'Even modernists like Mies loved bricks. . .'
From Bavarian viaducts to Mesopotamian zigurats, Brick author William Hall also loves them - we ask him why
“I was once in Milwaukee with my old friend Frank Lloyd Wright who was attending a conference there. He began: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, do you know what a brick is? It’s trivial and costs 11 cents; it’s common and valueless but possesses a peculiar characteristic. Give me this brick and it will be worth its weight in gold.’ That was perhaps the only time that I had heard in public, stated clearly and bluntly, what architecture really is. Architecture is the transformation of a worthless brick into something worth its weight in gold.” - Alvar Aalto
We were reminded of Alvar Aalto's quote (above) when we caught up with William Hall last week. William is the author of our best selling book Concrete and now, its follow up, Brick. As we spoke to him it became obvious that Hall feels the same way about a humble building material he feels is long overdue for rehabilitation. His idea to write a book on the humble brick however, was not inspired by Aalto's tale but partly by a late night conversation with Spanish super chef and fellow Phaidon author, Ferran Adrià.
“I remember talking to Ferran and him saying that he didn’t have a preconceived notion of the hierarchy of different foods," Hall told us. "Ferran said that to him, “a pear was just as valuable as a lobster, the difference is that we load all these societal and cultural associations on it'."
It's true that in terms of what we might call high architecture, or significant buildings, brick tends to play the role of poor cousin to more lofty materials such as stone, granite or marble - materials that are deemed valuable because of their visual qualities or because they are expensive to extract. Brick after all is essentially earth - possibly the humblest thing imaginable.
Brick's great success as a vernacular material - as a material for buildings not made by architects but by builders - has meant that, generally speaking, the important structures of the 19th and 20th century, the ones trying to make a statement about how important they are, have usually been made from something else. Brick not being as Hall puts it, "an appropriate material for that.”
Which is why his new book is such a satisfying rebalancing of the importance attached to the material. "Frank Lloyd Wright was someone who had a sense of the value of a material beyond the generally perceived notion of that material. And, of course, he built widely in concrete and brick," Hall says.
Hall has applied a similarly rigorous edit as he applied to the excellent Concrete, with the result that Brick comprises buildings and structures that will both appeal on an immediate wow! level to a general audience yet, at the same time, cerebrally nourish an architecturally literate audience wanting a little more insight. Packed with page after page of beautiful images, we challenge anyone to see off our rectangular friend with a dismissive use of the word 'vernacular' after reading it.
In the book you'll find Bavarian viaducts comprising over 26 million bricks, ziggurats from Mesopotamia, the Great Wall of China, a Peter Celsing church, a Per Kirkeby sculpture park, warehouse stores by sculptor James Wines' that playfully challenge what a building could be alongside compelling descriptions of buildings you're more familiar with - Battersea Power Station in London, or the Gladstone Gallery in New York with its unusually long, dark grey bricks.
"I wanted to have a range of typologies, scale and building types in order to eke out the most interesting examples," says Hall. "The thing about Concrete was really to say to people: Concrete is a wonderful material – don’t sneer or feel depressed when you hear the word concrete, it can be fabulous. With Brick I want to encourage a change in the public perception of brick from something which is banal and ubiquitous, to something of wonder and potential. I hope that when people look at the images in the book they will see that."
Indeed, there's lovely bit in the introduction to the book where Hall describes how, as a kid, he watched the bricks of his house turn salmon pink as the sun set one evening. As it grew darker he noticed black lines appearing on the surface of the bricks, these, his father explained were where the bricks had been piled up during firing.
"Most people at some point have picked up a brick and looked at the texture," says Hall. "A brick is knowable, and you can look at a brick building and understand how it’s made. It’s bricks glued together with cement. Whereas if you look at a concrete building or a steel building it has an industrial scale to it that can be incomprehensible.
"The other thing is that brick ages very nicely in a way that other materials don’t. Brick buildings look more approachable and gentle and warm as they get older and they show their age in a likable way. A glass building looks the best the day it is made whereas a brick building improves over time.” See for yourself by buying a copy of Brick in the store today.