Brick: the cornerstone of civilisation

Architectural critic, author and Honorary RIBA member Jonathan Glancey made a passionate and persuasive case for brick as the cornerstone of civilisation at the last in the current series of Wienerberger lectures at the RIBA last week.

Opening with a quote from Mies van der Rohe “architecture begins when two bricks come together well”, Jonathan illustrated his talk by introducing two ‘shy and inarticulate’ assistants manufactured close to his Suffolk home. Referring to the two Suffolk Red bricks as ‘Reggie’ and ‘Ronnie’, Jonathan drew the comparisons between the humble beginnings and often workaday perceptions of the traditional brick and their lasting contribution to beauty and sustainability of the built environment.

Travelling between the southern desert cities of Ur and Eridu in Iraq, via Arthur Shoosmith’s masterpiece St Martins Garrison Church in New Delhi, to Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove tube station and Sigurd Lewerentz’s Church of St Peter, Klippans, Jonathan examined the intelligent use of brick and its compelling beauty as an elemental and diverse material. He argued that such examples demonstrated the links between the classical and the contemporary worlds, creating a powerful case for architecture as the ultimate expression of  ‘civilisation’.

Caruso St John’s 21st century brick house in West London further demonstrated the versatility and design capability of bricks which ‘shift and move’ with light and heat to create an almost organic and elemental space. Nor, he argued, should brick be perceived as a purely cosmetic option ‘rather like a tough lipstick’. Instead, he argued that they are robust and enduring, noble and powerful, and still ‘entirely understandable to the modern world’.

Comparing their core characteristics to that of his beloved Tornado steam locomotive and cherished bulldog Pedro, Jonathan talked of the material’s “nobility, strength, beauty, and a ‘kind of rough and ready Britishness’”. In a cautionary tale he referred to the Tornado being called back into service in 2009 to ‘rescue’ stranded passengers at Victoria when all the electric trains were out of commission. “In the same way, the humble brick links our present to our past, will not let us down and is comfortably familiar to us.” He went on to point out that Shoosmith’s brick-built church was only ever let down by the reinforced concrete roof over the nave which was probably due to cost-cutting during the build process: “The only 20th century innovation employed is the only thing that nearly did for it. One day, someone will hopefully do what they should have done in the first place and build the brick vaults that the Church deserves. And when they do, that building will last and last.”

Jonathan’s contribution was the fifth and final in the series of lectures sponsored by Wienerberger at the RIBA in recent years. Previous events have included lectures by RIBA President Angela Brady, former presidents Maxwell Hutchinson and George Ferguson, and architect, historian and academic Dr James Campbell.

Jonathan’s parting shot was an appeal to architects and designers not to overlook the humble brick as a means of expressing their design concepts. “For some reason, brick design is sometimes seen as slightly ‘low grade’ architecture in the UK. Over the centuries, architects have often drawn their inspiration from overseas and they seek to reproduce it locally. With brick you can think truly globally and still act locally. So my appeal to you, as I take Ronnie and Reggie back to where they came from so that they can form part of something enduring and noble and relevant to the surrounding environment is to remember the humble brick – and remember that they are where ‘architecture begins’…..”

There are currently no comments for this article.

Login to comment. slider