This is a designers story about non-design. The origins of the tarmac road are as clumsy as a smash at the crossroads of geology, chemistry, economics, and city planning. In fact, its origins are literally in an everyday low grade road accident.
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 recipy 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.
Accident, not necessity was the mother of this invention. Borne out of those un-designerly characteristics of spilling and bodging, it is a sophisticated and forgiving kind of infrastructure. Its capacity for forgiveness is revealed in the scars that it bears. Scars caused by the lacerations of diggers and drills which hack through its surface. Its sophistication in its anticipation of all possible changes. Tarmac remains provisional as its dug up and patched to accommodate the alterations, improvements, mistakes, extensions and erasings. Mending and change are intrinsic to its characteristics.
Like glass, tarmac never sets completely solid. The streets are really rivers flowing with the thickest black treacle. A viscous gloop in whose depths lurk stringy wires and lumpy pipes. Like the chocolate topping on a crunchy musli bar. On very hot days you can feel its velvety softness with your heel.
The Situationits claimed that the beach lies beneath the pavement. Reality, however, is more exotic than rhetoric. Roads are million year old sludge drawn from deep beneath the ocean. Most road asphalt is a by-product of crude oil processing. Once all the valuable bits have been removed, the denuded left overs are made into asphalt. Roads are just a sticky kind of dirt, rearranged into linear patterns.
It’s like mud that’s been edited. Asphalt is an abstract version of the ground. Dark, compressed, inert and flat. Somewhere between mud and stone. Equivalent pretty much across the country – consistent meaning, regardless of local vernacular or materials. Endlessly extendable and always exactly the same. Where even now a truck and a roller are adding a three-lane bypass.
All of this freshly pressed blackness flows on to the horizon. Crisp and clean and unspoilt. Glistening like overnight snow, only blacker and harder. As full of the promise of love as wedding cake icing. So beautiful and textured that you want to step barefoot onto this unspoilt world. Forests of signposts, hosts of golden yellow sodium lamps for the Wordsworth of the highway – deeper in poetic loneliness behind the wheel of than the Lake District ever permitted.
A brand new skin for the earth. That makes the world look newborn, so that it can’t be anything but innocent. More wonderful than the ancient craggy, scuffed planet beneath. Perhaps the real modern poets are those who create these landscapes: The Capability Browns of the motorway system, the Gertude Jekels of the parking lot. Driven by desire to reclaim earth as an unspoilt paradise. Highway engineers who dream of being naked Tarmac Adams in a Tarmac Eden.
First Published in Contemporary