History and Material Investigation of Rustic Ferrocement Sculptures

Tuesday, November 3, 2015: 9:45 AM
Presenter: Suki Gershenhorn, Masters of Science in Historic Preservation , Columbia University, New York, NY
Co-Presenter: Norman R. Weiss, FAPT, FSA , Columbia University, New York, NY
This paper discusses history of rustic landscape sculpture and structures, ranging from the English Picturesque aesthetic to postmodern public landscapes in the US. The tradition began when masons manipulating natural materials to make them appear "more natural" for example, tooling rocks. During the industrial revolution, the advent of modern materials yielded new techniques for mimicking nature, specifically ferrocement systems and Portland cement. The use of cement to imitate nature began in France in the early 1840s becoming popular throughout Europe and in the late 19th century, South America. In different languages, these structures are called different things, each with its own implication ("faux bois"- sculpture imitating wood in French; "trabajo rustico"- rustic work in Spanish). I use rustic ferrocement sculpture is an umbrella term; describing works mimicking grottos, rustic stones and wood. In the early 20th century, the rustic ferrocement style is transmitted to the US, used consciously to mimic not nature, but the French "faux bois" style, boasting of the innovation of technological system and materials. In fact, the intent to deceive the viewer evolved into a play on nature.

Throughout the 20th century, the style disseminates throughout the US, with the contribution of several different artisans, generally immigrants. The forms became more complicated and detailed, creating intricate rustic landscape elements using a cement mortar. Structures include bridges, arches, ruins, benches and grottos seen in numerous landscape contexts, such as cemeteries, parks and estates. Although this folk tradition has been recognized in preservation circles, it is rarely recognized as notable in the study of material science. 

With the help of conservators, I extracted several samples from three different sites (Michigan, Texas and California) in order to get a range of materials and systems used by artisans. By studying various examples with petrographers, using petrographic analysis and XRF analysis my intention was  to reveal what the cementicious mix was, in order to inform its proper terminolgy. Although it is most likely a mortar, even specialists in the field argued about its proper terminolgy. Is it concrete? Cast? 3-d stucco? In fact, the findings vary from each location vary, hence "rustic ferrocement sculpture" to encapsulate each sample.