Why does much of architecture replicate the earth, a hollow? It is as if we were expelled from the cave too young and are acting out a desire to return, to have the earth envelop our fleshy bodies in its dark minerality. From a cavernous past to brick and concrete structures of today, we feel sheltered inside the earth, at home and secure.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the people of Chicago turned to brick to rebuild the city with a material that could prevent another citywide inferno. From the ashes, some sixty brickyards popped up around the city, digging into the earth to rebuild the city toward the heavens. Between 1890 and 1920, Chicago brickyards were producing 150,000,000 common bricks per year. Gray, mucky substance called blue clay was dug from deposits that radiated out from the edge of Lake Michigan, the remnants of a glacial lake that was sixty feet higher than today’s level. Rock sediment that had been ground into a fine powder by glacial sliding collected and settled at the edges of the freshwater lake, pushed and packed by tidal flows.
The properties of this clay determined how the neighborhoods of Chicago would look: buff and cream with flashes of orange and red. The geology of the place became its interiority, what was underfoot transformed into people’s domiciles, community centers, places of relaxation and worship. By the 1980s, the blue clay was mostly gone and regulations against pollution meant that manufacturers would have to change their approach to the energy-intensive production of clay brick that can produce significant amounts of heavy metal pollution and so the last manufacturer of Chicago common brick closed rather than adjust their production practices.
Soil Lab, a quartet of architects and designers based in Copenhagen and Dublin—James Albert Martin, Eibhlín Ní Chathasaigh, Anne Dorthe Vester and Maria Bruun—explores this relationship between human structures and the earth in a commission supported by the Danish Arts Foundation. Soil Lab is building a place of assembly in North Lawndale by using brick, tile, and rammed earth to create a structure that will become a “community meeting point.”
A workshop to facilitate construction at the site began in August and will continue through the Biennial. As a way to ground the construction workshop, two sessions were held on soil and clay, led by guest presenters Nance Klehm and Amara Abdal Figueroa. “We experienced great support and interest from the local community who have participated in everything from soil investigations where we studied the soil’s components through smell, color and texture—to experimental clay workshops where we have felt the nature of clay on our face and body,” Soil Lab tells me.
But soil and clay are not inert objects of inherent good—these materials, too, are subject to contamination and regulation. “Unfortunately, we were not allowed to use the soil from the site due to restrictions from the City,” Soil Lab says. While the poetics of building up from the soil are enticing, the realities of our relationship with the ground are much more fraught by histories of exploitation, exhaustion and disposal. As with most of urban America, Chicago’s soils are laden with heavy metals—due in part to the production of Chicago common brick, the legacy of explosive growth throughout the city. Soil and clay may be more sustainable options than concrete construction, but it is important to know what one is working with before bathing in it, a notion we often forget when dealing with inorganic matter. As Pheng Cheah wrote, “Inorganic life is the movement at the membrane of the organism, where it begins to quiver with virtuality, decomposes, and is recombined again.” That which surrounds us is always about to become part of us.
The first step in construction on the North Lawndale site was building a low brick plinth, a foundation to sturdy the rammed-earth walls that will partition the lot on Pulaski Road. The site’s only existing structure is a cracked cement driveway and parking pad, artifacts of a former life for this plot of land that sits across from a car wash and next to a brick, two-story ministry whose red awning reads “Work of His Hands.” A wooden box is fastened into slots left in the brick, filled with earth mixed for this use, and then packed, layer by layer, with wooden tampers by workshop participants. The wooden form is then removed and reinstalled on the next section, and panel by panel a wall is built that will provide insulation from the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
Sustainable methods of architecture are still not as widely accepted in the United States as in Europe but perhaps experiments like the one undertaken by Soil Lab can make the relative ease of sustainable materials—and community-driven methods of construction—more commonplace. A meaningful shift in architectural practices, however, will not take place until homes can be built in affordable and sustainable ways on a large scale. Current standards involving wood frame and gypsum boards are slightly better than concrete construction (responsible for eight percent of global emissions) but gypsum boards still require a massive amount of energy to produce and account for one percent of global emissions. To preserve natural resources and reinvent neighborhoods, alternatives are needed.
Disaster turns us—it forces reconsiderations and, like the people of Chicago rapidly adopting brick construction, requires us to respond to new data. That moment is now, a slow disaster evidenced by scientific monitoring and its accompanying data. We know this is the moment to take a sharp turn to avoid a puncture, a disaster on the scale that would upend our world as we know it and force the turn that we’ve been hesitating to make.