July 20, 2015 1:02:46 PM
As I was driving today I looked especially for brick buildings. There are lots of them, of course, houses and commercial buildings, mostly boxes with roofs, showing little about brick except its utility (which, of course, is no small thing). The reason I was paying attention to brick is that over the weekend I was looking through Brick (Phaidon Press), a big, handsome book mostly of photographs of brick buildings. It is edited by designer William Hall (who did the similar book Concrete), with an introductory essay by art historian Dan Cruickshank. There are plenty of utilitarian buildings in the big photographs here, of course; none of these structures are mere ornaments. But the 200 photos here show useful buildings distinguished by colors, curves, and textures to show that the ancient building blocks have for centuries found new, beautiful, and even subtle applications.
Among the oldest structures here are the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq, dating from around 2100 BC, an enormous pyramidal structure with flat terraces that looks worn on only some of its surfaces. It illustrates that brick lasts. Bricks are the oldest of man-made building materials, and they are made merely of humble earth. Those first bricks were from alluvial soil, ideal for brickmaking, and were sun-dried or, eventually, kiln-fired. It wasn't long before brickmakers learned that different soils produced different colors, and different colors could form patterns. The most beautiful use of color shown here I thought was a vertical shot of a cathedral-like entrance hall to a dye works (hence the color) in Frankfurt, Germany. A graduated spectrum of blue, red and yellow bricks reaches up to the skylights. Using colored bricks happened far earlier, though; the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan dates from 1174, and has a band of ornate green Arabic lettering. It also has a texture of geometric patterns, something also seen in the Kalyan Minaret in Uzbekistan of 1127.
Making ornamental patterns with brick that is used primarily for construction is one of the themes here. Brick is still used for construction, of course, but in many modern buildings it has a decorative, not structural, function. Iron or concrete girders may hold the building together, with brick used as cladding just because brick is attractive. A five-story office building in Amsterdam shows panels of brick of different color, size, and texture, panels that obviously have nothing to do with holding up the building but are just there because they look good and the variation is interesting. There are some monumental brick buildings here, like the Hilversum Town Hall in the Netherlands, that use one-color brick for huge, planar surfaces, and of course most of the brick walls with which we are familiar are flat and plain. So much is going on with the surface of some of these others, though; St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, Lithuania, was built five hundred years ago, with 33 different shapes of brick, forming arches and tracery in a style appropriately known as "Flamboyant Gothic." Decorative bricks of different shapes adorn the Prince Dimitri Palace in Uglich, Russia, of 1480, and make the famous varied Tudor chimneys of Hampton Court in London.
Shaped brick is not the only way to bring curves or texture. Rectangular bricks can be laid in spiral patterns, as in the complex screen for a building in New Delhi, India. There is an external spiral column in the Colegio Teresiano by Gaudi. Light and delicate diagonal hatchwork is on the Centre Michelet in Paris. Bricks can make large-scale or small-scale pixels; a cluster of room-sized cubes in a bank headquarters in Oslo has inspired a gamer to make a Minecraft version of the building. Different sizes of rectangular bricks were used in the club and restaurant Lanxi Curtilage in China and laid in patterns that extend in a beautiful sinuous design, for all the orthogonality of the components. There is even a picture here of the Pixel House in South Korea, a family home that looks like a gigantic loaf, but none of the bricks is curved or set at an angle, so that the play of light on the surface looks like a digitized photo.
The pictures in this large-format book are gorgeous. The one difficulty is that they are allotted one picture per building, so it was very handy to use the photos here as starters for an internet image search. In his remarks at the beginning, Hall writes, "It wasn't difficult to find remarkable brick architecture around the world, yet no illustrated books have been published on the subject for over a decade. This suggests that despite its ubiquity, brick is woefully underappreciated. I think it is time to reappraise - or perhaps repoint - our view of brick. This is the place to start." Indeed.