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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.

Concrete Ruminations from the Middle Ages

As I cross the threshold into my fiftieth year, I find the need to take stock of the world I came to live in, and the times that made me.  I was born in 1963, nearly eighteen years after cessation of hostilities of the Second World War.  It was a time when once former allies who together had defeated Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, were themselves at each other’s throats.  It was their turn now to bring the world to the edge of extinction with even more soaring iconology than the fascists could ever produce, and technologies that could assure the promise of their predictions.  The Cold War, as it came to be known, was made even more engaging by the illusion of instant communication, allowing the potential spectacle of instantaneous destruction to be expansively and expensively delivered into the psyche of every member of the evolved societies, whose governments and major institutions were each perpetrating their own dystopian vision of the other, measured against the domestic empire’s ideological dream.

This was an exciting time.  History has always been a parade, but never before had a stadium been so well created that a totality of audience could be reached.  And as theater, the show was anything but dystopian.

Architecture and technology had refined to the point that materials could be made to make a political point all of its own.  The concrete used for the Berlin Wall became a star in its own right as a touchstone for geopolitical tension.  And using the corpse of Nazi Germany’s capital was the perfect place to plant such a material monument to gain the attention of the global audience.  Nazi Germany after all, had been no slouch in using concrete in the service of the multifarious ways of statecraft.

East German workers begin the construction of the Berlin Wall

So too was concrete used to harden the missile silos used capture the imagination and awe of anybody who cared to think about them.  Hardened concrete was used to protect the vision of how the skies could turn against us. The soaring skies above were now to be billboards too.  For the achievements capable by competing ideologies, combined with a none too subtle reminder of how near the end might be, needed to be as close as the air we breathe, and as distant as the sky that shelters us.  The nightmare was thus wrapped in a dream.

Hardened concrete at the maw of a Titan 2 missile silo.

Concrete also became the foundation, structure, and face of the renovated skylines, and brand new metropolises on each side of the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’.  Architecture soared on the back of this very plastic material, just as state security in its turn, used the same concrete as the visceral image of a safety blanket that spoke volumes about how unsafe the world they proposed actually was.

For either, and indeed both visions to become true, whole new technologies and concomitant materials had to be developed.  Concrete was only one of these material meditations.  Indeed the same technologies that brought us all the vision of the oasis of life our Earth is, also helped us realize the methodology of our own removal.  The good Earth’s willingness to sustain us would not stand, should we be willing and eager to kill ourselves for political principle.  And that was the logic used to inspire us to work towards the correct ideological ends.  Anything was possible, unless we killed ourselves; but if we did, it would be total, and in a blaze of glory.

Far from being a time of pessimisms, this was a time of great deeds.  The greatest of political powers in the world, having forgone the combined human, emotional, material, and financial costs of actual war, had turned the energies of their respective populations to theatrically demonstrate the material manifestations of their ideological prognostications.  They needed their optimism as much as they demanded their obedience.  And great progress was made in almost all fields of human endeavor.  Mercantile colonialism’s yoke had been thrown off in many parts of the world, and the former colonies began to gather themselves together to forge a newly possible national identity and global prowess, even if in so doing they were casting their national experience into Colonialism’s ideological successor’s notion of ‘Spheres of Influence’.

Tweedle Dee
Tweedle Dum

All around the world women were becoming more and more equal participants of the societies they lived in. People were living longer, and there were far more of us.  Agricultural systems that only a few generations earlier could barely sustain a billion people were robust enough to handle the nutritional need of more than three times that amount when I was born, and were seemingly well set to handle even more.  And this was happening all over the world, regardless of ideological stripe.

I arrived in the United States in 1970.  The Vietnam War was in full swing, but the US was still writing its mythology in future tense.  Captain Kirk was as real a vision of this country as the mythologized exploits of the Revolutionary forefathers.

Captain Kirk, once a very real part of America’s Destiny

Everywhere I looked, things were being invented.  Virtually every house that had sufficient extra space had a workshop of often surprising sophistication as part of its compliment of resources, whether it was basement, attic, or garage.  People were making things.  Back then, the building of a modern and capable society required it.

This state of affairs continued until the late eighties, when the cost of the theatrical performance outstripped the Soviet Union’s ability to continue to be a part.  The Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed.  China adopted a free market system, former ideological client states were allowed to founder, and the United States declared itself the ‘One Remaining Superpower’.  An era of prosperity was supposed to have been launched.  But that is not what happened.

In a sense global capitalism had won the day.  It had been most efficient in exciting the desires of a worldwide audience, and delivering material manifestations of those desires to those in societies who could afford them.  Global communism, for reasons often of national cultural incompatibilities and egos, could not compete, could not be as mercurial as the unfettered movement of capital, which required no real national or cultural alliance.  Which is unfortunate, because while the competition continued, certain things were held in check on both sides of the ideological wall; things that global capitalism does not require to the same degree that directly competing internationalist ideological systems do.  One of these was the constant attention to the maintenance and upgrade of infrastructure.  The other was a keen governmental attention to maintaining the spirit of their peoples.  Global capitalism simply requires a system that will enable the infrastructural and social requirement that sales be made.

So what does this have to do with materials like steel, concrete, and wood?  It has to do with the hands of the maker, and the senses of the individuals who can appreciate the concrete exigencies of the making.  And the need to maintain these abilities in the person of a human being in the face of the inevitability of ever greater mechanical manufacturing capabilities.  It has to do with a resistance to making the things that surround us mere commodities.  I have at times made my living making concrete countertops. Real materials can function in many ways.  Concrete is a real material.  That it can also be a countertop; a shelf for all the stuff that keep you alive and comfortable, is immaterial.  That a market can compare it to other surfaces, is more about the market than the material.  After the sale is complete, the material will remain.  The material is what will reflect our touch, and not the sales job that got the sale.  It is within our concrete engagement with a material that a relationship is made.  We must carefully choose how we make decisions that have the consequence of leading to a relationship.  Even if it is only about a countertop.

We are at an important point in our history.  We as a society have discovered that we as a society can make just about anything.  And we discover this at a time when most individuals in the ‘developed’ world have ceded their personal ability to make things to the infrastructure of industrial combines who too often farm the making of things to hands in the ‘undeveloped’ world.  Products too expensive for those hands to ever buy, are sold to us at a price that we could never afford to make them for, even if we remembered how things were made, and how our hands were used.

Designed in California, made in China

We were not born to inhabit a market strategy.  We were born to a world and made of the stuff of that world.  Materials matter.  And we need the honesty of the hands that craft material objects to matter too.

Artists and artisans are valuable to the feel of our culture at a macro level regardless of the media combines that brought them to our global attention.  Artists and artisans are critical to the places and ways we live on a local level.  The nature of a safe and supportive place does not really need the former.  But it requires the latter.

Broadly prosperous peoples have always had a wide and open interplay with those that parse their aesthetics, and convert materials to useful objects.  Empires are often built on focusing attention away from local values, by co-opting the local need for art and materials into the aesthetics of the controlling establishment.  This can be beneficial at times.  Think of clean water delivery, communication services, transportation infrastructure, a codified legal and financial system, as well as a language that allow large amounts of people to understand each other.

But it also can often harm the close places we need to build our homes and communities.  Small towns’ centers shrivel when big box stores park themselves just outside them.  When Nike comes to town, a small self-sufficient fishing village in Indonesia loses those things that used to make it alive, in exchange for sweatshop conditions and unattainable dreams. When IKEA becomes their neighbor, what happens to the generational furniture maker?

In our world, things made next-door cost far more money than things made half a world away.  But if you think about it, is that so strange?  Home is valuable.  To have a home, one must have a place.  That place must be protected, and cared for, and shared.

To do this each of us need to invest in the whole notion of place itself, its durability and survivability.  Just because a lawyer makes more money than the concrete artisan, or the woodworker, or the blacksmith, or the farmer, does not mean a lawyer is more important to the health of the local community.  The pay scale of the attorney does reflect their value to the larger society, and how it sees and constructs itself, but those constructs will never be able to complete a home without the local hands and specialized knowledge to build it.

Concrete home by Atelier Zhanglei; designed in China, made in China.

In order to keep ourselves active in building the society we live in, we need our neighbors. Because sharing the warmth of their presence, we confirm that we have a home.  We need access to the cultural machinery that only close and voluntary cooperation can provide. We need our hands, because they are similar in size as our face, and most of us have two of them… and they allow the mind behind the face to make things that only that mind could.  And it is with the hand-in-hand collaboration of others, where the capability to inspire and make new possibility is built.  We need each other.  And we should want to need each other too.

I want to know that humanity will survive its journey into the stars.  And I want to help get us there.  Amongst other things I make concrete.  Concrete is a human meditation balanced between the extant possibilities of our mineral environment, our ability to see those possibilities, and our ability to manipulate these elements into a fertile condition, making real something that has never been made before.  We will need to be inside this ‘concrete’ meditation to survive on Mars, and elsewhere in the cosmos.  But we will not get there unless more of us invest our interests into that vision here at home, on Earth.