Hello Pullman. I am the new planter in town. Someone sneezed and I landed everywhere, presumably to beautify our less than attractive urban fabric. You see, I provide instant visual gratification, largely because of the material with which I am clad, a special copper chromium alloy that turns a hip brownish orange color once exposed to the elements and rust begins to lap.
Architects love the material because it exhibits a unique capacity for authenticity, a term normally assigned to those things whose interior and exterior align. Lionel Trilling, the mid-20th century literary critic, went so far as to say that authenticity is precisely that which lives in “the here and now” and “needs no explanation.” Corten steel has this poetic and indeed authentic capacity to turn a negative into a positive, transforming degradation in the form of rust into a layer that protects against further erosion.
This is how the material appealed to Eero Saarinen, the midcentury Finnish architect, who in the early 1960s first used Corten steel in his design for the John Deere headquarters in Moline, Ill. What is working on the farm, he thought, if not authenticity itself, unpretentious and associated with core values, such as food and sustenance.
The decision to use the material was also a rebuke against an age-old attachments to classical and Victorian forms, dead to the world, but which Americans had hung on to in fear of becoming historically irrelevant.
If there was such a thing as an appropriate style for the United States, it necessarily had to emerge from the industrial sector, or so the likes of Saarinen thought, not the classical obsession with temple architecture.
Steel, rust and rivets were more like it, features found on the factory floor and which celebrated American innovation, hard work and productivity. Even when that era had largely sailed, America still remained beholden to it as an image with which to invoke deep moral attachments. And so, yes, even as the country may have moved on to a service economy, it was critical that it stayed loyal to the look of the assembly line.
Expressions of degradation of an industrial past in this case were just as important as those of new and shiny buildings. It is not without a reason that the past few presidential elections have been fought and won in the rust belt states, places that are just as culturally important in their death as in their life. No better material could speak to those sentiments than Corten steel, eroded and weathered but also beautiful in the way it laments the passage of time.
That Corten steel should appear in Pullman is appropriate. After all, the town was built on the promise that rail and industry shall connect us all, east and west, north and south, including integrating a remote land grant institution into an ever changing global picture. Isn’t that why we have held on for dear life to that functionally useless steel bridge in downtown, to remember and wax nostalgic about a past era.
Nothing wrong with that but what is disappointing is that we should turn rusted steel into a commodity, detached from meaning and culture and consumed on terms limited to sudden and popular appeal, bought and sold on Amazon. The height of inauthenticity.
A more authentic approach would demand that we understand what Corten steel means to Pullman. And if indeed anything then make it part and parcel of the criteria by which we unify and beautify the built environment. We may imagine a booklet established and handed to developers and prospective investors, diagramming in words and images the appeal and significance of certain materials, including the way they may join and become part of a sensible ensemble.
But back to me, the planter. Having bought me online, recognize that you did so in numbers. I did not ship as one but as 20 or 30 or whatever the actual number is. And yet when I arrived you separated me from my siblings, understandably to multiply my virtue but which in reality achieving the opposite effect. Alone I do not make any sense but together with my sisters, I could gather visual and structural momentum.
Weave me into a pattern, perhaps a checker, a row or a stagger, creating, say, small pockets of urban rooms, three or four types. One type may be for children jumping around in the sand, the next for playing board games and still another for people sitting in parklets, extending sidewalk culture onto the street. You may even stack me Lego-style, three or four units high, and use the totality as bus stops but also as icons with which to call attention to certain dead spots in the city.
Capitalism may before too long turn everything into a commodity and that is fine. But let’s be careful that Pullman does not become an image in someone else’s marketing brochure.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate associate professor in the school of design and construction.