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Engineering Circle: A Disanthropic History

October 14, 2019

The place that draws me is a concrete circle, a kind of pedestrian roundabout, in the center of the College of Engineering (COE) campus. From the circle, Merrill Engineering Building stands to the north, the hulk of the Warnock Building to the east, the Meldrum Civil Engineering Building and the HEDCO lab to the southeast, and, to the west, across the footbridge called Job’s Crossing is the Rio Tinto Kennecott Mechanical Engineering Building.

The circle is a concrete locale. The word “concrete” derives from the Latin concre–tus, past participle of concre–sce˘re, meaning “to grow together.” Something concrete is the result of a growth, a binding, a gathering. It is a concrescence. At the University of Utah we walk mostly on these clasping particles, these sheets of anthropic rock.

 

Bruno Latour has written, regarding the construction of scientific facts in laboratories, that  an “‘object’ was . . . achieved through the superimposition of several statements or documents in such a way that all the statements were seen to relate to something outside of, or beyond, the reader’s or author’s subjectivity.” By layering readings, charts, and observations, scientists assemble an independently existing object. The object is no less real for having been assembled, but like concrete it achieves its reality through a gathering. Once the layering has been effected and the fact established, “a statement becomes incorporated in the stock of taken-for-granted features which have silently disappeared from the conscious concerns of daily scientific activity.” Like a fact, this site has gradually been assembled, and, once assembled, it disappears from conscious view. Like gravity, or microbes, or entropy, it simply is.

 

“Nothing,” replied one computer science student, who claimed to cross the circle every day, when asked what she noticed about the place. Something that becomes concrete coheres; when it coheres completely enough, it disappears from view.

 

The construction of a concrete space begins with mining. In 1860 copper deposits were discovered in Bingham Canyon, twenty-eight miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The first shipment of ore from Utah to the East Coast in 1868 was copper ore mined in Bingham Canyon and shipped to Baltimore. Today, Bingham Canyon Mine, operated by the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation (a division of Rio Tinto), is the largest human excavation on the planet, a hole two-and-three-quarters miles across the top and three quarters of a mile deep. In 1891 the University of Deseret added a Department of Mines, which was the first nascent institutional bud of what would become the College of Engineering. Through the collaboration of geological processes, the university’s Mines Department, the railroad, and global mineral markets, Utah became a source of massive “natural” wealth.

 

A concrescence is also a congregation. In 1894, two years after the University of Deseret changed its name to the University of Utah, the LDS Church, through its subsidiary The Salt Lake Literary and Scientific Association, endowed the financially struggling university. This endowment included a $60,000 provision for a new chair in Geology, $15,000 for some of the finest scientific equipment in the state, and $45,000 to lease a building, then in use by the LDS College, as a Geology building. They knew the value of education and knew, already, the value of Utah’s mineral deposits.

 

The Engineering campus took seventy years to assemble. The Warnock Building was built on top of the Engineering and Mines Classroom Building, and the Merrill Engineering Building (MEB) was built in four overlapping phases over eleven years. The College of Engineering grew and diversified through the first half of the twentieth century, and in 1953, the university president proposed consolidating the engineering program in one building. The university acquired the land from the Bureau of Mines and began construction on what would be the MEB in 1957. The Engineering campus is the provisional result of a legislative and administrative master plan first set in motion in 1963. The plan included the construction of the Marriott Library, and a system of footpaths that would allow for a seven-minute walk from the library to any of the campus’s main buildings. The Merrill Engineering Building, in 1963 only half finished, sits at the northernmost edge of this seven-minute radius.

 

The language of engineering dwells in the particular—in cartilage mechanics and conductive properties, carbon fiber and friction coefficients—but gazes ahead into a perpetually better future, toward the mirage of a perfectly efficient and innovated future. Even as it speaks of material properties, it dreams of the value, the solution, the innovation that lies ahead.

 

Like electricity and water and stone, we live inside and alongside and entangled in language. Jeffrey Cohen writes that “language is inhuman, exerting its own resistance, slide, material force.” Language takes cues from the world and shapes the world in turn. We could not speak of friction coefficients if objects did not drag against one another, but the words let us take control of friction and build worlds on its back. We can yank language, as we grab the world, to redirect it to our own ends, but we do not master language, as language does not master us.

 

When the Wasatch Fault bucks and turns the ground to Jell-O, perhaps the work and world of the COE will look much less durable. Engineers assemble worlds in an assembled world. They hurtle with mass and velocity into the future. Looking into the future feels, so often for me, like looking down into the pit. To assemble this concrescence I have looked back, and in the past I found not the straight railroad of history, rushing forever onward, but a tangle of interweaving lines, of rocks and dirt and desire and plans and words and funds, meeting and branching, wrapping and unraveling.

Zak Breckenridge grew up in the Adirondacks in New York. He holds masters degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Utah. He now lives in Salt Lake City, where he teaches writing. His work has previously appeared in The Common, The Salt Lake Tribune, Colloquium Magazine, and Partisan Magazine. b. 1992

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