Real Materials and Concrete Matters

This is an update of an article I wrote for the Concrete Cartel a few years ago.  It is about materials, and the relationship we have with them.  I make concrete, so the material most featured in this post is concrete, but it could be any other material that serves our needs, but needs to be respected in its own right.  I believe that it is in the quality of our relationships we find the true spark that illuminates our lives.  I have found this to as be true with humans as it is with those materials that touch our lives in any sort of intimate way.

There are many materials that have the required provenance to seduce a passionate and tactile relationship full of complexity.  Wood has warmth and strength, but if ill handled, it can splinter and rot.  Wool is warm, and stays so even when wet, but it is itchy on the skin.  Water is omnipresent, inexorable, and absolutely necessary for life, but it can harbor competing forms of life, and it itself can be an agent of total destruction.  Concrete has helped build civilization in the past, and is an important foundational element of our own.  It has the strength to help our buildings reach the skies, but if unattended it can cause them to crumble.  Concrete can make a mockery of dreams of our ascendancy, our ability to create, and become a source of a nightmare of destruction.

If we work with things that only can be what they are, then we should not be surprised that when we try to make them something they are not, we fail.  This is essential in all things human considered to be essential.  A doctor cannot pretend her patients are merely biomechanical machines for which only periodic repair and replacement parts are the only necessary prescription.  She probably would not apply that estimation to herself, so her ministrations will eventually doom her to failure.  And that failure’s cost will be suffered by her hapless patients who needed a fully human solution to their ails.

So it is with all materials.  Market cycles demand a delivery rotation for commodities used and consumed without thought. The nature of a mass market-based society sets a stage for comparison between artisan-crafted materials, and blindly manufactured extruded doodads. But in the creation of the unique, nothing is a commodity. Doodads can beat a dedicated artisan with mass marketed gloss, manufactured volume, industrialized turnaround time, and prices lowered by economies of mass scale and efficient global delivery.  In the world market these do have value, no matter how shrill of material, and how shoddy the doodad might be. These are loud distractions though, and should not be compared to the quiet treasure of an artisan’s material choices, or the time honed quality of his skill.  But the fear borne of this forced market comparison has lead many an artisan away from a belief in their material, and into the false hands of the coating salesman’s shiny and manufactured hope machine.  An artisan’s misguided weakness attracts the Tin Man’s predatory strength, and leads both customer and maker into a morass of mediocrity.  Many of us have fallen into this trap; I certainly have.  Let me tell you a story.

I found myself in a house of very certain qualities. I was there to make a repair on the membrane shrouding the bespoke concrete island countertop I had placed there.  It was a huge piece, laced with bronze, and had been heralded upon its arrival as “the most cherished part of this house’s renovation.”  But now the sealer, having lost interest in acting as such, was in the builder’s words, “Pealing like a church bell.”

The failure of that membrane had canceled my qualification as an artisan.  It was my stature as an artisan that had had me invited into that house in the first place. As I was now responsible for the biggest mistake on the project, I was now there under a very different covenant. My every move was to be watched. My every intention was base and suspect if it rose to any level of sophistication, and certainly dirty if it didn’t. Worse, as I had coated concrete with a sealer, the sealer’s failure somehow impugned the quality of the concrete and torpedoed the bona fides of its maker.

How had this fall from grace happened?  How had I become a dirty concrete worker, toiling in a clean professional’s house?  How did I become a human stain attending to a caveat venditor disaster?

It’s simple really. I had stopped believing in my material. And had I allowed the patent claims of salesmen to become my beliefs. Weak I was in that moment, and weakened, I was lain low.

I had been seduced into thinking concrete was a problem that disinterested chemicals and their coterie of chemical providers could provide a solution for.

I had become the maker of the couch that could not be sat upon without the permission granted by a plastic cover.  I had become merely the provider of a prophylactic’s mule.

Elegance on a coating

Humans don’t live long enough to live life fully, with our senses divorced from our sensibilities, as if we were in a jungle, but experiencing it as a zoo.  Life is visceral.  And removing the viscera leaves our life experience to be told on the membrane of a disinterested prophylactic, while we rot inside.

How would it be if we were to walk the world as our richest forebears did, draped with a wig, plastered with make-up, and swaddled with fetid layers of fabric, and slathered with powerful perfumes to prevent the scents of the world from invading the corporeal bubble.  They did this because they took their worlds, inside and outside to be toxic, and for them presentation at the surface was the acme of existence.  But is this inhibited vessel of inhabitation worthy of life’s full equation?

Comfortable blimp-like fashion

It may be apocryphal, but the following story has a ring of truth:  In the sixties, there was a French cheese exporter who was looking to gain a marketing foothold in the United States.  Represented were some of the finest cheeses France had to offer the world.  In France, cheese is part of life.  So the exporter presented cheese as a living creation, used to feed the life of those who would bring it into their home.  Surely Americans with their ascendant culture and expansive attitude would feel the same way about the living treasure that was cheese!

They did not.  The marketing campaign fell flat on its face.  What was wrong?  The cheese was some of the best in the world.  And Americans had a thriving and rapidly expanding economy.  And the ads were shown everywhere.  The problem was simple.

Living cheese is not an ideal American roommate.

Americans had been conditioned to buy perfection.  And perfection should be demonstrably sterile, and dead.  Life was a murky and suspicious complication in a product that was to be invited into the intimate space of a home.  So the exporter changed his message.

Cheese was made safe, morally unambiguous, dead, and behind a curtain of plastic, stored in the fridge.

Sealed in plastic means that it is safe to eat

Sales went through the roof.

America as much of the ‘modern’ world also has, been transformed from crucibles of invention, and engines of manufacture, to consumers of mass marketed products.  As recently as the seventies, in almost every American house that had one, a basement was a monument to American manufacturing prowess.  The man-cave of that era had a tangible output; whether it were bird feeders, birch benches, or sailboat hulls.  America at that time was still a formidable industrial power, and the hands of its citizens had an intimate and loving relationship with the materials that had made it great. Concrete, steel, wood, glass, plastics, and electronics were not distant alien mysteries to the people of that time.

The agents of change that would turn the US from a manufacturing goliath, to servile service society were no longer lurking in the background.  Trading on fear of the old, the corruption it implies, and the gloss of the new, tin men had been wrapping America’s architectural heritage in a thin veneer of a shiny new coating for years.  Levittowns and their suburban cul-de-sac successors were being sold as an antidote to the mass communicated riot of urban living.  The cities were being left to die, suburbia was being helped to grow, and houses in those places were available on credit.  The rail bed was experiencing its final death knell as its former riders were individuated into the convenience of personal transportation, that because of easy credit, planned obsolescence, and the social pressure fashion brought to bear, could be replaced with something new every three years.  Inside the house, food was being prepared on laminates made from paper saturated with glue, draped over formaldehyde spewing particleboard made from industrial waste wood and glue. Makers would become consumers; credit and malls would replace cash and factories.  And man-caves became carpeted spas fit for preening, but not for making.

People lost their connection with the material world having been sold a sales pitch that told of the perfection of prophylactic veneers.  And what was once a sales pitch became religion.

‘New’ now trumped ‘real’.  Rather than tell a story of that fitted life’s passage with grace and accuracy; the stuff of the world was now to be rated, and sold, on its ability to retain the gloss of the new.  This was the defining quality of a quality object.

What you want… is only on the label

But gloss tells no story.  It traps those seduced by its siren’s glare into an interminable present.  Every moment is as shiny and new as the next.  Obscured is the perspective needed to function in a living world.  It makes those who behold it, and welcome it, chum ready for consumption: consumers who pay for their own place upon the dinner plate.  There is no story here.  Newness is the end of story.

The history of humanity is a story.  Concrete, steel, wood, glass, and all those things we work with our hands are part of that story. And stories are more valuable than any disconnected momentary reflection.  The material world may be transient, but that should not mean that the surfaces that caress us should be so slick as to leave no memory as we slide by them on the path life has taken us.

Concrete is an honest material.  When it is made well, an honest process makes it.  It has flaws to be sure.  But the flaws are the source of the solutions that work best.  And sealers that work with concrete should be considered as part of the material itself.  The blind desires of the market led me astray, and I forgot the needs of my material, for the breathless need to surf on the promise of perfection.  But I made my bed on a thorny mattress.  Concrete does not forgive such transgressions.  Concrete wants to be concrete, and live with concrete people.

Glossy new car vs. curing concrete. Advantage concrete.

Who would want copper gutters that lack patina, or cedar shingles that are prevented from taking on the silver sheen of age, or beer without a frothy head?  Concrete will age, and if treated well will age with the grace the humans who live with it confer upon it.  Its history should be part of theirs.

It occurs to me that an ideal parable would be the story of the emperor’s new clothes, but in reverse.  As he walked down the street swaddled by nothing but his imagination of splendor, he was at that moment presenting himself in his truest form.  The leap that needs to be made is the one that closes the gap between the illusion of costume, and the projection of confidence that is alone, sufficient to clothe and identify whom we are, what we’re making, and how we touch the world.

The Emperor, clothed in his skin.

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