In April 1960, 3,000 college students marched through Nashville, Tenn., to protest an attempted firebombing at the house of a prominent civil rights attorney. When the students arrived at the city courthouse, they asked the mayor if he believed lunch counters should be desegregated. He said yes. That event and his affirmation became one of the defining moments in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
In 2017, Nashville memorialized the march with an innovative art installation that features photos from the historic day etched onto a series of precast concrete walls.
The artist, Walter Hood, envisioned a set of sculptural, fragmented walls that would resemble the classical sculpted friezes used to commemorate heroic and mythical events in antiquity, says Bill Henderson, vice president and operations manager for Gate Precast. When Hood won the design competition for the project, he reached out to Gate to figure out how to make it work.
Wood liked the idea of using precast concrete for the walls because it is a 20th-century material. “It also had the flexibility to achieve the level of detail in the design that the artist imagined,” says Marshall Bassett, head of sales and engineering for Gate. But reproducing the photos in perfect detail on precast concrete was no small challenge.
Gate Precast Company partnered with Innovative Brick Systems on the project to create a series of formliners that could exactly replicate the sharp edges, light, and shadow required to achieve the artist’s photographic detail. “Innovative is very talented with liners,” Henderson says.
The team used Graphic Concrete technology to replicate the selected photos, which involves printing a surface retarder onto a special membrane before casting the concrete on top of it. The retarder slows the hardening of the concrete in targeted areas, which can then be pressure-washed to reveal fine aggregate design.
Photorealism on precast concrete panels
The resulting installation features flat and curved walls placed across a square, each with a different style of artistic rendering.
The flat walls feature historic images from the Civil Rights movement selected by the artist and depicted in contrasting dark aggregate and light-gray cement. For these panels, artisans came to the plant to build wood-form stencils of the images, which were then placed in the production mold. To achieve the fine details of the photos, Henderson’s team created paper cutouts, which were glued to the formliner before the retarder was added.
“We had to get the pieces placed exactly right to achieve the hard edges we were going for,” says Chris Winfield, project manager for Gate. “There was significant labor involved in getting it all put together.” The resulting images have a three-dimensional quality, replicating the photos in shadow and light.
“The curved walls presented more challenges,” says Henderson. On these walls, the artist wanted the photos to stand out from the curved concrete surface in full detail, emerging as visitors move through the installation.
To achieve the desired photorealism, Gate used a very fine ribbed formliner, less than ¼ in. in amplitude, to create the outline of the images. The precast concrete producer and formliner company worked together to define the proper depth for the flutes. “Flutes too deep mute the resolution, and flutes too shallow do not produce shadows adequately,” Henderson says.
Once the fluting was addressed, the photos were transformed into the fluted relief that displays each image through varying stages of shadow. These reliefs were then replicated in a thin sheet of plastic against which the concrete was cast. “The resulting image became part of the panel,” he says.
The installation, which opened in April 2017, is more than just pictures on concrete. It offers visitors a set of spatial experiences. The layout of the walls creates open rooms that place visitors in the center of the historic moments represented by the photos etched in precast concrete.
The artist used concrete’s graphic capabilities to create a lasting commemorative piece that will share the city’s civil rights story with future generations, Basset says. “The client was ecstatic about the result.”