[Architecture Research Practice for]
Radical infrastructures and socio-spatial change
HAND CUT BRICK
Duration of Production:
La Trinchera Brick Cooperative
Nuevo Alberdi, Rosario, Argentina.
Summer – 2 weeks,
Winter – 2 months
15,000 – 30,000
245 x 115 x 45
Equal parts earth and horse manure, water to cover. Possible extras, sunflower seeds, wood chippings, glass dust.
The tierra negra used for the adobe mixture traditionally came directly from the surrounding flood plains in Nuevo Alberdi. In recent years the brick producers have begun buying it from nearby farmers, who remove the top layer of soil from their lands in order to prepare the fields for ploughing, as it is cheaper and more efficient. The soil is subsequently transported to the production site of the bricks and placed in the pisadero where in is mixed with an equal quantity of horse manure and water is added to cover the ingredients. At this point the brick producer will assess the mixture and decide which extra ingredients, if any, should be added. If the tierra negra is found to be loose, wood chippings are added to modify the texture of the adobe. For aesthetic purposes, sunflower seeds may be incorporated to achieve a whiter brick. In one instance, a brick producer used soil from his own back yard, where he had previously run a glass recycling business, for the adobe. As the production advanced, the workers noticed that the adobe contained glass fragments. The resulting brick turned out noticeably more durable than the traditional ones, proving essentially impossible to break by hand. However, the technique was not developed or widely implemented, as it was soon found that the glass fragments could become a hazard to the workers as they moulded the brick.
Once the extra ingredients have been added in the pisadero, the adobe needs to be mixed. Traditionally in Nuevo Alberdi, this is done with horses pulling a wheel through the mixture, although it has become increasingly common for the producers to use tractors instead. Once the adobe has reached the desired consistency, the mixture is left under a black plastic cover to keep it from drying out.
The next step in the process is referred to as 'cutting', where the workers transport the adobe from the pisadero to an open area of land in heavy wooden wheelbarrows. Each worker has a designated cutting area with a work table where he cuts his bricks. An armful of adobe is scooped from the wheelbarrow and pressed into a double wooden mould, which creates two bricks at a time measuring 250x120x50mm. The worker kneads the mixture to remove all air pockets, a technique which prevents the final product from cracking. The mould is then deftly flipped onto the ground by the seasoned brick worker, who then removes the backing to allow air in and release the bricks as he lifts the mould. Water is used throughout the process to lubricate the mould and hands of the worker.
As the bricks are cut, the workers place them in strict rows to facilitate calculation of the amount produced and therefore the wages earned. The drying process, which takes several weeks, begins as the bricks are flipped onto the ground. In the scorching summer months in Nuevo Alberdi, the initial drying takes only a few hours, meaning that for every three rows that a worker finishes, he can begin to stack the hardened bricks for the second stage of drying. In the cooler winter months the initial drying can take up to three days, slowing down the production considerably.
For the second stage, the bricks are stacked widthways at alternating angles, up to five units high. The gaps created allow air to ventilate the stacks and dry the bricks. The stacks are subsequently covered and left to dry for approximately a week in the summer and twenty days in the winter.
Once the bricks are deemed fully dry by the oven owner, the workers begin to prepare the quema, which entails the building of the oven where the units will be baked. For every batch, a new oven must be built, since the building blocks for the structure are the bricks themselves. At the base of the oven, the bricks are arranged sparsely, leaving gaps through which air may pass to fuel the fire within. Subsequent layers are closely stacked, alternating bricks and cinder to help maintain the fire.
Even the oven construction is carried out in stages and once all the bricks form part of the oven, the fire must be lit in the base and maintained for 9 to 10 hours to reach the optimal temperature of 900-1000 degrees Celsius. The exterior of the oven is then sealed with clay to minimise heat loss, leaving the bricks to bake for two to three days. Later the oven is reinforced with corrugated metal to prevent the structure from collapsing as the bricks expand and contract with the heat. For a small oven load of approximately 15.000 bricks, the quema, including the building of the oven, will take up to a week.
Since the oven is constructed out of the bricks that it bakes, the outer 300 mm of material will not be fit to sell once the quema has been completed, due to fluctuations in temperature in the outer shell. Once the bricks have been left to cool, the oven is disassembled and the bricks are packed for selling.
As has been mentioned, climatic factors hugely affect the process of brick production in the neighbourhood. The territory of Nuevo Alberdi, geographically peripheral and politically contested, is subject to severe flooding which can lead to devastating results in the production process. In addition, the large seasonal timeframe discrepancies between slow down production considerably during the winter months. To remedy this, certain producers have toyed with the idea of improving the infrastructure during the second stage of the drying process in the winter. Oscar and his business partner, Nito, have considered building a wooden platforms to raise the bricks from the ground and further protect them from water. To this, they are considering the addition of a simple tent structure with fans to cover the drying bricks and speed up the second stage of drying during the winter. An optimisation of the production process for bricks in Nuevo Alberdi becomes particularly interesting, as the occupation conforms the most important industry in the territory and could lead to greater revenue for the generally economically vulnerable neighbours.
See the brick-cutting process live as workers from La Trinchera teach Material Politics about their trade
La Trinchera workers and Material Politics members seeking shelter from the mid-day sun in Nuevo Alberdi
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Perhaps the main distinctive factor of Nuevo Alberdi as one of many deprived settlement of Rosario is the fact that the neighbourhood remains half rural and half urban. To the settlers, this implies the possibility of a rather unusual way of life, where they can both work and live in the same area. Hence, the modes of production that predominate the neighbourhood are likewise intimately linked with the social networks that exist between neighbours. There are approximately 80 producers of handmade adobe brick in Nuevo Alberdi, rendering it the largest industry and income source for the neighbourhood. Given the geo-political and social complexity that pervades the manufacturing process, it is also relevant to examine the underlying social practices and material knowledges behind the brick production. Therefore, this section will attempt to delve into the social ramifications of material production in a contested peripheral territory such as Nuevo Alberdi, through a description of the actors and their networks.
To gain more knowledge of the process of brick manufacturing we payed a visit to Pochín, one of the independent business men who has been in the Nuevo Alberdi brick industry for over 30 years. Sitting in the shade on his porch he told us about the steps in the manufacturing process and how it had developed in the neighbourhood over the past three decades. “When I began making bricks it was not a common occupation in the neighbourhood. Most people were farmers.” The settlers of Nuevo Alberdi, however, gradually began abandoning their agricultural occupations due to the risk of losing a whole year’s worth of work in the floods that regularly threaten the neighbourhood. Soon the brick business took off in earnest, as it afforded the proprietor of the brick pit a faster turnover, and, in the case of flooding, they would only loose a month’s work. This is not to say that the floods do not have devastating results in the brick industry as well: some of the brick producers we spoke to had had the misfortune of loosing two oven-loads and having their water well cave in as a result of the Ibarlucea Canal overflowing in 2012. Despite this, the brick business is, all in all, more profitable than agriculture.
Pochín mentioned that one of the main problematics encountered when running a brick pit in the territory today is finding the men willing to carry out the intense labour. According to him, people would rather choose a less physically challenging job with lower remuneration than “busting their backs in the scorching sun and freezing cold all year round”. Hence, the workforce in the brick pits tend to be relations of the oven owners, youths and teenagers from the neighbourhood and some occasional hired hands, employed in the more demanding stages, such as the building of the ovens. When it comes to the amount of workers in the brick pits, the number varies depending on the stage of production and the season. As an example, one of the hired workers that we spoke to took on the job over the summer to support his family, since he had been laid off from his regular employment as a brick mason. This arrangement provides the oven owner with an extra set of skilled hands during the more productive summer months, while giving the worker a source of income during hard economic times.
After a time in Nuevo Alberdi, we were invited to further develop our knowledge of the brick industry by interviewing Oscar and Nito, the founders of the sole brick cooperative in the neighbourhood, La Trinchera. The cooperative is integrated by three brick producers and was founded in 2012 with the help of Giros, a social movement working extensively with social and spatial projects in the territory. The collectivisation of the brick manufacturing process has lent greater economic weight to the individual producers who integrate the cooperative, allowing them to apply for financial backing to improve their their equipment. This, in turn, opens up the possibility of further optimising the production process with technical or infrastructural innovations, such as the addition of glass fragments to the adobe or the improvement of the structures for the drying stages of the cut bricks. These measures are described in more detail in the preceding chapter.
As we noted when visiting the pits, the workforce in the Nuevo Alberdi brick production tends clearly towards patriarchal dominance. The female presence, however, can be perceived in terms of the economy and business management behind the enterprise. Meeting Marta, Oscar’s wife, made it clear that she had a grounded grasp of the business and a strong though subtle influence on the production process.
On one of the visits to Oscar and Marta’s home we asked the partners of La Trinchera if they were willing to teach us how they make their bricks in practice. “Come by the brick pit on Tuesday and you can watch the boys work.” Nito said. “No, no!” Oscar laughed “We’ll dress them up in some old t-shirts and they can help us out! The more workers the better, right?” They were joking at first, but on the scorching January day we turned up at the site, ready to make some adobe bricks. A few of the brick makers were seated in a circle next to the wood pile which is used to fuel the ovens, having a rest, a chat and some of the ubiquitous argentinian mate drink. Three or four others were diligently cutting bricks, wearing scarves to protect their heads from the sun. As we rolled up our sleeves, the boys and men in the brick pit crowded around us, eager to watch, joke and teach us.
The youngest of our spectators was Dylan, only 8 years old, who was soon splattered in adobe mix, attempting to teach us the cutting process that he himself was was only just learning from the older boys. Dylan told us that a few of his brothers had worked in the brick pits before, and that he couldn’t wait to begin working as well, “But after school, my mum says. I’m not allowed to miss school to work”. Dylan’s mums attitude can possibly be assumed to have its grounds in the links that the family has with Giros. The Movement has been instrumental in increasing school attendance in Nuevo Alberdi for many years, as illiteracy is a widespread social problematic, partially due to youngsters dropping out of school to work in the brick pits. The owners of La Trinchera, however, encourage their teenage workers to come around and work for some extra cash when they have time off, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their academic endeavours.
As was mentioned in the previous section, the speed of the brick production in Nuevo Alberdi is dependant on weather and climate. As production slows down considerably during the winter months, the price of bricks also increases exponentially during that season and the cooperative is therefore interested in optimising the manufacturing process throughout the year. One of the main advantages of forming the cooperative is that the members of La Trinchera can now easily apply for a range of state grants for their production. In this way, aided by the negotiating skills of Giros, Oscar and Nito will soon be receiving a large shipment of fresh manufacturing tools, amongst them a new pump, spades and a leaf blower.
During an interview, Toni, an activist for the Giros Movement who was involved in the founding of La Trinchera, pointed out the economic drawback in the supply chain through which the brick manufacturers of Nuevo Alberdi sell the material. Due to the financial and transporting limitations of the oven owners, the bricks will traditionally be sold to a retailer who later sells it on to contractors around the city of Rosario. Because La Trinchera has become a registered company by virtue of being a listed cooperative, however, Giros has found ways for Nito, Oscar and their partner to sell their bricks directly to the Municipality, hence cutting out the middle retailer and resulting in larger revenues for the brick makers.
Although the size of the brick production in Nuevo Alberdi by far surpasses any other occupation, there is still room for the industry to expand. Currently, there is no risk of economic monopoly by any one oven owner in the neighbourhood. In addition, the demand for the Nuevo Alberdi brick is generally high in Rosario, and hence the competitive factor between manufacturers is low, as there are few obstacles when it comes to selling the brick, once it has been successfully burned.
The the brick cooperative under Giros has led to a marked increase in production efficiency and options for the expansion of the ovens, which suggests that a further collectivisation of the remaining brick producers might reasonably be considered a profitable stratagem. A proposition originating from the Manchester School of Architecture has led Giros and La Trinchera to discuss getting the Nuevo Alberdi brick branded as fair trade, giving it a stronger profile on the Argentinian market. In addition, through the architecture thesis project of Robert Rostron, the Manchester School of Architecture have also introduced the notion of expanding the range of products manufactured in Nuevo Alberdi to encompass, for example, pre-fabricated brick panels as well.
In the neighbourhood of Nuevo Alberdi the material production of brick is intimately linked with the social networks of the territory. As has been narrated, the baking of bricks signifies a lot more than simply a daytime job, as the process of manufacture permeates the social networks of the neighbourhood and vice-versa. This leads us to believe that any modification in the process of material manufacturing in the neighbourhood -be it the founding of a cooperative, a fair trade branding or the elaboration of a brick panel- may also be supposed to lead to modifications and collectivisation in the social networks of this contested periphery.