HOW CAN A HISTORY MUSEUM DEDICATED TO BRICKS IMPACT AND HELP CHANGE THE FUTURE?
This question is top of mind for Rachel Whitlow CU A’94, Executive Director of the Haverstraw Brick Museum. In her recent radio talk, on WRCR Radio, Whitlow spoke to the importance her education experience — in particular the role Cooper Union played in helping her develop critical thinking about how innovative ideas can through design, art and technology change people’s lives. This idea is the subject of the new innovation series of exhibitions and programs that use the tag line “Learn the Past and Discover the Future” to bring to light engineering and design innovations from the Museum archives and connect them to 21st century technology.
Because of the medium clay, and the story the Museum is able to tell, Whitlow also believes using STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) based education principles to bring cutting edge technology to the local community is a natural next step for Museum programs. The STEAM framework blurs the lines between disciplines to encourage higher levels of creative thinking and problem solving—leading to innovation. Whitlow’s goal is to bring these ideas to a Title 1 community that would not ordinarily be exposed to them, so they may be inspired with hope about what they can really do to create a better future—a very Cooper Union ideal.
BUT WHY BRICKS AND WHAT IS THEIR SIGNIFICANCE?
We tend to take bricks for granted. We walk around New York City, and they are everywhere. But do we know where all these bricks came from?
The Haverstraw Brick Museum is a small Museum situated just north of Nyack in Haverstraw New York. From 1815-1941 Haverstraw provided the industrial engine for the surrounding region, serving as an incubator of technological and social innovation for immigrants who came from all over the world to work in the local brickyards. In 1852, a Dutch immigrant and mechanical engineer, named Richard A Ver Valen, invented the automatic brick making machine, which revolutionized the brick industry’s business model. It allowed for immigrants to lease a single machine and a small plot of land —at an affordable price—which created a pathway for immigrants to become successful in one generation.
Photograph of the Cooper Union Foundation building during restoration in 1973 printed in AT COOPER. Close up examination of additional photographs that show the cast away bricks from the brick arches and walls, indicate the presence of branded frogs, a key feature of Haverstraw and Hudson River brickyards.
By 1883, with over 40 brickyards producing over 300 million bricks a year, nearly two-thirds of New York City was built with Haverstraw bricks. Whole neighborhoods of Manhattan including the South Street Seaport, Chelsea’s 34th street market, the West Village, much of Harlem and many significant architectural and engineering marvels like the Chrysler Building (the tallest entirely brick building in the world with 3.8 million bricks), the Empire State Building (10 million bricks) the old Croton Aqueduct and the Lincoln and Battery tunnels contain Haverstraw Bricks. Some buildings like the former B. Altman’s, Tiffany’s, the Museum of Natural History and our very own Foundation building were built with these bricks and clad in brownstone, marble, or other materials.
Today, the invention of 3D printing processes using robotics has the ability, like the automatic brick machine before it, to be equaling democratizing. As a manufacturing process that builds objects in additive layers from a digital file, this three-dimensional printing process can be used to create nearly any object deploying an extensive spectrum of extruded materials. This material flexibility has allowed for a wide range of experimentation and innovation, most recently in architecture. But with innovation also comes responsibility. In the current climate crisis, Whitlow, an ardent environmentalist and CEO/Founder of Circlworks LLC, an environmental company, asks the question. How can we develop materials in a built environment that not only enhances and helps the human community but the natural world as well. Clay, a common natural resource with a lower carbon footprint that is easily recycled can offer a solution.
The New Brick, now on view at the Haverstraw Brick Museum, was conceived in partnership with Professor Jonathan Scelsa from the Pratt School of Architecture. In this exhibition Whitlow and Scelsa worked with Pratt architecture students to examine how the humble brick can become the center of a new 21st century paradigm. In this paradigm, robotic technology enables the building of structures for humans that live in harmony with nature and enhance the flora and fauna surrounding them. The outcome is a series of sculptural studies by Pratt architecture students that straddle the worlds of engineering, art and architecture. Whitlow plans to continue to examine what constitutes #thenewbrick using 21st Century molded and robotic brick manufacturing methods as part of an on-going yearly investigation in the Museum’s innovation program series.
Left: 3D printer printing Bat Bond Brick at Pratt School of Architecture
Right: Haverstraw 5th Grade Class examines the living habits of bats, why they are endangered, and how we can encourage them to live with us in new brick homes designed just for them by Pratt architecture students: Natanya Abramson, Alexis Robison, and Ishika Jain.