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The Temporalities of Concrete: Reflections on Time in the Contemporary Period

Paulina Scheck

PhD Student, Archaeology, University of Toronto

· photo series

The setting:

University of Toronto’s Robarts Library opened in 1973, first encountered in 2007.

1:

When conceptualizing a heritage of the present, I practice remembering not as ‘looking back’ but as a rechanneling of attention towards a landscape of temporally charged artifacts and relations in which I am an embodied presence. I engage this landscape through repeated observations, switching focus and zooming in and out, allowing different objects and details to come to the foreground and grant access to the multiple temporalities of the city.

In the process, different types of media come into contact, concrete walls encounter neural, digital and technical surfaces: webpages where I read about Robarts’ architectural design and photographic screens that mediate my encounters and allow me to assert my agency by manipulating perspective. My eye is also a neural interface, the imagery it produces is a dynamic field with details coming into focus and becoming blurred again. Each surface provides different affordances for the way I concentrate my attention, each surface mediates the encounter with the others.

2: 

I attempt a picture that mimics the standards of architectural photography: a perfectly-centered subject, an angle that amplifies volume, a detached perspective, a careful erasure of the surrounding landscape, which in the end turns out to be surprisingly difficult. The bicolor concrete and the projecting volumes at the top of slender columns which look white in the sun give the building an aerial quality as it rises and expands above the treeline. The camera of my smartphone, with its 9:16 aspect ratio, the ratio of the width to the height of a screen, also captures details that are usually excluded: the muddied street, pointing back to my presence, a pedestrian observer at the corner of Huron and Sussex Avenue. Accustomed to the 2:3 ratio of my DSLR, I hesitate between cropping the excess edge and allowing the extra information to reshape the picture. Cropping is used to ‘fix’ a photo, to remove unnecessary or irrelevant detail that somehow creates an imbalance but it can also mean removing something that is to be forgotten. Photographic conventions both dictate modes of viewing and constrain structures of remembering.

3:

Robarts is a brutalist building, a rare style for midtown Toronto. Only two other buildings of its kind are present in the neighborhood: OISE, at 252 Bloor St. West, with its rows of prismatic windows at the top of a compact concrete podium and the Central Tech School art building, with its stepped glass face, at 725 Bathurst St.

I want to capture an image that reveals what is unique to the style, an image that also acknowledges and reconciles Brutalism’s detractions, its perceived ugliness, its difficult emotional load and ambivalent legacy. Although Brutalism is not recognized as such, I see it as a retrofuturistic aesthetic loaded with ambivalent feelings aroused by worlds that never came to be: the collapse of the optimism of the 60s into unease, alienation, suspicion and mistrust but also excitement and curiosity.

I take an upward view that likens the building to a towering landform and allows concrete to assert its materiality: shades and textures that evoke the aggregates, sands and gravels, that were mixed into the concrete and the geology of the landscapes from which they were sourced.

4:

I want to capture an image that reveals Robarts as a lived space. I do this by allowing clutter to enter the picture. Lots of architectural photographs are carefully framed to remove intrusions and human subjects are extremely rare. These photographs simply render distilled images of the architect’s vision. I do not want to completely remove it but to layer it, so I maintain a contemplative distance, while allowing the picture to include the messiness of daily life on campus. Dwarfed by Robarts massive volume, the lift crane and the orange bunting reveal construction processes that are seldom featured in monumental imagery.

Multiple temporal scales are simultaneously present: unmarked, monumental time, conjuring an unchanging, immutable presence and episodic time, the time of construction events that can be traced along the concrete walls.

5: 

I approach the building to observe the transitional spaces between its walls and its surrounding environment. The expanding foundations imitate natural relief and damp snow and creeping ivy extend the properties of a living surface to concrete. The transition between natural and human-built surfaces becomes more and more porous: concrete walls do not only carry creeping ivy but also molds, algae and lichens. Stains caused by mineral deposits from water runoff open up the prospect of the vast temporalities that govern geological processes. These are threatening temporalities, that mark the rhythms of weathering and decay, revealing the impermanence of concrete as a medium.

6:

I turn my back to the building to observe its interface with the surrounding city.

Multiple temporalities are simultaneously present within the fabric of the city. Opposite Robarts northwestern corner, I look at bay-and-gable houses, a style characteristic of late 19th and early 20th century Toronto. The style was popular just before the rise of Modernism. Red brick creates a sense of comfort and familiarity completely opposite to the alienating effect of concrete, it seems to disturb the chronological succession of these architectural styles.

The manipulation of time was at the centre of modernist ideology itself, as it proclaimed the arrival of the future and strove to achieve it through technological excess. What is the historical legacy of the temporal project of modernity? Purposefully devoid of historical references, modernist surfaces have perhaps contributed to the upheaval of temporality and the unsettling of memory in the contemporary period.

7:

I find myself in constant conflict with walls, fences and trees that obscure views. Searching for views of Robarts’ façades takes me beyond street fronts and into back alleys that I never entered before.

I continue to think about how brutalist buildings like Robarts fit into their environment, how moving around the building in order to access the vision (or visions) of the architect conflicts with the movements prescribed by the surrounding urban spaces.

The conflicting urbanscape evokes another kind of temporality of the city, one marked by the rough spots, the incongruities and conflicts that have arisen over the course of history.

8:

Concrete walls are also recording surfaces.

The funny structure is a concrete gazebo, a curious minimalist rendition of a bourgeois park structure. One plaque, dated Oct 14, 1970, 3 years before the completion of the building, reads “Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto”. A second plaque, dated Oct 14, 2015, reads: “Our fight now is climate change…” and lists the growing number of University of Toronto environmental organizations concerned with climate change.

The plaques read like subtle indicators of the types of intensifications that are used by archaeologists to mark prehistoric periods. This epochal succession is marked by an intensification of concern. The two dates carved on each plaque reveal an accelerated time, a time of increased awareness of historical change.

Meet the Author:

Paulina Scheck is a PhD student in archaeology, studying the contemporary past. Their research focuses on social housing in Nunavut through the lens of critical infrastructure studies and actor-network theory.

You can contact them here.

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