Bricks for All Seasons

“What do you want, brick?” ….this is a question which has gained
legendary status within architectural circles

Whether accepted, concealed, rejected, desired or compared with more modern materials, clay brick has played an active role within the culture of architecture throughout the ages.

Playing the famous modernist architect, Louis I. Kahn (1901 – 1974) in the movie, Indecent Proposal (1993), actor Woody Harrelson states: “A common, ordinary brick wants to be something more than it is!” And, it was Kahn who first posed a question in the early 1970s that has since attained legendary status within architectural circles: “What do you want, brick?” The answer, according to Kahn, is that brick wants to be both structure and cladding…and this he achieved to great effect in the monumental Capital Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh:  a sequence of iconic buildings in vernacular red brick and concrete that appear to float above the surrounding waters, a combination which is at once spiritually uplifting and magical whilst being practical and robust.

Closer to home, award winning South African architect, Peter Rich, who is well known for his authentic contemporary African design expressed a similar sentiment at the recent Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Awards. Commenting on a number of innovative projects in which brick has featured prominently, he said this about the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre: “Using mathematics and ancient ways of doing things, we realised you could harness the forces of nature in a natural way to actually make brick float in the air.”

Using compressed baked bricks as the building medium for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, Rich said, “There is an incredible way of building that we have forgotten and my adventure was to understand and rectify that, which lead me back to authenticity.

” Named Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in 2009, the 1 500m² Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre on South Africa’s Northern border was part of this journey of discovery. In collaboration with engineers John Ochsedorf from MIT and Michael Ramage from the University of Cambridge, Rich designed vaulted structures inspired by the rugged landscape. Based on a 600 year old timbrel vaulting construction method, the domes required minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement.

Commenting on the use of compressed baked bricks made on site, Rich explained, “We used approximately 200 000 clay bricks and as we were six and a half hours from the closest major city our aim was to rely on the materials of the site to save on transport.”

Through the decades, architects have used brick with enthusiasm and, like Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), boasted that in their hands the ordinary clay brick became “worth its weight in gold”.

For the greater part of architectural history, brick walls have played a functional role providing support for walls and roof. It is only since the late 19th century that brick has become a creative source used by architects to capture the essence of a design project.

And, with award winning architects like Peter Rich, whose projects harness African authenticity, and Paraguayan architect, Solano Benitez, who is more interested in building methods rather than form, both experimenting with the versatility of bricks we can look forward to increasingly innovative, exciting and challenging design projects which harness the beauty of the humble brick….and, perhaps, go a long way to answering, Kahn’s question: “What do you want, brick”!

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