La Calle Es Una Selva de Cemento

When Hector LaVoe crooned these immortal words (the street is a concrete jungle) he captured perfectly that popular city sentiment; “it’s a jungle out there”- full of unknown dangers, adventures and riches to be had, and wild animals on the prowl. And the modern city, epitomized by rough concrete- that most base of building materials- is all well and good if you’re a Puerto Rican salsa king strung out on cocaine and making incredible albums titled “Crime Pays”. However, the design community has tended toward the glass-and-steel hi-modern/hi-tech aesthetic in recent decades.

And this is too bad. There have certainly been some brilliant moments in concrete- Tadao Ando’s body of work, the Soviet Constructivist movement, the Hoover Dam– but for every one of these there are 1000 shitty little row houses and retaining walls, and the majority of our concrete is clad in some thin, costly veneer. Indeed, the iconic concrete structure in New York City is not any particular masterwork by Wright or Saarinen, but rather the ubiquitous jersey barrier and the gum-stained city sidewalk. We here at FASLANYC may have an affinity for those rugged urban accessories, but even we would have to admit that they are rarely valued as fine cultural expressions. Rather, the are the building blocks of the seedy underbelly of the American Dream. But that is another post.

Today we are concerned about the future of concrete. It is well known that environmental rhetoric is a requisite part of any new proposal these days, and rightly so. Given this, and the fact that concrete has lost the culture war to the glass-and-steel crowd despite the best efforts of the Soviets and the Brazilians, the next best chance for a revival in concrete appreciation resides in the environmental imperative we now face. In particular, there is a group name Calera that we have had our eye on in recent years.

First profiled in this Scientific American article, Calera state their goal as being “to reverse global warming by capturing and storing greenhouses gases in the built environment”; they claim to have a process for flushing the emissions from power plants through tanks of common seawater to create cement. They then use the waste heat to dry the pulpy mash to create the cement. It is a promising panacea perilously lacking in specifics. Nonetheless, given that 2002 innovations in cement production processes are on schedule to begin operation in 2011, we can hope that Calera will have their science together by 2020, and it could be a game-changer.

[the moss landing power plant, where Calera intend to draw their emissions.
Photo courtesy of “mythlady” on flickr]
The production of cement is the most energy intensive part of the concrete process, creating at least one ton of carbon emissions for each ton of cement produced. Calera’s process aims to invert this equation, sequestering approximately half a ton of power plant emissions for every ton of cement produced. If the concrete on a project previously contributed 10 tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, using their cement would sequester or take out 5 tons.
If we were able to make this most wonderful and versatile of building materials into a veritable carbon sink and combine that with that other great carbon sink- forests- through an aggressive reforestation and urban forestation program, we can make major strides in our battle to combat climate change. This would require that the glass-and-steel default be replaced by a more robust masonry aesthetic which will define this new ethos. No longer just a substructure or a pavement, the beauty and tactile sensuality of concrete will be again be embraced. While in North America we have been rather taken with glass and steel and have left the shitty leftovers of the built environment to concrete, some young firms in South America have been refining the ways concrete can be employed beautifully since the days when Kubitschek ran off into the jungle Fitzcarraldo-style to build his inland empire.

[Oscar Niemeyer Museum, Curitiba, Brazil.
photo courtesy of superflu2009 on flickr]
The defining characteristic of concrete is that it is possible. You want to create a translucent masonry wall? Ok, sure. You want to damn an entire watershed? It will take twenty years, but you can do it. How about a city of flying saucers and crowns with yonic and phallic forms all floating in space- why not? For my money, I love the little concrete things, the furniture and lounges and arches. I also love the big things- the bridges and damns and bulkheads. Concrete changes fundamentally according to the process used for mixing/pouring/curing; you must design the process too. Concrete is muscular but not masculine, it is never hot but always warm, it stores heat during the day and releases it at night. I’m going to take a cold shower.

In the meantime, the below projects are some recent projects of South American provenance which demonstrate the versatility of the material and the process. If concrete does become a great carbon sink we may one day be looking at the Latin Americans for cues, much as we were influenced by the Bauhaus over 75 years ago. And Hector LaVoe will be recognized for his clairvoyance- the streets, and the whole city, will be a concrete jungle. And that would not be a bad thing.

[“La Maquina Vegetal”, by Tryptyque, located in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Note the perforated concrete facade and rough exposed facade irrigation.
The concrete is the structure for the plants and tha volumes]
[a close up of the perforated wall and cantilevered stair]
[home, by Marcos Acabaya, Sao Paolo, Brazil]
[thin shell concrete lounges by Marcos Acayaba]
[El Monolito Verde, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen Arquitectos, San Pedro, Chile]
[Hector LaVoe and Willie Colon, NYC, 1983]

5 thoughts on “La Calle Es Una Selva de Cemento

  1. Even though your argument is persuasive and fun to read, I was skeptical as I thought of all the stark and imposing concrete buildings around. Then I saw the examples you included at the end. They look great, and the translucent concrete sounds amazing. Have you seen any good examples of it in use?I usually prefer stone, perhaps because it's more varied. But there are definitely a lot of beautiful concrete buildings, and no reason why the look of concrete can't evolve with its new functions. Thanks for bringing up these possibilities.

  2. peter: I was trying to show some unconventional examples of nice concrete works. there are thousands, of course, including those by the guys i linked to at the start (like ando). work ac and ken smith are doing some really interesting concrete pieces for the east river park in new york. they are using the superthin, high tensile strength "ductal" concrete being produced by lafarge.concrete is above all possible, but it has a bad reputation because we've focused on how easy and cheap it is, and not how versatile and possible it is.nam: thanks! and thanks for the links and discussion over on mammoth about jamie lerner.

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