Building bricks of life

Recently I was asked to contribute some thoughts about bricks for ABC RN’s ‘Blueprint for Living’. My chat with Jonathan Green was interspersed with other interviews – one with a gardener who used bricks in his landscaping, another with a restorer of bricks in old houses, and even a chat with a cook who made bric pastry, a kind of North African pasty. (You can hear the segment here.) There was far too much to say about the subject in the time allotted but I spent a lovely week before the interview just thinking about brick buildings I admired. So I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

When I first thought about bricks, I remembered the places where I had been most impressed by them. Like the Roman houses at Herculaneum near Naples, covered for centuries in Vesuvius’s ash, and the brick walls of the lovely Pantheon in Rome, often overlooked in the rush to focus on its amazing concrete dome. There was also Albi’s incredible fortress-like cathedral of the 1300s, its buttresses contained within towers, its base flaring out to withstand the force of battering rams.

Places des Vosges

There’s  Hampton Court, that was started in the 1500s, and the elegant Place des Vosges in Paris of 1605, and the plain-fronted buildings of Belgium and the Netherlands of the same period. And the elegant Georgian buildings of Britain, from picturesque country rectories to the formal terraces of London. I lived in one that was built in 1838 and the walls of my basement flat were tremendously thick, with deep window sills outside, and even deeper windowsills inside. Brick at that time was only just becoming fashionable. More usually it was rendered and sometimes scored to look like painted stone, like the white neo-Classical terraces of Nash’s Regent’s Park. Even in the later grand houses of Belgravia, brick was relegated to the rear elevation and to the utilitarian mews buildings.

The burgeoning power of the Industrial Revolution steadily chipped away at this disapproval. Bricks were manufactured in proper brickworks instead of in on-site kilns as before, and that meant greater quality control and reliability. Clay was finely ground using proper machinery before being mixed with sand, ash or grit, along with water. The doughy mixture was then extruded through a rolling machine, the edges trimmed of any bumps before wires cut each brick to an exact size. These were fired at high temperatures in kilns providing a uniform heat, creating bricks that were incredibly strong. The new railways and canals were used to transport the bricks to wherever they were needed. And the bricks, themselves, were used to build the new railway viaducts and station buildings that were needed as the network expanded.

Florence, Siena & Bologna in Leeds (Flickr: Tim Green)

Brick is fireproof, of course, and that made them perfect for the new mills and warehouses of northern England. The first iron-framed buildings in Manchester of the 1810s were given a skin of brick, sometimes with a decorative twist with inlaid patterns. They’re often rather playful. In Leeds, for instance, there are brick factory chimneys that are copies of Italian bell towers of the early Renaissance.  It’s no wonder that people began to see brick in a new light.

The Red House (Flickr: Peter Johnson)

Architects of the Gothic Revival loved brick because they saw it as an honest material, one that needed no covering up.  And when William Morris wrote about a return to simple materials, he was living in an example of it. His own home, Red House in Bexleyheath, designed by his chum Phillip Webb in 1858, was made of brick. It’s seen as one of the seeds of the Modern movement of the next century, thanks to the exposure of its building materials, like the roof timbers and, of course, the unadorned red brick of its walls.

This, then, was brick’s moment. Think of the flamboyantly Gothic St Pancras station with the exuberant Midland Hotel fronting the astonishing train shed, the widest span metal roof in the world when finished and still a gob-smacking sight. Architects like Richard Norman Shaw championed brickwork in his Queen Anne Revival buildings of the 1870s, contrasting it with crisp, white-painted woodwork and touches of decorative terracotta. You can see it in his houses in Bedford Park and also in the leviathan blocks of flats that surround the brick-and-terracotta Royal Albert Hall. And then there’s the fabulous Prudential Building in Holborn by Alfred Waterhouse, started in 1879. Its deep red brickwork is so richly monochrome that it’s almost too much to take in. The ‘Pru’, of course, was the master of home insurance, and the use of brick in its headquarters reinforces the idea of the material representing home. Brick is used for chimneys and fireplaces because of its fireproof quality but it’s also shorthand for domesticity.

Chicago has great brickwork, not least the rather weird Monadnock building with its flared load-bearing walls, built in 1891 by Burnham & Root, like a more contemporary version of Albi cathedral. And then there’s the great brickwork seen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses of the early 20th century, in which the bands of slim bricks reinforce the strident horizontal of the buildings. I remember noticing a rather clumsily-done piece of brickwork on the Peter Beachy House in Oak Park, somehow at odds with the finesse of the rest of the building. It was pointed out to me that this was probably the work of FLW’s assistant, Walter Burley Griffin, who had completed the building when his boss ran off with one of his clients. Burley Griffin’s impact on Australia’s architecture is notable, of course, for his plans for the new capital at Canberra.

Roy Lippincott house

But the early houses he completed here used brick, like the Roy Lippincott house in Melbourne of 1917. It’s oddly fussy and unsuccessful, to my eye at least, and highlights just what a master FLW was.

Stockholm City Hall (Flickr: Richard Mortel)

Brick was used extensively in Scandinavian Modernism of the 1920s onwards, like the City Hall in Stockholm which influenced municipal buildings in Britain. That Scandanavian look also influenced 1950s domestic architecture in Britain and Australia, where blond brick complimented large windows and exposed timber framing.


Chau Chak Wing building by Frank Gehry, Sydney

Brick remains popular, even in large projects. Frank Gehry’s recent Chau Chak Wing building in Sydney shows how a brick building can have curves. And there’s the new Switch House addition to Tate Modern, where Herzog de Meuron used a fine brick lattice to compliment the monumentality of the original Bankside building,  itself an icon of brickwork along with its older sister, Battersea Power Station.

It’s an astonishing thing, a brick. Thermally efficient and able to curtail noise, it’s so simple and yet so capable of creating so much. I love the dusty-grey bricks of Beijing’s hutongs and I love the soaring red-brick walls of Art Deco apartment blocks in Sydney. There’s something humble but comforting about the material. So often I rave about concrete with a kind of wonder but in thinking about brick this past week, I’ve realised just what a quiet little hero it is.

Do you like brick?

What can’t you build in brick?


Categories: Architecture, Australia, DesignTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I do.
    I particularly love skinny English 18thc bricks( had a cottage built with them) and the rose coloured bricks of Toulouse.

    • Toulouse is such a wonderful example of brickmanship (brickwomanship?). I’m wondering if your house in France is made from brick or stone, and whether or not it’s revealed?

      • Stone from the local fort and huge river pebbles.
        Sadly, however, one side is partly cement and terracotta blocks where the barn next door was tacked on to the original building and a bedroom storey added. Because of this, we cannot expose a beautiful old stone whole frontage and we would have to cover part of it to conceal the 1950’s extensions!

        So , render it must be, but will be a traditional local shade

      • Just knowing you have all that lovely stuff there among the more modern stuff is enough. And a bit of local crepi is much underrated, in my opinion!

  2. I fell in love with bricks in Rome. I still have a small piece of the Roman that fell off and landed at my feet. Just think, 2,000 years ago someone formed it into a building block. Thoroughly fascinating. I can’t quite run to liking the Gehry building at the uni though. It sets my OCD off every time I pass by. I’ve renovated houses before and see those window openings as something that will undoubtedly leak no matter how well finished they are. For the same reasons, I would never have a flat roof or an internal gutter. It is simply asking from trouble. The Pantheon is one of the most magnificent buildings in the world surely, along with the duomo in Florence. They’re bucket list items everyone should see.

    • Yes, Italy is very high on the ‘things that make you go ooooh’ list, and bricks is up there among the domes and general awesomeness of the architecture. I think that’s hilarious about Gehry and OCD – I had never quite thought of his buildings in that way but you’re absolutely right. I find it all a bit veneer-y and it’ll be interesting to see how that building ages, if that’s allowed to happen in this short-attention-span city.

  3. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t thought about brick much although I love the pantheon. I once had a putative author photo taken against a brick wall and sent it off to my agent and she said it looked as if I’d been lined up against a wall to be shot! I thought it had a rather nice rugged look to it!

    • Yes, it is shameful. LOL. Interesting, isn’t it, how a brick wall means different things to different people – I’ve definitely seen walls that suggest firing squads or heavy industry, and others bucolic country cottages and lazy summer days. And now I’m going to check other author pics to see if brick walls figure…

      • Often they photograph male crime writers down brick wall lined alleyways. If I remember correctly they did that with Jake Arnott for his first book The Long Firm. He carried it off pretty well!

      • You’ve started something here. Most portrait backgrounds tend to be pretty neutral but I’ve noticed a few of men against brick walls and metal shutters while women are often photographed on a comfy sofa or against something flowery like honeysuckle… I’m thinking you should stand up for the brick wall next time you get photographed!

      • I think I should – brick is best!

    • Probably a non compliant passport photo.

  4. What a lovely salute to, as you say, a quiet hero.
    And what wonderful examples you chose.
    I love brick. It has so many associations – the shape, the colour, the feel, even the smell – all say something, remind us of something from the past.
    I have exposed brick painted white in my studio, and however much the contractor wanted to plaster it over, I resisted.
    There is a local cafe with brick effect wallpaper. However much I know it is wallpaper, it always makes me feel comforted …

  5. Love bricks! Especially love finding forgotten extra bricks lying around old houses that can be used over and over for temporary garden installations, student bookshelves and doorstops. We had three new brick varieties mixed and ‘tumbled’ to create a shameless faux wall to copy our early 20thC chimney breast.

    • What a lovely thing to do, Cate. And I bet that chimney breast holds and radiates the heat in the winter… I think every house in the land has at least a couple of spare bricks sitting around in the yard, waiting for their purpose or re-purpose to be discovered. So useful, as you say!

  6. Closer to home is the amazing Newcastle Cathedral worth a $2.50 train trip from Sydney on Sundays. Its predecessor was to have been financed by coal royalties but (unusually) there was a turndown in the demand for coal. During the construction of the current cathedral opened in 1902, there was litigation and in accordance with (another Australian tradition), the architect was sacked. More recently it survived an earthquake.

    There are some amazing brick cathedrals in Poland. These days, as you hint elsewhere, cathedrals have been replaced by airports. Or in Canberra’s case, the War Memorial. Convict era Sydney sandstocks: everyone an original.

    • I have to confess I have never visited Newcastle, Richard, but I’ll head to the cathedral when I do eventually get there. Grafton has a fine brick church, and I think, from memory, there’s a good one in Bathurst. Interesting to hear about Poland.

  7. Just came upon your blog. In regards the poor section of brickwork in the Beachy house by Frank Lloyd Wright: Walter Burley Griffin left Wright’s studio in early 1906 to go into solo practice and Wright’s plans to remodel the existing 19th c Gothic style house were only approved by the client in April of that year. As well – Wright ‘ran-off’ with another client’s wife in late 1909. Therefore any ‘dodgy’ brickwork is either part of the original basement of the earlier house (some of which was retained) or the result of poor supervision by Wright or the remaining staff. As the house was divided into two dwellings in the 1950s and then restored in the 1990s, the differences in brickwork may also be attributable to sections of 1906 : 1990s restoration.
    In regards Griffin’s Lippincott house in Eaglemont (Melbourne): this was the home of Griffin’s sister Genevieve and her US architect husband, Roy Lippincott. Though credited to Griffin, it is more likely mostly the work of Lippincott, with some collaboration by Walter and Marion with the Lippincotts.

    • Thanks for those details. The Oak Park brickwork was certainly a surprise, which was explained to me as being due to FLW being away, leaving Griffin in charge. But maybe that was told to me, knowing his name would mean something. As for the Lippincott, that makes perfect sense as it certainly looks totally different from anything Griffin did. Thanks for fact checking!

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