Opus aeternum

The Material Culture of Brick

Elena Merino  Fernando Moral 

In the humble words ‘brick’ and ‘tile’ lies the simplicity, only apparent, of a material that has come down to our days with very specific technological variations. Nevertheless, the modest nature habitually attributed to brick is quickly proven wrong when we look at details and see the vicissitudes in how it has been made, how its production has been controlled, and how its use has been restricted. After adobe was first baked in Mesopotamia at the end of the 4th millennium BC, bricks were only used in courtly edifices and only in its more visible parts; the structural cores of the buildings continued to be filled with unbaked material. The hardness and hardiness that baking gives to brick makes it an indispensable material in all architecture that, whether for utilitarian or symbolic purposes, is intended to last a long time.

The high temperatures needed for clay to be transubstantiated into ceramic – several batches of brick per day – led to the consumption of tons of fuel. Thus the rationing that has conditioned the use of brick in the course of the history of construction. Behind the Roman way of dividing square bricks into triangular pieces were clear intentions to economize, multiplying the performance of the bassalis, sesquipedalis, and bipedalis without sacrificing the appearance of complete pieces. The predominance of firebrands, requiring more consumption of units, characterized historical periods of prosperity, and many architectural structures were less stable because of skimping on bricks. Saving on brick pieces when executing vertical reinforcing chains at the corners of buildings, and excessive distance between rows of bricks, whose function was to strengthen mortar walls, lie at the origins of the defects so often seen in medieval and Renaissance masonries. As Vitruvius advised, it is better to spend a bit more on baked bricks, than save but endanger buildings. For his part, Palladio, in his recommendations for proper use of the material in strengthening masonries, established a minimum separation of two feet between lines of bricks.

Use of the ornamental qualities of the material was transported from the Near East to the core of Europe during the Early Middle Ages, and in two ways, derived from the ability of clayey pastes to be vitrified, and from brick’s versatility in bond options, thanks to which it could take on an infinity of patterns of diverse inspiration. The incorporation of decorative attributes into the solid functional tradition of brick augured the material’s consolidation as a ubiquitous and indispensable product in all architecture to come. Alas, in the guise of a structural skeleton, reinforced concrete and steel burst onto the scene at the dawn of the 20th century, and this seemed to herald brick’s definitive relegation to the mere role of filling. Currents like Backsteinexpressionismus, which exploits brick’s ornamental prospects, or some examples of Neues Bauen, with the symbolic exponent of the Fagus Factory, dismantle the idea of the material’s relegation to the background. Figures like Alvar Aalto also worked within that long-lasting, resistant perspective: his project for the Kultuuritalo in Helsinki arose from a morphological manipulation of brick.

Craft and Industry

Nowadays, brick continues to be used mostly as an epithelial enclosure, despite its structural, even general constructional, capacity. The lines of work developed by industry, in all its aspects, seek to point at and give priority to this use of the material, over and above all else, with the aim of reviving brick’s place in representative architectures. To be sure, conventional construction at the small and medium scales works with brick in all its facets, but in buildings of public importance, it tends to be used only for rough masonry.

However, the work of important architects who are knowledgeable in history and in the possibilities of brick, such as Rafael Moneo, is doing much to revive its use. In 2005, the Navarrese architect joined hands with the brick manufacturer Malpesa in designing a piece specially for the extension of the Prado Museum. The dimensions – 12 x 18 centimeters – lay outside the usual production lines, so the brick piece was created ad hoc with pressed clay adjusted for better anchoring and execution conditions in ventilated facades, all in the interests of a historical and conceptual consonance with the brick masonry of the institution’s original building, designed by Juan de Villanueva. The construction system involves direct work on the ‘brick unit,’ which, on the one hand, allows variations when it comes to building the enclosure, and on the other, is complemented by a more complex system of layers in the construction of the walls.

Brick makes envelopes that are unique but based on profound needs of projects. Brick’s adaptability and wide range of finishes addressing highly specific demands make it a good alternative to other materials. The question here is up to what point the bond can address all the variables of a ceramic masonry, taking into account that in bonds, attention tends to go to ornamentation, in accordance with a long and wise building tradition that has created patterns and constants recognizable to all. The enormous complexity of many of these works is thus dictated by how the work is perceived externally, but how can this impression be transferred to the building’s interior in a solid way?

Sculptural Potential 

The previous question finds an appropriate answer in the lattices, where brick ‘creates’ space in a determined and refined manner. It does not come from an exclusive idea of embellishment, but from the protection and control of light. The huge aesthetic opportunities that lattices offer are due to their minimal dimensions and the fact that they are combinable in so many ways; combinations which, beyond questions of the strictly budgetary kind, are determined by the ‘occupation’ of the bricklayer, on whose expertise the final result depends.

Examples of lattices are: the entrance to the historic quarter of Gironella (featured in this dossier), which is simple and bold in taking advantage of the panel of bricks that support it; the forceful Kolumba Museum in Cologne by Peter Zumthor (see Arquitectura Viva 116), where the random bond forms a fine luminous emblem for the entire building and its main historical spaces, while stitching together a substantial number of remains and new materials; and another building shown in the pages to come, the Terra Cotta Studio in Vietnam, which presents a definitive union between the construction of an envelope for solar control and the decorous ennoblement of the building: in its walls, the bonds go through gradual variations, creating a building that is as extraordinary in its function as a drying place and workshop as it is in its nature as an icon combining the contemporary and the tradition of a rural world where there is room for superfluity.

The evolution of brick happens not only in ornamental bonds and lattices, but also in less predictable contexts, such as buildings for use by the masses, where this material regains its role as a maker of the most representative places of our societies. Proof are the planes and volumes of the origami of the Concertgebouw, by Robbrecht & Daem, although two projects by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are perhaps what put brick in a dominant position vis-à-vis production materials that may be more sophisticated but more limited in application.

The Switch House extension of Tate Modern in London (see Arquitectura Viva 186) rises like a ziggurat facing the Thames. The structural concrete that forms the geometry of this watchtower is clad with a complex brick fabric of double pieces that serves as enclosure, lattice, and decorated memory. For its part the new Stamford Bridge stadium, also in London, presents ceramic from the earliest sketches. The restrictions imposed by the district are translated into a sophisticated solution where the enormous porticos of brick and structural concrete present a potential that the material continues to have at the time of defining the character of the enclosure and obtaining contextual qualities. The actual scale of a football stadium is altered by the relationship that is established with the surrounding housing development through the broken profile of the brickwork all around the perimeter, creating the illusion of a powerful residential amphitheater. The masses will thus again seek shelter within brick and endorse a new period of splendor in its use. Brick remains a promising material.

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