angry machinery for better living…
There is a metal repousse hanging above a doorway in the first floor hallway of UW’s Smith Hall. It was created by Duddley Pratt, art professor at the UW, back in 1938. As a result of it being made in that era, it possesses all of the gorgeous Art Deco style and Machine Age memes that make quiver. At the center kneels a stylized man, his outstretched arms formerly shackled by chains on both sides; the chains are now broken. Behind him is a giant cog. Flanking the man are a row of workers on either side, either working shovels or hammers. The title of this beautiful work: Mankind Liberated by Machines.
The other day, I stood at the curb and watched an excavator demolishing some hundred-year-old houses at the corner of NE 50th and 11th NE. Both houses were typical, two-story, wood-framed American Foursquares built on generously wide lots.I stood mesmerized as the angry machine slowly and methodically razed the buildings. I have always been fascinated by this sort of sight. It somewhat reminds me of the scene in the original Terminator — the most cinematographically dark and visually rich of the series — where Reese dozes off and dreams about the future, oddly his past, in which an angry machine is discharging its weapons while its treads caterpillar accross a substrate littered with human skulls. So I stood there, transfixed by this sight and the simultaneous mental image of the movie scene, for a while until M., wife of JoshuaDefenseForces, walk by. We said hello and chatted as we both became mesmerized and re-assimilated into this scene of destruction.
It is a combination of things, I think. First, there’s the continuous whine of the excavator’s motors as they move it about, swivel it around, and pump the hydraulics which operate it’s singular arm. Then there’s the arm itself. Other than it being large and powerful, it is singular. The excavator is not bipedal; it can do powerful things with only one arm that we humans can’t do with two. This one even had an opposable thumb of sorts; the bucket at the end of the arm had a lid which allowed the machina to grasp things, toss them about, and move stuff out of the way to clear the path for further destruction.
Moreover, it moved so gracefully, a grace which was accentuated by the fact that its motion was governed by the human brain inside its cabin pushing and pulling on a number of levers. These levers were manipulated simultaneously so that, for example, the machine could flex its arm, cover its bucket, and swing around on its treaded base all at the same time. Some time ago, I remember seeing on the Seattle Arts channel a video of three excavators choreographed and set to music. Watching this scene in real time with only one machine and ambient noises was no less graceful or artistic.
In addition to the grace, on the other hand, it is also the non-chalant violence that fascinates me. Like a two-year-old child, the machina slams its fists and destroys its toys without much effort. I watched it easily tear through the roof as if it were constructed of toothpicks glued feebly together. In fact, the sound of the wood and joinery protesting and inevitably splitting sounded a lot like the destruction of one of those toothpick structures. One quick pounding motion reduced a plaster wall to rubble. Physics being what they are, the pounding resulted in the machine convulsing and making loud jolting noises as it did this. This was not unlike a selfish two-year old pouting in order to get what it wants.
As a result of such callous destruction, plumes of wood and plaster dust rose skyward despite the efforts of a second, ant-sized man standing near the machine and pouring water out of a hose onto the structure to keep the dust down. The air smelled of dry-rot and old wood.
But despite their effortless and efficient destruction, these old houses were invested with a considerable amount of effort. Even though they were modeled from the cookie-cutter plans of their day, there were no power tools. A considerable amount of sweat and handcrafting went into their construction. Their able-bodied builders, probably all men, likely took a few weeks to dig and pour foundations, frame the structures, set the lathe and plaster walls, glaze and install windows, shingle the roofs, and finish these homes. I thought about the people who built these houses as the machine was callously ripping them apart in very little time. By afternoon, the houses would be reduced to a pile of rubble, splintered wood, and fixtures and furniture that were deemed too worthless to remove and recycle. A mass-produced halogen torchiere floor lamp in the now-exposed living room gave testament to the house’s human history. Shortly afterward, Trogdor’s arm squashed it.
Eventually, I realized that I had work to do and started walking away.
Over the next few days, the excavator was busy at work again. By this time, it had removed all traces of the old houses and was digging a pit for the foundation of what will likely be a larger, multi-unit apartment structure. The machine didn’t seem angry anymore. In fact, it was rather docile and unassuming… like an able-bodied neighbor who came over to help another one dig a garden on a pleasant afternoon.
Unlike the image depicted in Professor Pratt’s repousse, there were no corps of men digging the soil with simple shovels. But soon, the builders will come — this time likely both men and women — and set their hammers to motion building something new. There will be power tools and the work will progress quickly. And the cog will spin yet another revolution, a new cycle begun at the corner of NE 50th and 11th NE.