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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?