In his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, studio last year Charles Goldman was reading the New York Times. After weighing its symbolic value as a “spreader of information,” he launched a series of “plop sculptures” out of mashed issues of the Times. “Then I left a bucket overnight by accident,” Goldman recalls. “In the morning I kicked it over. The contents had become solid, and I kicked them out of the bucket.”
At that point, Goldman realized he had happened upon a building block of recycled waste— “in fact,” he says, “an entire building system.” He could replace sand and gravel with his own recipe of newspapers, CDs, dryer lint, junk mail, electrical wire, Styrofoam packing, Latex paint chips, and credit cards mixed with 5% Portland cement to make…Re>Crete.
Two weeks ago, Fast Company published a piece that asked Andrew Dent, the curator of Material Connection, the world’s largest materials library, for some recommendations on the latest and greatest. Right up there with advanced 3-D printing compounds, environmentally friendly ceiling tiles, and multi-color chrome coatings, Dent proposed Re>Crete as one of the 11 Exciting New Materials Designers Should Watch. Since then the article has gained ever-greater traction online, with architects and engineers calling Goldman at his studio, hoping to turn his conceptual product into something they can use in the concrete sense.
And why, indeed, not?
C&D (Construction and Demolition) debris amounted to 534 million tons in the US in 2014, the last time the EPA counted, 70% of which was concrete, with an additional 14% asphalt concrete. That’s a lot, more than enough to keep a conscientious architect up at night, while inviting the possibility of regulatory pushback.
“I don’t have an end-game in mind,” Goldman says. “People call and I’m interested in seeing what happens. Re>Crete uses what’s around, what’s local, and it can adapt to many uses. Here in Brooklyn, it’s one thing. In India, I can imagine it would be quite another, a very different recipe. As such, it’s very much a 21st-century adobe. I see it used for home building, or high-end furniture, 3-D printing of entire cities using Re>Crete, or perhaps I’ll simply make the molds along with the recipe” he adds, standing between the cement mixer, paper shredder, and wood chipper in his yard. The chipper, he explains, is for the Styrofoam packing.
The mixer churns all the ingredients for an hour before the concoction is poured. Early tomorrow morning, in fact, Goldman, 50-ish, will go out hunting through the streets of Brooklyn with Banks, his German Shephard mix, filling his backpack and occasionally his little white Toyota pickup with more junk to feed the machines in his yard. He will then head into Manhattan where he has been teaching art at Parsons for the past nine years.
“Newspapers and junk mail are pretty easy to find,” he says, “but CDs, wires, and credit cards are harder. If I see a pair of hot pink headphones lying in the street, I pick it up right away. Now that my friends know what I’m looking for they call with leads. I’ve even thought of turning the front of my studio into a collection station and designing special collection carts.” As Goldman told Steve Davison writing in Art-Hack last summer, those collection carts may come in handy in a post-apocalyptic world, “where we are forced to create our natural resources out of the detritus of civilizations that came before.”
Before we get to that scary place, the question remains how to bring Re>Crete from the conceptual stage to the construction phase. Baby step one occurred with an exhibit, residency, and research program called Charles Goldman: Re>Crete> (Factory) at UMass Amherst’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Young sculptors, engineers, and environmental scientists teamed up to see if Re>Crete could be manufactured on a consistent basis. Goldman found himself having to change from right brain to left brain, a feat he says he enjoyed. To make what he considers a concrete version of Eskimo ice blocks, he realized the molds had to be a lot stiffer. And while that stiffness was achievable, getting the blocks to weigh the same presented a greater hurdle. His hunch is that letting the blocks set in winter cold may have thrown off the results.
Goldman is also quick to point out that Re>Crete doesn’t come out smooth like regular concrete. If the cement ratio is off just a bit, one ends up with pockmarks, the building blocks of 21st-century ruins. Concrete and its minimalist surfaces have appealed to Goldman since he was a kid growing up in Berkeley. There he first encountered modernist architecture, Mario Campi’s 1970 “Brutalist” art museum of 1970, now gravely imperiled. “I first went to look at the paintings,” he recalls, “but then found the building itself was far more interesting.”
Later, in the 1980s, Goldman combined his early interest in minimalism and Brutalism with folk art, particularly environments made by outsiders. High in the Mojave Desert, he visited one of the most renowned Folk Art Environments, Hula Ville, where he struck up a friendship with its creator, Miles Mahan, who was then in his 90s. Sandblasted signs, abandoned dolls, anthropomorphic Joshua Trees, a mini-golf course edged with buried bottles were freighted with a symbolism that resonates with Goldman to this day.
Newspapers that spread information, credit cards that hold our identities and finances, packing Styrofoam for sending goods around the world—all are light things with weighty impacts on our culture in the form of Re>Crete blocks. Whether such blocks can possibly mitigate the impact of 534 million tons of demolition debris is a question architects and engineers are weighing seriously now, or soon will be.