The Bartlett School of Architecture


Yichuan Chen

Image: Chishan Sluice completed in 1936 in Jurong County, Jiangsu Province (photo by Yichuan Chen)


Constructing Chinese Modernity: Concrete in China, 1880-1990

First and second supervisors 


Over half of the world’s cement is now produced and consumed in China, but conspicuously little research exists on how the foreign materials of cement and concrete became so vital to Chinese modernity. This study seeks to fill this gap by interrogating the extraordinary trajectory and proliferation of concrete in China, its entanglement with China’s changing socio-political experiences and its planetary consequences. 

China’s cement and concrete industries, established in the late-nineteenth century, expanded rapidly during the urban construction boom in the 1920s-30s. However, it was probably the shift from construction activities from urban to rural in the 1960s–1970s that contributed the most to the dissemination of concrete in China, with 60% of China’s cement produced in rural areas by 1977. When urbanisation resumed in the late-1970s, technologies developed for rural and infrastructure projects were appropriated and mobilised for urban development.

As a result, it is difficult to form a complete picture of China’s landscape of concrete without understanding the profound change concrete brought to rural China in the twentieth century, on which existing research is particularly lacking. Employing theories from environmental history and sustainable transformation and focusing on diverse structures such as bridges, water control facilities, rural dwellings and concrete boats, this study explores how the dissemination of concrete in mainly rural areas brought profound technological and cultural changes and planetary environmental consequences.


Yichuan Chen received his Bachelor’s degree in Urban & Rural Planning in Southeast University in 2018 and an Urban Studies MSc at UCL's Department of Geography in 2019. He has worked as an independent researcher of historic coastal fortifications (paotai) in late 19th and early 20th century China. These, being the earliest application of modern concrete in China, have led to his current PhD research project at The Bartlett School of Architecture. 

Since the beginning of his PhD, Yichuan has already published two academic papers in Construction History and Curator: The Museum Journal. Yichuan is previously experienced in researching and conserving historic buildings and structures in China, especially 19th century military architecture, and has published extensively on the subject. 


Selected publications:

  • Chen, Y. (2023) “Early concrete bridges in China as (dissonant) modern heritage: A case study of the double‐curved bridges in Nanjing”. Curator: The Museum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12599 (early view version) 
  • Chen, Y. (2023) “Advanced technologies and people’s creations: the politics of concrete bridge construction in China, 1964-1978”. Construction History. 38. pp.73-98. 
  • Chen, Y. (2018) “An early application of Portland cement in China: William Dowdall and 800-pound muzzle-loading gun emplacement in Huangshan Hill, Jiangyin”. China Cultural Heritage. 2018(03). pp.104-107. (text in Chinese) 

Image: Chishan Sluice completed in 1936 in Jurong County, Jiangsu Province (photo by Yichuan Chen)