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Authenticity and singularity

This paper examines the properties of the brick as a building material. It draws upon historical examples as the basis for the exploration of two themes; authenticity and singularity. These words are chosen to give structure to the examination of brick construction and the properties of brickness. This study is undertaken not as an historian, even though many of the examples drawn upon could be considered as paradigms of their kind. It is also not the work of a critical theorist but a study undertaken by an architect in practice who is interested in construction and the feeling of things.
The relevance of authenticity to this examination of brick construction is the manner in which it supports an interest in the essential, the most elemental. Authenticity is considered as an approximation of the most pure manifestation of a condition or set of conditions associated with brick construction.
Singularity can be equated with intensity. When one looks at one thing in isolation one looks with greater focus on the subject being examined or offered for scrutiny and reflection. The American artists emerging as a new force in the art world in the 1960's and reluctantly labelled 'minimalists' but forward such a proposition.
In the 'Equivalent Series', 1966, Carl Andre took a material or raw product produced by industry and placed it in the rarefied environment of an art gallery. The manner in which the bricks are stacked is reminiscent of the way a bricklayer would arrange bricks before constructing a wall. The exact positioning of the bricks in Andre's work is precise and the type of brick chosen is not unusual. The provocation implicit in the arrangement of bricks is the compulsion to question the intention of the artist. Why am I looking at something that I can not understand as art (because the making of an artwork requires skill and technique)? Why am I looking at something I could find on a building site? Critics and theorists have answered these questions for thirty years now and they are not relevant to this paper. What is interesting is the directness of the questioning.
In his short essay entitled 'Brick' (Scroope, Cambridge Architectural Journal, Issue 6, 1994-95), Colin St John Wilson makes the observation that brick is the only building material that is the result of the four elements that the ancient Greeks believed were the basis of existence; that is earth, fire, water and air.
The earliest examples of brick structures made by man are the spiral mounds built in Mesopotamia. These massive constructions could be read as representations of extreme forms of topography and were erected in situations distant from mountains so there could be no misunderstanding in terms of their intention. They are demonstrative of mans ability to arrange an artificial landform. Their purpose is harder to understand but what is overwhelmingly impressive is the physical effort involved in their making. Here we are confronted by a primordial spiritual need that is beyond our understanding. The scale of these structures can not fail to provoke a need to question their purpose.
The Imperial Palace, Rome, 1st to 3rd centuries AD is another example of a single brick construction although in this case it employs the arch as a repeated element to create a complex spatial matrix. The overall result of this structure is one where the weight of the brick is overbearing and extremely intense. It is representative of Rome's ability to bring order at a massive scale.
The tectonic properties of the arch were not lost on Louis Khan in his search for a new primativeness in his architecture. But when his was asking a brick what it wanted to be he was enough of a pragmatist to know it could be a much more versatile arch if it could work with the tensile properties of concrete. The buildings he realised as part of the .... Could be achieved because labour costs were not high. These structures would be prohibitively expensive in current western construction terms. In these projects Khan is working at a big scale with a geometric investigation. The single brick like these earlier two ancient examples cited, work on the basis of the single element, the brick, contributes to a monumental overall whole.
Dom Hans Van der Laan proposed a language of weight in his investigation into brick construction. In this instance a non-secular architecture. Van der Laan finds it necessary to blur a reading of the individual brick. A wall or column is covered with a layer of brick slurry. The texture of the brickwork is still legible but the coating creates uniformity between brick and mortar. It becomes a much more overall expression.
In Borromini's Oratorio dei Filippini, Rome brick is handled in a manner that is extremely plastic. The expression the material is given creates a sculptural complexity normally achieved through plaster. Borromini takes a brick and rubs and shapes it to a point where the dimension of the unit of the brick is lost. It has become a small-scale component that can be carved in a similar manner to stone. The overall result is one where the unit of the brick contributes to the exploration of the canon of classicism and in this example it is never nobler.
Sigmund Lewerentz was also interested in the exploration of the sculptural properties of brick construction in the two churches he designed when he was an extremely mature architect. The church of St Marks in a suburb of Stockholm begins his investigation into an extruded elevational expression where the unit of the brick would be maintained and the mortar would act in a tolerant manner. In this building Lewerentz introduced a rule to the construction where the brick should on no account be cut. Extensive investigations were undertaken to ensure that the mortar was capable of fulfilling a role not normally required. In his church in Klippan in the south of Sweden Lewerentz's brick investigations are taken to an extreme where they are the ground, ceiling and walls. The interior of this church is intense and extremely powerful.
Where Lewerentz's attitude to brick was to explore notions of tolerance, Mies's is precise. The speculative brick house project of ... positions every brick in plan. The is an exactness in Mies van der Rohe's drawings that suggest that a single brick as a carefully determined position in a wall in a way that one might describe a stone wall. The brick houses at Krefeld make explicit this interest in working with the module of brick. The result is clear and orderly but not rigid.
Bend and Hilla Bechers photographs of industrial sheds remind one of the directions Mies took in his later work with brick as a building material. In the Chemistry Building (IIT) 1945, the brick is an infil material reminiscent of the direct and practical purpose it is given in industrial buildings. Here the story of singularity is challenged by structural ambition and building economics.
Of the examples I have cited few can be truly understood to be singularly brick structures. All however have a clearly worked out strategy for how the brick can contribute to a bigger ambition and in this way notions of authenticity can be read with the predominance if not wholly singular presence of brickness.

Jonathan Sergison Stephen Bates March 2004

1 Carl Andre, 'The Equivalent Series' 1966 original installation Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.
2 Spiral Mount Bernard Rudofsky, 'Architecture Without Architects'
3 The Imperial Palace, Private Apartments, Rome, 1st to 3rd centuries AD
4 Louis Kahn, Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962-83,East Hostels
5 Louis Kahn, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India, 1962-74
6 Dom Hans van der Laan, St Benedict's Abbey at Vaals, The Netherlands, 1956-86
7 Francesco Borromini, Oratorio dei Filippini, Rome
8 Sigmund Lewerentz, Church of St Marks, Stockholm
9 Sigmund Lewerentz, Church of St Peters, Klippan, 1963
10 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Esters House, Krefeld, 1930
11 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Brick House project, 1923
12 Bend and Hilla Becher, Dortmund-Horde, Ruhrgebeit, 1989