Bless the manhole cover and the paving tile. They are instruments of mindfulness, reminding us to always be aware of what's around us, even if it's below our feet. Even more than the manhole cover, the paving tile catches our downward gaze and surprises us with its seemingly infinite variety. Behold, the science of tesselation! It has given us beehive hexagons and iterative arabesque, polygons of all shapes fit together in perfect cozy union. A concrete blanket stretched across Almaty, this weave of pattern is inescapable. Where did it come from? How is it made? Why, why, why?
As far as I can tell, the tile patchwork of Almaty is something modern. I can find no pavement that seems especially antique, and old photos of Alma-Ata seem to show that sidewalks were your standard smooth slabs of grey. It's been said that these interlocking tiles, hammered together on a bed of sand, first took off in post-war Holland, a place whose famously below-sea-level elevation brought flooding, shifting ground, and buckling pavement until someone got the idea to put down these more flexible blocks. Almaty is a city with frozen ground nearly half the year and streets gnarled by tree roots, so these tiles, or "pavers" as their often called, were a good adaptation. After stores here were privatized in the 90s, tenants finally had the freedom to personalize their frontage, and tiles began to be imported from Poland and Iran and other unlikely hotspots of concrete block manufacturing.
The way they're made is actually pretty neat. PVC molds are filled with a concrete mix, but air bubbles naturally sneak inside; if we just let the bubbles be, we'd get a porous, unreliable block. That's why people who make pavers use something called "vibrocasting", where the concrete-filled molds are placed on a kind of cookie sheet that vibrates rapidly, shaking out the air. Then you just let it dry, pop it out of the mold, and you've got a finished tile. If you first add iron oxide powder to the mix, by the way, you'll get a red brick, often used to add some variety.
Now if you've walked Almaty, you're probably familiar with a few species of paver, but did you know they had standardized names? Perhaps the most famous is the "Krakow clover" [краковский клевер; krakovsky klever], so-named because it resembles a four-leafed charm and was designed in Poland. Then we've got the "fishing reel" [катушка; katushka], which to me looks more like an hour glass; the "wave" [волна; volna], like a rectangle with jagged edges, the "bikini" [бикини; bikini], looking like a supremely unsexy bikini bottom or a diaper, and of course the "honeycomb" [соты; soty]. My motto is "Learn a name, make a friend", so the more tile shapes you get to know personally, the more familiar the whole streetscape becomes, and soon you're walking Almaty with your head down, bumping into walls, tripping over curbs, images of vibrocasters and clovers dancing across the ground. .