Christopher Dameron wanted to preserve all the historic materials and curb appeal of a 19th century project site, but he hit a wall. Despite growing calls to build nothing, or preserve and reuse existing structures, to lessen architects’ impact on planet and climate, the condition of this building and the economic logics of contemporary construction resisted reuse. Yet the architect insisted on finding a way to repurpose a Brooklyn building’s bricks and stones. An obsessive excavation revealed the presence of everything from the debris of retreating glaciers to the traces of 19th century brickmakers and 21st century graffiti writers. They are just some of the collaborators on a wall whose design is both sedimentary deposit of the ages and fruit of the labors of many hands.
A big brick wall. The facade showed the scars and patches of 140 years of use and transformation. It felt like it could last forever, if we could stabilize it. The thick masonry shell that had housed a series of industrial buildings would remain, and the interior could be demolished, recycled, and carted away. I had been hired to design a garden and series of buildings that would serve as a retreat from the city. The clients aspired to a place for discovery and calm, an event space focused on nature and sustainable practices. The garden would be shielded from the street by the meaningful girth of aged monolithic walls. Inside, we would create a habitat for bees and birch trees with winding paths and hidden fountains. I helped them find the East Williamsburg site, impressed in part by the existing industrial buildings and their potential for reinvention.
The wall began its life as the facade of a brick apartment building in 1880, part of a building boom in a thriving German community. In the mid 20th century, the site became a store, then an ice cream factory, then ultimately a cold storage and distribution facility. The traces of its history could still be read in the masonry. The stone lintels of the old doorways, the patches and infill repairs, punctuated with abrupt cuts for garage doors and mailboxes, blocked-up windows, plastered with abandoned signage and paint from successive commercial ventures, topped with a dainty razor-wire filigree. The city is rich with buildings like this, gateways to the past, should we stop and take the time to see them.
I wanted to make a time machine, expressing traces of history that we can honor and bring to future generations. How better could we value the history of our site than by reusing an existing building? But after a structural evaluation, we found ourselves in a familiar position: as potential agents of destruction. According to the structural engineers, the wall couldn’t even hold its own weight for long, much less withstand the structural forces of the nine-foot-high, water-saturated soil for the planned garden within. We had to knock it down. It would need to be rebuilt as a proper reinforced concrete retaining wall, at least where the soil needed to be held in check.
My design partner, Emily Anderson, and I shifted focus from building reuse to material reuse. We devised a strategy to reclaim as many materials as possible to construct the buildings and garden. Steel from the site would be recycled. Bricks and pavers could be reused. Wood joists would be milled and reimagined for flooring and wall cladding on the building’s interior. Our design for the wall was a beast: 13 feet tall and 200 feet long. If we were to make it out of site materials, we would be working counter to construction industry norms and setting ourselves up for an adventure.
We presented the idea to potential contractors, who continually reminded us of what we didn’t want to hear: the economic ironies of preservation and reuse. It was less expensive to cart away the whole building to a landfill and design something new, importing materials through an established, efficient supply chain. We are part of a building industry obsessed with newness, optimized to alter landscapes through mining, to eliminate habitats through deforestation, and exploit resources to produce the illusion of a brave new future. It is undeniably easier to do it this way than to knock down, sort, clean, and reuse the pieces of the past. The scale of material reuse that we were considering was simultaneously absurd and hopeful. It was absurd because it was costly and time intensive. It was hopeful because it could set an example of what building reuse could be, an inspired exploration of what was possible.
Many materials can’t be reclaimed at all: they’re toxic, unusable, or tainted with asbestos or lead. A beam designed to work in 1900 has undergone over a century of force, pressure, decay, and exposure to elements. We can’t structurally reuse materials without testing and understanding their capabilities. Newly manufactured materials have standardized safety tests. They come with stickers and specifications that calm our nerves and let our minds focus on design in a more abstract, formal sense.
Labor is the driving cost of most projects. Reclamation is a labor-intensive process. Things have to be disassembled carefully by trained people. They need to be stored while construction continues. They need to be cleaned and re-formed into usefulness, especially modular materials, like bricks, that are not stand-alone found artifacts, but have to be reassembled. On small sites, they may need to be trucked away until there is room for reuse. This uses more fossil fuels: not ideal.
Another factor at play is product availability. It’s easy to recreate the “look” of old things. With prison labor and petrochemicals, you can make materials that mimic reclaimed chestnut flooring or painted brick walls. I’m choosing to ignore this with the simple, maybe willfully naive premise that some of us must make the first awkward steps into large-scale material reuse and hope our failures might encourage others to explore the issue further. Can we make reuse more than an aesthetic?
Colorful aluminum panels litter and jog across the facades of Brooklyn’s new construction, a cheaper, “fun,” version of the more dignified glass and steel across the river. When I started my company, I rejected this kind of work to focus on adaptive reuse and buildings and landscapes that investigate our relationship with nature. Yet, my practice also thrived in the context of a new Brooklyn aesthetic, conjured from the collective guilt of its gentrifiers. To properly claim their new territory, they strove to establish its authenticity. Designers harnessed new materials and their full intellectual powers to imagine an antiqued commercial world of shops and restaurants, a place where Edison has just invented his lightbulb and Basquiat has just passed out after scrawling a masterpiece on a metal door. This was the playground of the mythical hipster, and then of the aging hipsters’ new families, well-intentioned, privileged refugees from the mall of Manhattan.
I desperately felt the need to disengage from fashion, and to understand our site in a more meaningful context. We focused on a thin, crusty archeological layer of the wall — at its deepest, a centimeter thick. It was deposited in layers of spray paint from aerosol cans, the work of the graffiti crews who roamed the night, marking their territory. This painting was acknowledged as an art form, heroic murals arose, giant cartoons, and calls for political action. The area embraced street art, and Bushwick became a painted city, a neighborhood of walking graffiti tours and artists who lived and worked in the same spaces. What if we could make our wall a canvas for these folks who we appreciated, a rotating gallery of inspired surface treatments? We spoke to artists and crowdsourced their thoughts. In the end, we decided that every wall is a canvas. They don’t have to be built blank to be painted over. Also, the street art of Bushwick and East Williamsburg is a recent phenomenon. Why choose to selectively honor these makers, excluding those who came before them?
Who came before? We analyzed historic photos, maps, and books. The Lenape people, and their ancestors before them, hunted on this land. Generations of workers toiled on the Vandervoorts’ farm. We got a glimpse of the industrial laborers who chipped the walls with forklifts and the immigrants who carved the foundation stones. Some rocks came from the disbanded supercontinent Pangea. When it broke up, 250 million years before the Beatles did, it conjured metamorphic schist to the surface of Manhattan that was later quarried for building foundations. Our palette held a billion years’ worth of material processes.
Architects think about materials as having embodied energy costs. These represent the amount of total energy it takes to produce an object. This is a standard by which we can judge their carbon footprint. But materials also have an embodied labor — the human and natural labor used to form them. When we build new, we are replicating energy already spent by a previous building. We are also wasting the embodied labor of previous builders.
We doubled down on recognizing the importance of labor as equal to physical form. We allocated more money to human ingenuity and less on industrial products. This wall would be an effort that took over two years of work. It was touched by the hands of architects, engineers, crews of demolition contractors, dozens of general laborers, superintendents, carpenters, brick masons, and stonemasons. Over the course of its construction, it saw the work and attention of over 100 people. We made the wall a constructed, sculptural statement of historical and modern labors, the work of people and natural forces, equalizing and expressing their value in a composition of time and memory.
Masonry may be the clearest expression of human labor in buildings. Think about stumbling upon a stone wall in the woods. Thoughts immediately jump to the circumstances of its creation because we know a person stacked it by hand, stone by stone, for reasons that we can only guess at. Our imaginations are working. The same concept can hold for a patchwork quilt or a painting. We can admire the motives and means of creation simultaneously with the result.
The concept, ultimately, was simple: knock down the buildings, dig through the rubble, collect and clean all reusable materials, and use them to rebuild a facade that expressed and honored the history of the place.
First came the removal of all hazardous materials, things that had been altered by adhesives and spray foam, materials that had evolved past the point of usability for health reasons. Workers in hazmat suits bagged and carted away a roofscape of sticky tar. Then, selective demolition: we identified special elements and carefully extracted them. For our facade, these materials were brick and stone. With hand chisels, then jackhammers, a demolition crew removed any bricks and clay pavers that we thought showed potential for reuse. Then, the big machines arrived. Bobcats and backhoes clawed down large portions of the building. The byproduct was an impressive mountain of debris. It became an archeological site for exploration and reclamation.
Our team spent months sorting through the mound, transforming a scene of destruction into a material storehouse. In the end, we collected 10,066 usable whole bricks, an additional roughly 800 square feet of partial brick and fired-clay material, and two small dumpsters full of stone and boulders. All unusable material was shipped away by private waste management companies and sorted into recycling and landfill.
The materials stayed on site for the entire process of cleaning, repairing and reassembly. While design and construction of other aspects of the project progressed, a small, dedicated crew of construction workers set up on site, chipping away mortar from bricks and stacking them into usable forms. The wood joists we reused on the building interiors, in contrast, had to be shipped away on trucks and milled before returning in a pristine form.
When the excavators dug beyond the mountain of building debris, we met an important collaborator, the Wisconsin Glacier. Thirteen thousand years ago, its mile-thick body carried in carved-smooth stones and boulders from as far away as Canada. Melting and retreating, the glacier dropped cobblestones and soil, blanketing the northern US. In Brooklyn, the end of the glacier’s advance, this ground is a reminder of its tremendous force. Smoothed rocks are the souvenirs it packed in its icy luggage. As we excavated for foundations, we collected sculpted sandstones and granites. They are seldom used in structural walls because they don’t stack neatly. They float in new mortar as they do in glacial ice.
We found bricks with names on them. Last names. Dozens of names. They were formed from clay deposits from the bottom of an ancient Lake Albany, which burst its banks and flowed to the sea, creating the Hudson River. A series of great fires spurred New York’s transition from a wood city to a city of brick, and an influx of immigrants in the late 19th century brought a building boom. The brick needed to be manufactured locally to make economic sense and to meet the demand. A massive labor force excavated the clay banks of the Hudson, molded the clay, fired it into bricks, and floated them down the river.
In an early form of building material advertising, the families who owned the brickyards molded their names into the faces of the brick. This branding was intended to lure repeat customers. But now those names are stripped of meaning. We stacked these bricks on their side to make the names clearly legible: memorials to fallen companies and graveyards of family names. HUTTON. WASHBURN. These common bricks also contain the bodies of sea creatures reduced to calcium through geological processes. Calcium would eventually cause the demise of the Hudson Valley’s brick industry; it made the brick less stable and weather resistant than impervious “face” brick formed from purer clay in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Water brings calcium to the surface, where it dapples the face of our wall with its puffy crystalline efflorescence. It also drips from the mortar of stone lintels, forming milky stalactites.
The general contractor introduced us to a team of masons, trained in Ireland and skilled in historic preservation. After several conversations accompanied by collective head scratching, and a series of full-size mock-ups, they got it.
We created masonry bond patterns corresponding to the brick types we found (common brick, face brick, stone, painted) making assemblies of varying textures. These assemblies were documented in a two-foot by two-foot grid across the facade so that you could experience the materials in linear bands as they flowed along the sidewalk by walking along the wall. The bands were sized by the amount of material we had of each brick or stone. The masons used our map to do their work. When line drawings couldn’t express the idea, we met on-site and worked it out, material in hand. The masons improvised on the more adventurous layouts like be-bop musicians. All of the material comes from this site except the bricks that we cast with the name DAMERON and a brick carried cross the ocean from a mason’s childhood village in Ireland. A reminder of his mother’s family.
I exhausted my brain with history and geology for a year — the difference between banded gneiss and bluestone. Emily has an artistic mind that flows directly into her hands. She composed the wall from an exact palette of cataloged material, she drew it to the level of the individual brick. We made the grid of the wall as rigid as any arbitrary building system could be, and Emily filled in the blanks with graffitied bricks as pointillist accents, cobbles and foundations, stamped bricks and face bricks, and scuffed pavers from the floor of the former factory. We learned that the radius created by a graffiti writer is similar to the wingspan and work area of an individual mason. We learned that a linear band of material with a jogging rhythmic bond pattern would discourage paste-ups (quickly, illegally adhered advertising posters). We learned that ledges at certain heights are perfect for resting beer bottles and that a geometric transition from a square in plan to a circle in plan with ancient building technology over the course of twelve feet can also make a pretty effective recreational climbing wall.
Soon after our wall was built, unveiled, and photographed, it was tagged by a graffiti crew. Working on an impressive mural on a warehouse next door to the garden, where they had permission to periodically repaint on their own dime, they took breaks from their masterwork, sauntered across the street and practiced throwaway scribbles of their names all over our newly constructed garden wall. We had stepped on their turf and a truce had to be negotiated. The congenial building manager informed them that it was art, and they agreed, and then the graffiti stopped, and the artists moved back across the street where their work was welcome.
Our clients started to paint over graffiti with a brick-like color where necessary, flattening the wall’s mottled material tones to a matte earth-brown finish, a process colloquially known as buffing. They tastefully stenciled the venue’s name on the wall’s concrete base, and it became a billboard. When the surface is repainted, the textures reveal themselves more clearly. Moss and lichen find home in crevices. Oxidation from iron-rich stones leaks and forms streaks of rust down the wall. The city decorates it with dog urine and liquor, diesel exhaust, and rays of September sunlight, both particle and wave, drawing shadows on the surface from street trees. Big and monolithic. It feels like it could last forever.
All images courtesy of the author, unless noted