Authenticity and singularity
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
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
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
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
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.
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