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The Chemistry Experiment

“The two elements the traveler first captures in the big city are extrahuman architecture and furious rhythm. Geometry and anguish.” –Federico García Lorca, Poet in New York

1. The formula for limestone: CaCO3

I begin by sketching, sometimes; imagination and wonder, measuring and mixing. Then, with a bucket of viscous concrete and a length of fabric, I bend to my work, stretche into the physicality of making. Now I press, squeeze concrete into the cotton until it’s integral to the fibers. Cotton fibers being hollow, they’re absorbent, holding water twenty-five times their own weight. And the fiber’s surface is rough with clumps of nanocrystals, fantastically small clusters of atoms.

Cotton becomes the aggregate that limestone cement compounds can bond to, just as they do with sand and gravel in my sidewalk. Now it’s all in my hands, working the fabric through the bucket, pressing and refolding and squeezing. Mind detached, I enfold a frame or fill a casing with the rumpled or flowing or fluttering concretion. Now time is measured in how long a bucket of mud loses too much water to be workable. I work quickly, the sketch evaporates and the fabric composes, materializes. I underlay wads of bubbles, jags, mounds of non-stick bits to realize the topographic qualities the composition craves, the dimensional idea it seeks.

But today, I'm having an argument. That is, the artist in me argues with my conscience. Because today, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, having flown 3,000 miles (that’s carbon offsets for 4,000 pounds of emissions) for a New York walkabout my wanderer self desperately needed (wanted), a post-vax get-out-of-Seattle break. I face the reality of the “concrete jungle” we’ve constructed for ourselves. Today, from that bridge, I turned around to behold the panorama of choices we’ve made, building cities even more overgrown now than when zoologist Desmond Morris called up the jungle image in “The Human Zoo,” where the survival needs of humanity are provided for, but at the cost of living in an unnatural environment.

What hasn’t been said about the Brooklyn Bridge, a defining work of New York City architecture: a supple swoop of suspension cables, classic Gothic-Revival double arches of granite, ingenious engineering. The first suspension bridge to use steel cabling instead of iron. Its span, almost 1,600 feet, was the longest in the world. Its 135-foot clearance, allowing tall ships to pass beneath, set the standard for bridge construction.

Overlooked were the caisson innovations—those are enormous bottomless boxes set into the river. Air pumped in from the top displaced the water, allowing immigrants to dig out the rock and sand at the bottom. After hitting bedrock, the caissons were filled with thousands of tons of concrete, becoming the bridge’s unsung foundations.

Concrete has been the overlooked material for most of its very long history—from 6,500 BCE in Syria and Jordan, when the Nabataea secreted underground concrete cisterns, helping them thrive in the desert.

The Romans made much of concrete, from 600 BCE, perfecting a recipe from the earth’s natural chemistry of volcanic ash, lime—calcium carbonate—and seawater. This material enabled construction of the classic, enduring architecture and infrastructure of the age. Vitruvius, an engineer and architect, documented the state-of-the-art mix, advising Pozzolana ash—named for the city near Naples where it was mined—to add strength and minimize cracks.

The Roman architecture revolution is also known as the concrete revolution because the material made arches, vaults and other structural innovations possible in the ancient empire. Amphitheaters and aqueducts, harbors and seawalls, dams and bridges and roads—monumental architecture was liberated from the dictates of traditional brick and stone by the innovation of Roman concrete. The soaring coffered dome of the Pantheon was the world’s largest for more than a millennium and is still the largest unreinforced solid concrete dome, two thousand years later.

2. The principle of chemistry: Reaction

I’ve come to embrace this age-old, humble and assertive material; learning techniques from the ancients has helped me adapt concrete to my art practice.

I began tinkering with it a few years ago, after finding a bucket of premix at the hardware store that I could work to the consistency of clay. I drew charcoal “frescos” on wet concrete and shaped vessels on varied surfaces. Soon, I needed to formulate concrete to my own needs, using white Portland cement, which honors color, instead of construction grey.

But why concrete, of all things? It’s hard, cold. Brutal. Yet I find its “science experiment” qualities make it a compelling medium for expressing both left and right brain values. There’s a false divide between art and science anyway; both are essential to understanding what it is to be alive. There’s revelation in eloquent physical phenomena, but art illuminates what makes us feel human.

I witness the physical world: ice melts, water boils, atoms split. I grasp the facts, the seen and unseen, and the feelings they invoke. I experience both awe and aversion, opposites that coexist. Can I hold opposing values together in my mind?

There’s a point when contradictions harmonize. That interests me. Exploring the instant when phase change occurs, energy is released. Future becomes past, experience becomes memory.

Concrete is that kind of chemical action—water doesn’t just wet the lime and ash, it reacts. Liquid and solid are reconciled. The result is malleable, then unyielding; transient and rocklike. My challenge is to realize an idea almost spontaneously, then it cures and endures.

As Rome spread its influence across Europe, concrete came along (concretus means to grow together). Construction was critical to the expanding empire—Roman Legionnaires were both soldiers and craftsman, creating landmarks at every outpost, like Hadrian’s Wall on the island of Britannia. Along with much of civilization, the craft of concrete was lost during the Dark Ages, but with the discovery of manuscripts in the 1400s, interest rekindled during the Renaissance and concrete expanded in construction across Europe and from there, eventually, to the new world and New York.

Concrete advanced again when Joseph Aspdin, a big-haired bricklayer in 1820s Leeds, in the former Britannia, patented a new process: burning finely ground chalk and clay in a kiln until the carbon dioxide was removed. Marketed as Portland cement, it was brand-named after the high-quality building stones found down south, nowhere near Leeds.

Since Aspdin’s time, its low cost and innovations like steel reinforcement made concrete the world’s dominant building material. And designers have continued to stretch its capabilities, such as a thin-shell technique for structures like roofs. The 1951 Cosmic Ray Laboratory at the University of Mexico City has a hyperbolic paraboloid (saddle-shaped) concrete roof that’s—imagine this—five-eighths of an inch thick.

My artist self has been stretching concrete’s intriguing capacities in my studio too. I gravitated to sculptural paintings in two-and-a-half dimensions: wall sculptures. But with cement and sand, the larger I worked, the weight of those pieces became an issue, no surprise. I experimented with lighter aggregates, testing more than fifty formulations before arriving at this harmony, my lightweight concrete and cotton duet.

I relish the expressive potential in this rugged surface, the three-dimensional plane. The tandem threads running through my work: awe for the spirit and conscience that make us human, in tension with a Memento Mori fatalism. The stories are abstract and personal. Logical and emotional. A stilled moment in our lived experience, frozen, like a Pompeii plaster figure. In the chemical reaction, the ephemeral becomes durable, abstract becomes concrete.

3. The problem for concrete: Brutal

Walking back over the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, I headed through the syllabic abbreviation of Tribeca towards the other river—I wanted to find the new Little Island. Along the way I collided with a windowless mass, seemingly sprung from a Soviet architectural wet dream: the AT&T Long Lines Building. Built in the mid 1970s to house machines, not people, the design frankly reflects that. The architect’s vision was a Brutalist “twentieth century fortress” for the world’s largest long-distance phone call processing center. Standing up at over 500 feet, it’s constructed of concrete clad with rose-colored granite. One city guidebook described it as “surely the biggest blank wall in the world.

It was designed to withstand a nuclear attack—to protect the sensitive equipment, house and feed the 1,500 mortals needed to run it and store 250,000 gallons of fuel to keep the generators humming for two weeks. Each long precast vertical bay backs onto a furious rhythm of concrete conduits, all backed by fireproof terra-cotta tile. There’s a row of mysterious blocky openings halfway up, as if waiting for Jedi fighters to dock in for repairs. The building is surrounded at sidewalk level by weirdly imposing sci-fi figures—are they light fixtures? Faceless Gotham zombies from a brutal nightmare. Truly extrahuman architecture, as Lorca pictured.

Brutalist architecture is characterized by monolithic structures with a chunky appearance, rigid geometry and large-scale use of poured concrete. The plainspoken, blunt style grew out of the earlier modernist movement, meant to express assertive postwar optimism in the 1950s.

Brutalism, the word, sounds like architecture meant to bully the viewer, but the name was said to be inspired by the plain honesty and structural possibilities of béton brut—French for raw concrete. As that implies, there’s an unrefined attitude to these buildings, maybe a little like New York. With heavy shapes and modular, function-specific elements, it became widespread across communist countries and reviled everywhere else (until recently), called unfriendly, ugly and correctly named. Someone, I don’t know who, called it fuck-you modernism.

But the material holds its own lyrical dignity in the hands of accomplished designers. A few years ago, a Museum of Modern Art exhibition marked the flourishing of Brutalism in post-war Yugoslavia. The country was characterized by its “in-betweenness,” situated between Europe and the Soviet Union, a Venn diagram of East and West, with its in-between brand of communism and its break from the drab tastelessness of state-sanctioned style. The MoMA catalog highlighted the quirky geometry of this “concrete utopian” architecture from the short-lived social democracy, and the spomenici—memorials—boldly expressive monuments commemorating the struggle against fascism.

Is it ironic then, that the Brutalist AT&T fortress in Tribeca is reportedly now under the control of the National Security Agency, said to have moved operations into this bunker after the World Trade Center was torpedoed? Whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed how NSA equipment was integrated with AT&T’s network in New York City and, in frightening detail, how the agency can suck up communications from the company’s systems. That makes it a key NSA surveillance site on US soil, a covert monitoring hub for tapping into phones and data streams. A “spyscraper,” some call it.

I need some air.

4. The challenge for humanity: CO2

Pop quiz: what country is synonymous with economic development, rampant with highways, tall buildings, bridges and dams; and is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide on earth?

If concrete were a country, it would only lag the US and China in emissions of CO2. The problem is the carbon dioxide that’s removed when burning chalk and clay to produce Portland cement. In the process, three tons of CO2 are sent into the atmosphere for every person in our earthly human zoo, every year. That’s right, all 7.8 billion of us, and counting. That makes cement second only to water as the most consumed material on the planet. Having long admired concrete’s beauty, I’ve come to appreciate its mortal concerns.

Now, you and I are in an in-between place—an argument between the planet’s past and future. We’re participating in the most consequential chemistry experiment on earth. Now we face a brutal prospect if we don’t abandon our dependence on a CO2-spewing lifestyle, and all of us live in the “country” of concrete.

I want to convey the scale of this problem: worldwide cement production has increased more than thirty times since 1950, and almost four times just since 1990. China now uses nearly half the world’s concrete, pouring more between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in the entire twentieth century. That’s mainly driven by rapid modernization both in and by China, especially in Southeast Asia and Africa. India and Indonesia are entering their concrete-intensive phase of development.

Our built environment is overwhelming our natural habitat. Yet until recently, concrete has been overlooked, getting little public criticism.

There’s a drop of good news too, but like most sustainable processes essential to reversing global disaster, it requires us to change how we behave. Which seems damn near impossible in our current climate.

To reduce emissions, some are tinkering with recycled substitutes and renewables in cement production—that’s easy and cost-saving. Others are exploring cement alternatives, aiming to reduce its carbon footprint by up to two-thirds. But the essential needed change is the adoption of carbon capture and storage technology, trapping carbon dioxide in the aggregate. That’s expensive though, on a commercial scale.

In response to the Paris climate agreement, the global concrete industry group (representing thirty five percent of manufacturers) adopted a Sustainability Charter. But annual cement emissions will need to fall by at least sixteen percent by 2030, and that ship has likely already sailed.

Some point to the efficiency of new cement plants burning waste materials. But if the industry has any hope of meeting its CO2 reduction targets, it’s time to overhaul cement-making itself, not just reduce fossil fuels. Knowing what we now know about the impact of concrete, you and I can no longer overlook our responsibility to pressure the industry toward this goal if we are to survive and grow together.

Experts struggle to sound upbeat about our chances in the face of unmet climate pledges. And how much can it possibly help that I’ve quit eating beef and buying single-use plastics? I still flew 3,000 miles for the pleasure of vacating Seattle and taking this crosstown walk.

All of which stimulates my conscience about this material I’ve been joyfully mixing. Now, with pozzolanic fly ash and lime, I’m conjuring anguished landscapes, fissured-earth panels to visualize one fateful future. I don’t imagine that art can crack the challenge of concrete on the needed scale—that will take science and much more enlightened behavior now, in between our carbon-dependent habits of the past and our intentions for the future. But art illuminates what makes us feel human. To the extent we can visualize a different fate for humanity, I see hope for our chances too.

5. The solution for earth: Greenspace

Now I’m feeling cranky; the sidewalks have been brutal on my feet. I hop on the E train, bobbing back up to the surface at Fourteenth Street. I wish Seattle was threaded with subways like this, ideal transportation for a concrete jungle, and I see why women replace fancy work shoes with trainers to go from here to there across Manhattan’s big little island.

On the west side, the sun extends fingers to hearten pedestrians and warm the pavement. Here, as everywhere in town, restaurants have spilled across the sidewalks during the pandemic. Even more than usual, streets radiate a tempting international flavor. The toasted aroma of Ethiopian berbere. Another twenty feet, smoky wood-fired pizza. Should I stop and have my eyebrows sculpted? Wearing a mask everywhere, maybe I need more stylish eyes. And when is Insomnia Cookies coming to my town—they deliver!

Also, why do we need a Sephora on every gentrified block? Upmarket WeWork spaces jostle with shi-shi galleries and empty storefronts where undercapitalized art spaces used to be. A weathered brick-front shop sells $700 Bally shoes. The sky is fully part of the picture over the Hudson River. I come upon Little Island @ Pier 55 in mid-afternoon—my destination has a branded name that doesn’t spell “at.”

Springing up between scattered broken wooden piers is a cluster of pods on pedestals, sprouting greenery. They call them “tulips,” but they must be tulips designed by Ewoks—they’re cute giant sci-fi concrete flowers, anchored by overlooked precast piles driven into the river bottom. Varying in size and height, the structures huddle to form a rough square of two-and-a-half acres, undulating above the waterline.

I understand that a couple of overcapitalized New Yorkers wanted to improve the neighborhood, turning a derelict pier into an attractive greenspace. What mystifies me is that we’ve resorted to building a $260 million unnatural environment, a manicured, miniature jungle on a couple of acres of concrete. Little Island is a spomenici to an ideal, a memorial to wide-open, unpretentious patches of park life, and, it turns out, you need a timed ticket to go in.

Which means I can’t get in now. I end up squinting @ it, rose-colored across the water like a vain experiment in optimism. It looks little. Hope and skepticism, I’m trying to hold these opposing ideas in my mind at the same time.

“I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to ‘succeed’ — and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up

© 2022 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

Image credits: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Featured image, AT&T Long Lines Building detail, photograph by Grou Serra. AT&T Long Lines Building image, photographer unknown. Spomenici in Serbia, photograph by Jan Kempenaers. Little Island, photograph by Amr Alfiky.


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