Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Construction and Destruction

Ever since I was a boy, I have been fascinated with two sorts of monumental human activity, the construction and destruction of buildings, both large and small. By lucky coincidence, for the past several weeks or so I have been treated to the sight of both on my morning walk to work at UT.

My first sight of a site comes just after I crest the hill on 24th street and start down toward Waller Creek and the Geosciences Building where I work. This two block long construction site is the new Experimental Sciences Building (ESB), and as of today it is now just over a story high. That doesn't sound like much, but in fact the new building has just emerged from a six-story-deep pit. The massive hole from which it is today rising was dug in part to remove all the toxic chemicals that had been poured down the drains since the first ESB was built back in the 1920's. It's sort of a UT version of Love Canal.

The relentless pace of the new building is amazing. As I walk by, there must be two hundred men hard--and I mean really hard--at work, dragging, pounding, cutting and muscling large loads of wood, metal and concrete into impossibly precarious and precise locations over a vast and complex site. I can see carpenters constructing the framework for the concrete workers to place the giant metal molds for the new floor that will be poured later this week. Two twenty-story tower cranes loom over the site, blasting air horns every time a load is dragged up into the space overhead.

Heavy rumbling tractors move around the perimeter of the building's rising framework, hauling huge loads of lumber and steel rebar into place for the next floor. Ironworkers tie off the framework for the internal columns while suspended in space. More men build the rebar cages on giant rigs set up underneath the cranes, some lifting the two-inch thick metal bars on their shoulders while others lace it together with wire too thin to be seen from a distance. Invisible to my eye, that wire is nonetheless capable of binding together the internal structure of an entire building. I am ever impressed by the fragility of permanence.

Watching the intensity of the activity that surrounds construction, it is hard to imagine that the result is actually impermanent; what looks solid is astonishingly easily torn down. In fact, just about three months ago, this very site was still undergoing destruction.

If construction is carefully controlled chaos, destruction is deliciously defined violence.

First, giant 'nibbling' machines were brought in. These are mechanical shovels outfitted with huge crab-like hydraulically powered pincers on the end of long, pivoting steel arms. These nibblers began with the top floors and literally ate away at the structure, pulling it down and smashing it so that the long-trapped rebar was released in tangled masses like so much fishing line dumped on a muddy bank.

Men with long fire hoses spayed jets of water on the jaws of the giant building-eaters as they crushed and pulverized every last pipe, duct and wire in the structure into manageable bits. Other men with massive shovels scooped up the loads of debris and dumped them, five scoops per load, into a procession of trucks that ran by the site of the site continuously every day for a month or more.

Though I obviously recall well the process that brought the old ESB down, I do not have to wander far to see more of the same. Just a block a way, the old Chilling Station #4 is coming down in much the same way.

You'd think it would be most economical to literally take the building apart piece by piece, carefully recyling the valuable materials inside like steel, aluminum and copper, while saving and re-using parts of the machines inside that still function. This is not the case. While there is indeed a crude separation of the materials into basic groups like metal and concrete, there is nothing particularly careful about the way these elements are removed as part of the deconstruction process.

The building is literally being torn down, pounded and smashed with seeming abandon, starting with the upper floors. Today, after just a couple of weeks, all that remains is the steel framework, piled high with metal, concrete and brick debris on top. No massive crew is required here. Just a couple of guys seem to be working on the site, using a giant nibbler and a front-end loader. It makes sense, though. Destruction is dangerous but not terribly exacting work.

They've cleared away most of the rubble from the sides and the interior is cleaned out. A hydraulic lift, once used to move massive pieces of equipment in and out of the cooling station remains attached to one of the steel I-beams that make up the ceiling. It is all that is left of the functionality of the building, a purpose now given over to another, even more massive and of course, modern cooling station built in behind. The open space that the destruction space will leave is welcome, but not likely to last long.

No doubt a tower crane will soon rise on the spot, anticipating the erection of yet another permanent yet very impermanent building.

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