor-intensive that it recruited much of a civilization’s peasant class, often boosting the economy by providing so much work. 

But unsatisfied by sheer scale, the most inspired builders hew entire symphonies out of it. The West facade of Amiens Cathedral was a continuous work of art on immense scale, hand-carved over two decades by people of immeasurable devotion.

But even those stone masters were in awe of something else. A saying from the 12th century warns: “Man fears time; time fears the Pyramids.”

Stone’s longevity keeps us connected to the glory of the past. When we walk under the arches of a Medieval cathedral or climb the Pyramid of the Sun, the civilizations of the past become present to us once more.

Timber: Decaying Memory

Borgund Stave Church, Norway (c.1200) — built without a single nail

If stone is the material of the enduring past, timber tells a sadder truth. Namely, that the greater part of the past has been lost to memory.

Timber is cheaper and less demanding than stone, making it the material of choice for lesser churches, mansions, and temples. However, most ancient timber has rotted or burned away. 

The stave churches of Norway and Sweden are a distinct exception. The 16th-century Norse builders used shipbuilding techniques to craft these churches, and thanks to a generations-long method of preparing the timber, several stave churches have lasted hundreds of years.

Sadly though, only a few remain. Their unique architecture begs the question: what other timber buildings have been lost to history?

Steel: Man Scrapes the Sky

The Flatiron Building, New York: one of the first steel framed skyscrapers

In 1856, Henry Bessemer refined iron to produce steel. This strong, light material was the stuff of architects’ dreams, and within years, it dominated the newly industrialized world. 

Previously, architects were limited in how tall they could build by the weight of the materials. Stone is so heavy that it demands a wide base of support to hold up tall towers, while concrete is too fragile to stand tall unsupported.

Bessemer’s invention solved these problems: as steel-boned concrete became the recipe for immense, inexpensive buildings, skyscrapers leaped up all over the industrialized world.

For some time they clung to the architecture of the past. New York’s Flatiron Building was like a Renaissance palazzo with Beaux-Arts details — only extended elegantly skyward.

Steel didn’t just revolutionize architecture: it changed the world. As the material of progress and mass production, steel produced planes, highways, railroads, cars, and transport trucks to move people and goods at breathtaking speeds. Under the influence of steel, the tempo of human life moved faster than ever before. 

Building Blocks of the Future

Architecture, technology, and culture are inseparable. Hand tools quarried the building blocks of ancient temples. Pulleys and wheels constructed cathedrals. The advanced process of iron decarbonization created steel, which built the world we know today.

The story of technology is still unfolding, and so is the story of how we build. 

How will the light-speed advance of 21st-century technology shape our buildings in centuries to come?

But most importantly, will that architecture stand the test of time?

Art of the Week

Night Landscape with Gothic Ruins, Lluís Rigalt (c.1850)

In the 19th century, an upswell of Romanticism pushed back against the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Feeling as though they had been ripped apart from nature by these advancements, the Romantics searched again for mystery, wonder, and the natural world.

A native of Catalonia, Lluís Rigalt lived through the Spanish political instability of the 1830s and 1840s, as well as a massive urban renewal plan to destroy many ancient buildings in 1859.

These events left him with a nostalgia for the enduring beauty of the past, which manifested in his Romantic paintings of landscapes illuminated by the remains of ancient architecture.

In this painting, night falls on the crumbling arches of a Medieval cathedral, while two travelers cling to the light of a bonfire in the old building’s heart. It’s an image of darkness encroaching on a once-great culture, leaving only traces of its former glory — but there is one note of hope:

As long as a few people stoke the fire at the heart, the light of civilization never completely dies.


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