Plastic is not that fantastic

To the left of the image, small panels of material can be seen stacked upon one another, leaning against a sloping wall, also parallel to the roof. Most of these offcuts were used elsewhere in the construction, some of it to make cupboards and other furniture. 

The room’s surfaces, of Douglas fir plywood, would later be covered with a single layer of PVA, two layers of a transparent intumescent treatment and a finishing coat of matt varnish.

In 1957, a collection of essays written over two years by Roland Barthes was published as a book, Mythologies. One of the most enticing of them, entitled Plastic, began with a description of humans waiting ‘in a long queue in order to witness the accomplishment of the magical operation par excellence: the transmutation of matter’. They were there to watch an oblong machine transforming ‘telluric matter’ into plastic objects for human use. 

Plastic is not that fantastic.

Baekeland gave the product its name and he imagined many uses for it. He would combine it with other materials, including cotton, wood and asbestos. 

Bakelite was the first plastic to be used widely. Adolf von Baeyer produced it for the first time in 1872. It would not be exploited as a commercially viable product until 1907, when its synthetic components were further developed by Leo Baekeland in New York. It was patented there in 1909 and in many other countries over the following months.

Barthes went on to describe plastic as ‘the first magical substance that consents to be prosaic’. It is this prosaic quality that has made it ubiquitous.

David Grandorge is a photographer and senior lecturer in architecture at London Met. His fee for this column has been donated to support the publication of new and diverse voices in the AJ


Due to its unyielding properties, it would be used in its early days to make jewellery, cigarette holders, lacquers and many other things, even insulation. Plastic is now used to make almost anything, but still not everything.

We should be a little more concerned about the use of plastics in construction. They most often have a single use and, at the end of their useful life, they will most probably go on to spend a few hundred years in one of the numerous landfill sites in the UK or one of the many others on the surface of our planet. 

This photograph was taken on 6 May 2018. It depicts a modest loft conversion three weeks before its construction phase was completed. At the centre of the image is a light chute, parallel to the roof (with a pitch of 22.5 degrees) that passes through a slim composite timber and plywood floor (with a span:depth ratio of nearly 40) to bring often exquisite daylight to the bathroom below it.

At this stage of the project’s construction, a vapour barrier, installed to stop warm air moving into the insulation layer, is not yet concealed. It is doing something very useful but, like the adhesives and varnishes employed elsewhere, it is made of plastic, a synthetic material that has become ubiquitous, in a rather troubling manner, in our contemporary world.

These industrial processes, so fascinating (and visible) to the public in the 1950s are now mostly hidden from view.