1. In the River Fallspiece (February 1969) artist Barry Le Va selected a series of locations in thecampus of the State University of Wisconsin. In a period of three days, Le Vaand his helpers spread gray powdered cement thinly and evenly in approximatecircular shapes on a large extension of the snow covered fields. Severalinterrelated and simultaneous processes were involved in this piece. The timeof the arrangement of the work itself: the cement bags being transported to thepreviously selected places and its spreading, where the decisions of thedistribution were taken in response to the piece as it developed[i]. The snow falling, melting, and slowmixing with the cement, then generating its gradual solidification.
In spring, when all the snow finally melted and the water evaporatedand filtered in the ground, a few crusts of cement still remained.
This piece evidences the statement that time is real. A time thatdeeply carries and actively determines the transformation of matter and theemergence of forms. It could be said that these forms were obtainedaccidentally, this is, not directly imposing them to the material. Thematerial, on the contrary, is permitted to function integrally.
Thepoint of departure of this work was a rough diagram. It’s the pouring of thecement the action that triggers a series of intermingled processes in which thesnow is the active and modulating formwork to it.
Accordinglyto this purely performative notion of the work of art, the materials that Le Vaselects for his works barely contain any referential or cultural qualities, orare treated in a way that those are unrecognizable. In “Six blown lines”(1970), six flour stripes were laid down on a wooden floor, then blownlaterally with an air compressor. Again, beyond the emphasis on the action,what is evidenced is the manifestation of matter behavior under certainconditions. Those conditions are the only imposed elements in these works. Theartist intervention is cross-sectioned with the autonomy of the selectedmaterials. Certain patterns, inner structures, are left open and freelymanifest under the activation of the artist. The tension of the work of art (the unavoidable affirmative characterof any material production as such) resides in the dialectics between matterand its manipulation. Every one of these mediations leaves a trace on everysingular ‘blow’ that captures one possible conformation of the material’s fieldof emergences.
Whatthese works reveal is the elaboration of a mental construction (a sort ofintuitive diagram) that is consequently tested in a collaborative way.
Every one of thesemediations leaves a trace on every singular ‘blow’ that captures one possibleconformation of the material’s field of emergences.
It is possible tofind analogous practices to the described so far, in the field of architecture.Some architectural works incorporate materials in which a fixed form has notbeen prescribed, where time and change are evidenced. While this is fairlyclear 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 basicpremise, the construction of an architectural structure incorporate a differentset of implications than those of a work of art, such as the social andtechnological contingencies, spatial requirements and a simple principle ofeconomy. Taking these constraints into account, a rather singular conditioninvolving material and its manipulation is set out.
In the case ofreinforced concrete, it is possible to find an experimental dialectic betweenconstructive techniques, structural and spatial needs, from the very beginningof its use.
One of the oldestreinforced concrete structures was a small boat constructed by Joseph LouisLambot in Miraval (France) around 1850, and presented at the Paris UniversalExhibition in 1855. The first effective collaboration between concrete and ironcame 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 layerof concrete[ii].This object apparently did not possess a constructive logic, since thematerials used still tried to reproduce a wooden structure with one of iron and(a substitution of) stone. Without losing its referential and culturalqualities, the shift improved the resistant properties of both iron and stone.The iron shell worked as well as a primitive formwork device. Some more timeand numerous inventive attempts were needed to separate the shuttering orformwork structure from the concrete one, that would then incorporate anindependent inner flexible iron skeleton.
Lambert’s boat wasa bizarre replica that however addressed a search for a new and independentsubstance: a material cooperative system, essentially artificial, since it wasdesigned for specific purposes, structural and spatial, and could be redesignedevery time it was applied.
Thereforereinforced concrete offers several linesof variation[iii],variation on the nature and proportion of its components, amongst theoperations performed in its elaboration and application as a constructivedevice, 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 tothe processes of transformation of matter: the solidification of concrete, itspossible different mixtures, the interaction iron-concrete. The affectivequalities would be the traits ofexpression corresponding to those singularities and operations: hardness,surface characteristics coming from the composition and the time ofsolidification, cracks suffered from certain environmental and structuralconditions, etc.
This way, acertain use of reinforced concrete offers a way of surpassing the hylomorphicnotion of matter, in which form is imposed to an essentially passive andhomogeneous 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 inthe use of concrete were true artisans, or better, inventors, explorers of theresources and potentials offered by a material that was conceived almost at thesame time that was used. Intuition inaction. Craftsmen that followed carefully a certain field of matter.Besides, a formal reasoning was developed along the empirical work, whereinventive assemblages were obtained.This assemblages were therefore deductions from the flow of matter incontinuous variation, from the innumerable convergence of possible singularitiesand traits belonging to the concrete matter.[iv]
The Swiss engineerRobert Maillart (1872-1940) was amongst those craftsmen. He believed that thephysical static models used to calculate his works (the models thatcontemplated certain stable singularities so to speak) had to be consideredonly as a base for a richer validation of what he called secondary conditions(those outside general dimensional issues):
“The notioncertainly often prevails that the calculation should clearly and concisely determinethe dimensioning. In view of the impossibility of taking all the secondaryconditions into account, any calculation can only provide a basis forconstruction upon which to set the secondary conditions. Accordingly thecalculation results can either undergo direct application or on the other handmodification, and the latter will be the case when not a calculator but when aconstructor is at work.”[i]
Maillart was aboveall a constructor, an artisan in this sense, that found in the act ofconstruction a field for invention and imagination. He conceived the structureas a whole, breaking the notions of bearing and loading that correspond toother 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 nolonger differentiated in such constructions, where columns merged in continuityinto the beamless floor slab. Thus the reinforced concrete behave specificallyin every point of the uninterrupted structure.
A fully coherentuse of materials only can be achieved through the direct experimentation with it. The permanent testing ofreinforced concrete, a knowledge derived from an empirical dialectics withconstructive materials, led to what Maillart called confidence in the material.[ii]
In concretestructures such as Maillart’s constructions, the formwork act as a static‘blow’ of empiric fixation of the material properties. An independent structurethat mediates all local technical conditions and the timing of the concretesolidification. A fixed mathematical model that, although superseding thehylomorphic clay-mould relation, somehow freezes in a point the properties ofthe material.
Close to the RiverFalls piece of Barry Le Va, a new shuttering technique was developed byarchitect Miguel Fisac. Attached to the rigid structure of the traditionalshuttering, a polyethylene membrane acts as a second order formwork. Thisplastic surface is flexible and does not possess any texture. Instead ofconstraining the concrete to acquire a fixed form, independent from the processof solidification, the membrane lets the material to leave a trace of itsliquid transitory state. This way, it may spontaneously manifest its propertiesin the time of the state change, what the architect called the “genetic track”[iii] ofconcrete. A moment of the continuous modulation of matter is grasped.
The existencebetween form and matter of a zone of medium and intermediary dimension isevidenced, the same way the snow acts in Le Va’s piece as a subtle formworksurrendering to the concrete solidification.