Concrete alchemist

evelyn tickle sitting in a chair

Evelyn Tickle uses her expertise in concrete to help the environment

Concrete is a fairly simple material made from the mixture of burning limestone and clay at a scorching 2552 to 2912 degrees Fahrenheit. But what can this material do when it is in its most refined and resolved form?

Evelyn Tickle, an Interior Architecture professor at JMU, has been working with the hard stuff since 1994.

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Concrete is in good hands with Tickle. In 2002, she was awarded the prestigious Rome Prize in Architecture from the American Academy in Rome. “Concrete is purely a narcissistic material. It mirrors anything you do to it,” Tickle says. So, why use such an unforgivable medium?

One reason, Tickle says, is because she can make it herself. “I get to work with it from the beginning. It’s like being an alchemist,” she says.

For Tickle, concrete is part of her ancestry. Richard F. Tickle, her grandfather, was responsible for the invention of the adjustable joist. A contraption that lead to the first concrete skyscrapers. Russell W. Stambaugh was the young engineer who in 1920, thought of a support that could fiddle with the apparent weight of concrete. After Stambugh’s attempts failed he sold his rights to R.F. Tickle. Understanding the possibilities of his recent purchase, R.F. partnered up with Harold Geneter to build the Adjustable Joist Company from the muck of the Great Depression.

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Tickle traces her own history with concrete back to graduate school at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC). At the time, there were very few people working with fine concrete. David Hertz, an architect at SCI-ARC, was one of them. Hertz introduced the concept of visually interesting concrete as an art form. A truth to materials that calls for the appreciation of what concrete can do. Back on the East Coast while teaching at the University of Virginia, Tickle overheard that the university’s radio station, WTJU, needed a redesign.

Along with a partner, she redesigned the station using primarily concrete surfaces due to its sound-absorbing qualities. The job proved to be much more difficult. When pouring her counter tops, the indigo pigment she had desperately wanted had sunk and left pinholes speckling the slab. After weeks recalculating and stripping the beautiful glossy seal off of the surface, she finally corrected the piece.

“Sometimes it’s brilliant; sometimes it’s not,” Tickle says. “The more you do it, the better you get at it. It’s a material that’s difficult to teach.” In 2012 she arrived at JMU and has decided to use the challenges — as well as the possibilities — of concrete as the medium of choice for her students. She charged her studio with pouring 10 to 15 concrete tiles per student, on which the surfaces were manipulated.

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“She has a very hands-on approach.” Sarah Rozman, a senior Interior Architecture major, explains. “She works with it while we are working with [concrete] to show us how it should be handled.” Tickle saw one particular advantage in choosing this medium. “I started specifically focusing on concrete because it was something where I was still on the forefront of the competition,” Tickle says.

These explorations led her to the idea of the urban habitat of concrete and the problems created by it. Research showed her the repercussions of urban “heat islands” and the negative effect it had on the environment. Feeling slightly responsible for her family’s pioneering role in the skyscraper era, Tickle set out to make concrete solve the problems it was also responsible for creating. New concrete canvas technology allows for a flexible, heavy-weighted cloth-like concrete.

Using concrete canvas, Tickle’s goal is to bring wildlife back into the urban landscape through a series of concrete pouches as habitats at the tops of skyscrapers. “They would be up at the heights of the redwood forest canopies so we would almost be bringing back more of a way for the wildlife to inhabit the cities again,” she says.

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Tickle is also working alongside Patrice Ludwig, a JMU Biology Professor, in researching oyster reef restoration and what concrete can do to help it. They are working on designing and engineering alternative oyster reef constructions, “to move reefs to a ‘shell-less’ construction.” Currently, there is a short supply of oyster shells. Modern consumers have moved oysters and their shells far away from returning to estuaries to be recycled. Ludwig goes on to explain a new type of reef structure used to “promote oyster restoration processes.” Using a 3-D printer and concrete, Tickle and Ludwig are hoping to replenish the oyster population in the Northern Neck of the Chesapeake Bay using their fabricated reefs.

“To be able to really use concrete in a much more powerful and potent way. To do some restoration work and some rehabilitation work…turn concrete into a more sustainable opportunity,” Tickle says. The environment is only one of Tickle’s passions. She continues to explore the possibilities of concrete by designing pieces with her JMU studio classes, as well as through her business, Pretty Fine Concrete. Fireplaces, sinks, countertops, are all designed to display the versatility of concrete.

Tickle can manipulate its structure, weight, color and form. A compiled stack of formulas allows her to calculate its abrasiveness. She has become a concrete alchemist.