Walking On Broken Bricks

I have been making bricks this week. The idea came to me when I was walking on Benefit Street and saw a brick with the word “MYTH” carved into it. It was beautiful and surprising and made me stop and think for a second. It interrupted my walking. Around the same time I saw “MYTH,” I was introduced to the memorial in Germany called Stolpersteine, “stumbling blocks,” that are embedded among the cobbles and bear the names of Holocaust victims. I thought it was such a beautiful memorial, recognizing people as individuals where they once lived, but also uniting them as a group that suffered the same fate.

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Simultaneously, I’ve started a new job at Co-Works, a CAD lab at RISD that has all sorts of computer assisted fabrication techniques. Wanting to learn new making skills in this lab, I decided to try to work on my next project using tools available to me there. I decided I would create bricks with patterns or words or signs on them. I have been laser-cutting the top surface design, placing it on a brick-shaped form, and then vacuum forming the block to create a negative, which I will then use as a mold. I am planning to use concrete, but various other materials—ice, silicone, gold—have been suggested to me.

The deeper into this project I get, the more I get asked what the impetus behind this project is. I don’t fully know yet. My current plan is to embed these bricks in spaces where the bricked sidewalk is gap-toothed.

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However, where I initially overlooked any symbolism embedded in a brick, and saw it primarily as a tool for communication and disruption, I have now been thinking about its primary function as a building component. Single bricks have very limited function, but in multiple, they are a strong, ancient construction material. Larger historical symbolism aside, this modularity is something I’ve been trying to capture in my own design work, rather than getting caught up in what the whole building should look like. I’d like to try to create something small that has impact when replicated.

These and other thoughts have led me to question my interest in infrastructure. This brick project is very closely tied with the sticker project I did last semester. The stickers were intended for people to point out issues and comment on their surroundings. The bricks may serve a similar purpose, if I can create a quantity of them and distribute them like old-fashioned type. People could then spell out whatever they like. Is my interest communication within the city? Specifically communication from the people to the people in power? Or person to person? Hidden messages within the city? Secrets? Warnings? Is it about giving people tools to speak out or to broadcast? It’s like analog broadcasting – without mass media, without transmission, requiring the audience to pass over a specific area. Geographically specific broadcasting, the way graffiti functions. You only see it if you are there. (Except that now things can be broadcast second hand through photos and social media.) Places that speak. Billboards. If these walls could talk. If these paving stones could talk. If these bricks could talk. What would they say? Probably, “don’t tread on me.”

I’m also looking at articles talking about place-making. This one was hugely important for me: http://www.pps.org/reference/streets-as-places-how-transportation-can-create-a-sense-of-community/ So far, the most interesting and unifying concept I have arrived at is the idea of the sidewalk as place. It encompasses so many of the ideas and questions I’ve had: advocating for pedestrianism, mixed-use blocks, streets alive with people, activating spaces… The idea of absorbing energy from and contributing to the neighborhood while walking, while moving from point A to point B, is one that I think is at the heart of creating healthy neighborhoods. More vital than a destination that might be created through a place-making project (playground, park, meeting house), the sidewalk is the vasculature that runs through healthy neighborhoods. The street is the domain of the car, but the sidewalk is the domain of the person, and people are the key to neighborhoods.

Last thought of the night: What if I created an East-West walking trail (bricked, of course) that traced the sidewalks that were obliterated by the highway? An unwalkable trail on the roadbed, a sunken bridge across the interstate?