☰ Workshops

Tectonics in Building Culture

Brickwork (2008)

In the door at one end of the kiln is a little inspection window. At the back, looking past the edges of the kiln wagons, you can see the blinding white light of the fire. Over eleven hundred degrees – audible, almost palpable. In the control room, above the kiln, a graph hangs on the wall: time runs horizontally, temperature vertically. A brick stays in the kiln for three days. The temperature rises fitfully and goes back down again, peaking and plunging. Adding air causes the temperature to go up; closing off the air supply causes the oxygen in the clay to burn. A careful horizontal line on the graph marks the quartz transition temperature as clay irrevocably turns into brick. While heating up is simple, cooling off is more difficult. The more gradually it is cooled, the better the brick. For each sort of brick there is a different graph, its own orchestration of fire and air.

Mounds of different clays lie in the factory depot. The colour of the clay says nothing about the colour of the brick that is made from it. Every kind of clay has its own character: fine clay that is deposited by the wind, coarse clay that is deposited by the water, ocean clay and river clay, the geology of landscape as the basis for a brick.

Brick has an elemental nature; it transcends cultures and eras. It is a building material made of earth, water, fire and air. Change one of these and you get a completely different brick.

The size of a brick is such that you can pick it up with one hand and lay it in its place. Through that physical action, a wall is made. A brick is the smallest unit with which you can create architecture. No matter what the magnitude of a wall, you can still recognize the physical act of stacking. You can see the artisanship of its maker. Stacking is the discovery of a relationship. Format, differences in the size of the bricks and the way tolerance is handled are important here. The relationship yields a texture that is established in the module of a few bricks. To assess this texture, you must stack. To see its richness, you must take a distance and walk around it. One’s experience of texture is inseparably connected with movement, with changes in the light, with differences in light in the morning, afternoon and evening. A good stacking expresses the richness of brick: variations in sheen, nuances of colour, the difference between the sides of a brick.

Mistakes inevitably creep into the stacking and the repetition of patterns. New textures arise from these flaws. The question of the corner, how you take a relationship around a corner, also often produces a new texture. Sometimes intentional, other times unintentional: the evolution of a relationship and a texture. Brick is an exacting material. You cannot simply do everything with it, for mistakes are immediately visible. If you think and work with the material, with the possibilities it offers, you come up with ideas and solutions that cannot be designed in advance. If you force an idea onto the material, it becomes unmanageable and does not work with you. Whether a stacking or a relationship is beautiful is something you do not actually know ahead of time. By repeatedly stacking anew, you learn to think with the material. You develop insights into the possibilities of brick and develop an intuition for the richness of the final image.

The stacking of bricks is a game you play with gravity, with the wind and the balance of the stacking. If you break the rules, the wall will topple. Every stacking has a beginning and an end, from the bricks at the very bottom, which must bear the full weight of the wall and also follow the topography of the ground, to the bricks at the very top, which lean against nothing but air and fall the most easily. The stability of a wall is contained in the stacking relationship and the form of the wall. With stacking, you are inevitably confronted with the Vitruvian Triad firmitas, utilitas et venustas (technology, function and form). The role of brick in this triad is ambivalent. In today’s building practice, façade brickwork seldom has a supporting function anymore. Brickwork is cladding and on a cavity wall it works well and is long-lasting. In the sense of ‘utilitas’ it is (still) a relevant building material. In a building where the supporting structure and the outer wall are separate, the brickwork façade can still express the ‘firmitas’ of the building. But in essence, this is an architectural choice rooted in ‘venustas’. As far as the tectonic expression of a building is concerned, ‘firmitus’ is thus a special category of ‘venustas’. And as far as the stacking of the bricks that comprise the façade is concerned, ‘firmitas’ is still always ‘firmitas’. The walls that fell over during the workshop proved this time and again. In a brick wall or façade, ‘firmitas’ and ‘venustas’ keep switching roles. Dealing with this ambivalence makes the designing of brickwork façades a special architectural assignment. If both the ‘venustas’ and the ‘firmitas’ converge in the design of a façade or wall, a fascinating image arises that can continually be read in different ways. If they do not converge, auxiliary constructions, expansion joints and dilatations ultimately determine the image. Brickwork is then simply wallpaper, mindlessly applied.

Brickwork displays a variety of appearances. From a certain distance, the abstract image is determined by its ceramic quality (matte or glossy) and basic colour, which often is the shard of the brick. As you gradually approach, the image is determined by how the ambivalence between ‘firmitas’ and ‘venustas’ is dealt with – the tectonic assignment – the texture of the stacking, exceptions in the relationship, the details around openings, the corners, the eaves and the plinth courses. Close-up, the details become visible. Now the bonding, the joints and the type of brick determine the image. Extrusion, water-struck, machine-moulded or hand-molded bricks. From incredibly hard to almost fragile. The origin, the firing of the bricks is expressed; subtleties of colour, sintering, reduction, sanding.When choosing brick for a building, you must look at the design from various distances and approach it in various ways: from far off to close by, and from sidelong to frontal views. The nature of a brick building unfolds as you come closer, always providing a new experience that is determined by the light and your proximity to the building. It is not until the spectator moves that the building truly reveals itself.

Brick is a fascinating and very gratifying material. But this workshop is not about the specific knowledge of brick; it is about an attitude, a way of working and thinking. The first exercise, stacking a pallet of bricks over and over again in the storage area, is about playful discovery, without any predetermined ideas about an ultimate goal or image. Discovering the logic of a material and how to work with it. Starting with playful stacking and working toward objects, sometimes digressing in order to discover new things. The value of the detour.

The second exercise, the stacking of an object out of five pallets of bricks in the clay depot, is actually a traditional assignment, although it lacks a concrete program or goal. The starting points for this stacking are the site, the choice of brick and a preconceived idea about the object to be made. Playing, or trying out, is still part of the process, but the central focus is to make an object that fulfils the original plan – to make a modest statement. Here we resume speaking in terms of concepts and ideas.

In the end, the projects arise from two opposite directions of thought. One direction involves the materialization of an idea or concept about a particular site, perhaps even with a function or goal. The other concerns the conceptualization of a material, the eliciting of insights and ideas and reflecting on the directly experienceable physical qualities of a material. Both approaches are relevant and valuable. The workshop looks for what they have in common, where they converge and enrich each other to produce a special way of working.

by Jan Peter Wingender and Machiel Spaan
Academie van Bouwkunst, Amsterdam