The most interesting stories about design are not design stories. They are the ones that allow us to think about the nature of design outside of the constraints of professions, clients, budgets and so on. And one of those if the story of the origins of the tarmac road. At its heart is a clumsy smash at the crossroads of geology, chemistry, economics, and city planning.
A British county surveyor, Edgar Hooley, travelling the bumpy roads of Derbyshire came across a hard, smooth section. Curious, he asked how this patch had formed. The locals told him that a barrel of tar had accidentally fallen off a cart. To mop it up, slag from a blast furnace had been sprinkled on top. Hooley, recognising some potential in this gloopy recipe began experimenting. In 1902 he patented the process of heating tar adding slag or macadam to the mix then breaking stones within the mixture to form a smooth road surface. He formed TarMacadam (Purnell Hooley’s Patent) Syndicate Ltd in 1903 and registered Tarmac??? as a trademark. But like most innovators, he couldn’t turn a big idea into a big business. He sold up to a Wolverhampton steel manufacturer who saw a way of turning furnace leftovers into cash. Sir Alfred Hickman formed a company called Tarmac, still doing business today.
Tarmac is a sophisticated and forgiving kind of infrastructure. Its sophistication lies in its anticipation of changes, as though it remains perennially provisional. As its dug up and patched to accommodate the alterations, improvements, mistakes, extensions and erasings that operate on its surface. Mending and change are intrinsic to its characteristics, which one might regard as a capacity for forgiveness.
Like glass, tarmac never sets completely solid, which means – if you think about it in the right way – our streets are really slow-moving rivers of thick black substance. A viscous gloop in whose depths lurk stringy wires and lumpy pipes like the chocolate topping on a crunchy muesli bar. On very hot days you can feel its velvety softness with your heel.
Most road asphalt is a by-product of crude oil processing. Once all the valuable bits have been removed, the denuded leftovers are made into asphalt. While the Situationits claimed that the beach lies beneath the pavement reality, however, is more exotic. Roads are million year old sludge drawn from deep beneath the ocean – a sticky kind of dirt, rearranged into linear patterns.
It’s like mud that’s been edited. Tarmac is an abstract version of the ground, somewhere between soil and stone. Dark, compressed, inert and flat it lays a consistent skin over the surface of the planet – consistent in meaning, appearance and performance. It is endlessly extendable and always, exactly the same.
Even now a truck and a roller are adding a three-lane bypass extending freshly pressed blackness on to the horizon fresh, crisp and clean. It glistens like overnight snow, only blacker and harder. Its surface is as full of smooth promise as wedding cake icing. Its empty beauty asks you to dream of stepping barefoot onto its unspoilt new world. Surrounded by forests of signposts, and hosts of golden yellow sodium lamps, a Wordsworth of the highway might write Tarmac poetry – in deeper loneliness behind the wheel than one might ever find in the Lake District. Perhaps the real modern poets are those who create these landscapes: The Capability Browns of the motorway system or Gertrude Jekels of the parking lot.
Tarmac is a brand new skin for the earth. It makes the world seem newborn and alien – and perhaps for a moment, more sublime than the craggy, scuffed old planet beneath. Perhaps highway engineers are driven by a sublimated desire to experience a fleeting moment of earth as an unspoilt paradise. Maybe they dream of being Tarmac Adams in a Tarmac Eden.