1. In the River Falls piece (February 1969) artist Barry Le Va selected a series of locations in the campus of the State University of Wisconsin. In a period of three days, Le Va and his helpers spread gray powdered cement thinly and evenly in approximate circular shapes on a large extension of the snow covered fields. Several interrelated and simultaneous processes were involved in this piece. The time of the arrangement of the work itself: the cement bags being transported to the previously selected places and its spreading, where the decisions of the distribution were taken in response to the piece as it developed[i]. The snow falling, melting, and slow mixing with the cement, then generating its gradual solidification.
In spring, when all the snow finally melted and the water evaporated and filtered in the ground, a few crusts of cement still remained.
This piece evidences the statement that time is real. A time that deeply carries and actively determines the transformation of matter and the emergence of forms. It could be said that these forms were obtained accidentally, this is, not directly imposing them to the material. The material, on the contrary, is permitted to function integrally.
The point of departure of this work was a rough diagram. It’s the pouring of the cement the action that triggers a series of intermingled processes in which the snow is the active and modulating formwork to it.
Accordingly to this purely performative notion of the work of art, the materials that Le Va selects for his works barely contain any referential or cultural qualities, or are treated in a way that those are unrecognizable. In “Six blown lines” (1970), six flour stripes were laid down on a wooden floor, then blown laterally with an air compressor. Again, beyond the emphasis on the action, what is evidenced is the manifestation of matter behavior under certain conditions. Those conditions are the only imposed elements in these works. The artist intervention is cross-sectioned with the autonomy of the selected materials. Certain patterns, inner structures, are left open and freely manifest under the activation of the artist. The tension of the work of art (the unavoidable affirmative character of any material production as such) resides in the dialectics between matter and its manipulation. Every one of these mediations leaves a trace on every singular ‘blow’ that captures one possible conformation of the material’s field of emergences.
What these works reveal is the elaboration of a mental construction (a sort of intuitive diagram) that is consequently tested in a collaborative way.
Every one of these mediations leaves a trace on every singular ‘blow’ that captures one possible conformation of the material’s field of emergences.
It is possible to find analogous practices to the described so far, in the field of architecture. Some architectural works incorporate materials in which a fixed form has not been prescribed, where time and change are evidenced. While this is fairly clear dealing with non primarily structural matter of which buildings are made, the materials used to build the structural skeleton also allow such practices.
As a basic premise, the construction of an architectural structure incorporate a different set of implications than those of a work of art, such as the social and technological contingencies, spatial requirements and a simple principle of economy. Taking these constraints into account, a rather singular condition involving material and its manipulation is set out.
In the case of reinforced concrete, it is possible to find an experimental dialectic between constructive techniques, structural and spatial needs, from the very beginning of its use.
One of the oldest reinforced concrete structures was a small boat constructed by Joseph Louis Lambot in Miraval (France) around 1850, and presented at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855. The first effective collaboration between concrete and iron came from the substitution of an old rowing boat owned by Lambot.
An iron structure, reproducing that of the traditional wooden boats, was covered by a thin layer of concrete[ii]. This object apparently did not possess a constructive logic, since the materials used still tried to reproduce a wooden structure with one of iron and (a substitution of) stone. Without losing its referential and cultural qualities, the shift improved the resistant properties of both iron and stone. The iron shell worked as well as a primitive formwork device. Some more time and numerous inventive attempts were needed to separate the shuttering or formwork structure from the concrete one, that would then incorporate an independent inner flexible iron skeleton.
Lambert’s boat was a bizarre replica that however addressed a search for a new and independent substance: a material cooperative system, essentially artificial, since it was designed for specific purposes, structural and spatial, and could be redesigned every time it was applied.
Therefore reinforced concrete offers several lines of variation[iii], variation on the nature and proportion of its components, amongst the operations performed in its elaboration and application as a constructive device, and the alternatives that those factors offer during construction. Following the deleuze’s terms, this lines of variation are composed by singularities and affective qualities. Singularities are the operations associated to the processes of transformation of matter: the solidification of concrete, its possible different mixtures, the interaction iron-concrete. The affective qualities would be the traits of expression corresponding to those singularities and operations: hardness, surface characteristics coming from the composition and the time of solidification, cracks suffered from certain environmental and structural conditions, etc.
This way, a certain use of reinforced concrete offers a way of surpassing the hylomorphic notion of matter, in which form is imposed to an essentially passive and homogeneous matter, without inherent properties and accidents to be considered. A model in which matter is a featureless, inert receptor of form, neither operative nor expressive.
The pioneers in the use of concrete were true artisans, or better, inventors, explorers of the resources and potentials offered by a material that was conceived almost at the same time that was used. Intuition in action. Craftsmen that followed carefully a certain field of matter. Besides, a formal reasoning was developed along the empirical work, where inventive assemblages were obtained. This assemblages were therefore deductions from the flow of matter in continuous variation, from the innumerable convergence of possible singularities and traits belonging to the concrete matter.[iv]
The Swiss engineer Robert Maillart (1872-1940) was amongst those craftsmen. He believed that the physical static models used to calculate his works (the models that contemplated certain stable singularities so to speak) had to be considered only as a base for a richer validation of what he called secondary conditions (those outside general dimensional issues):
“The notion certainly often prevails that the calculation should clearly and concisely determine the dimensioning. In view of the impossibility of taking all the secondary conditions into account, any calculation can only provide a basis for construction upon which to set the secondary conditions. Accordingly the calculation results can either undergo direct application or on the other hand modification, and the latter will be the case when not a calculator but when a constructor is at work.”[i]
Maillart was above all a constructor, an artisan in this sense, that found in the act of construction a field for invention and imagination. He conceived the structure as a whole, breaking the notions of bearing and loading that correspond to other materials such as wood or stone. The mushroom construction system (1910) that he developed refined the function of every element of the structure, searching a continuous structural behavior. Beams, columns and floors were no longer differentiated in such constructions, where columns merged in continuity into the beamless floor slab. Thus the reinforced concrete behave specifically in every point of the uninterrupted structure.
A fully coherent use of materials only can be achieved through the direct experimentation with it. The permanent testing of reinforced concrete, a knowledge derived from an empirical dialectics with constructive materials, led to what Maillart called confidence in the material.[ii]
In concrete structures such as Maillart’s constructions, the formwork act as a static ‘blow’ of empiric fixation of the material properties. An independent structure that mediates all local technical conditions and the timing of the concrete solidification. A fixed mathematical model that, although superseding the hylomorphic clay-mould relation, somehow freezes in a point the properties of the material.
Close to the River Falls piece of Barry Le Va, a new shuttering technique was developed by architect Miguel Fisac. Attached to the rigid structure of the traditional shuttering, a polyethylene membrane acts as a second order formwork. This plastic surface is flexible and does not possess any texture. Instead of constraining the concrete to acquire a fixed form, independent from the process of solidification, the membrane lets the material to leave a trace of its liquid transitory state. This way, it may spontaneously manifest its properties in the time of the state change, what the architect called the “genetic track”[iii] of concrete. A moment of the continuous modulation of matter is grasped.
The existence between form and matter of a zone of medium and intermediary dimension is evidenced, the same way the snow acts in Le Va’s piece as a subtle formwork surrendering to the concrete solidification.