C Magazine


Issue 140

A Study in Concrete: Text by Annie Wong, Image by jes sachse
by jes sachse and Annie Wong

The dancers move through the entire building, weaving through the audience,
embracing stairs like descending sunlight.

In 1982, a study was done with two flocks of adult sheep. The first were
subjected to daily walking on a concrete surface, while the second walked
on wood chips. After two years, the scientists observed a significant
decrease in the cartilage density and alteration in the bones around the
knee joints of the first flock.

One of the dancer’s feet, bare and baroque, has become swollen.
They continue nevertheless, offering a tenderness and softness
to the concrete floor: more than it deserves.

Despite its seeming neutrality, concrete is dynamic.
When you press yourself against its surface, it presses back
against you. It will try to take from you more than you can give.

As I watch them dance, I lean against a flecked concrete pillar.
It burns with a coldness. I touch my skin and feel the imprint of
tiny stones.

Portland cement’s name refers to the eponymous limestone
mined from the quarries in the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England.
It is the most commonly used mixture for the production of
concrete to date and has been used for the construction of many
institutional buildings, including the Buckingham Palace, the
British Museum and the Bank of England.

An immaculate whiteness swells in this room.

It is produced by sintering limestone, clay minerals and
gypsum in a kiln, resulting in clinker, which is then pulverized
into a fine powder.

A sudden pain shoots up my spine.

A concrete building is a machine for working; a monument to
functionality, designed to ensure the constant flow of work.

I think about the swollen foot and the logic of concrete that compels us to keep going,
even when it hurts. This is our contract with concrete.

Concrete is not without memory. It is a material loyal to power.
It moves like intransigent sprawl that slowly consumes the land
under our feet. In 1908, during the construction of a pipeline,
a building inspector for the City of Toronto uncovered a hundred
moccasin footprints pressed in blue clay at Hanlan’s Point.
Construction nonetheless continued, and the ancient footprints
from 1,100 years ago were covered with concrete.

I find myself discoloured.

In awe of his housing unit, bare and in mid-construction,
Le Corbusier decided that the building, in its state without
plaster, was complete. He described his masterpiece
as “a massacre of concrete.”

We are hired to make idols of achromatic walls,
to bend on foundations that bruise knees.

In a moment of crisis, the concrete building is a fortified
mechanism, designed to control all threats to the
institution by doing what it does best: nothing.

How did we give it the gravity to pull us in?

The durability of building material is measured by its compressive strength, how much it can withstand being pushed together, and tensile strength, how much it can resist being pulled apart.

Why do we give up our bones trying to make stone bleed?

While concrete demonstrates high compression strength, it has low tensile strength. Thus, with substantial impact, concrete cracks.

How do we build a building:
not as a site of exhaustion,
not with origins of violence,
not from empire, not of concrete?