FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions /8


















Why do you always make your buildings of brick. Is this not very old-fashioned and out of date?


Some years ago, on BBC Television, they screened one of the most interesting programmes ever to deal with buildings. It was the live history, transmitted over several episodes, of how a new skyscraper was built in New York. All of it seemed almost depressingly familiar! However, I noted, with wry interest, that the very techniques I was trying to persuade my big developer, Stuart Lipton, to use in the City of London, were being used as a matter of course in the USA, from which place, we were always taught by him, all progress in building technique flowed. The skyscraper was covered, externally, with hand laid brickwork, all the way from top to bottom.

So before I explain a curiously little-known fact, which is how a brick wall actually 'works', I will deal with this matter of 'fashion'.

Many years ago, after the ill-fated 'Prague Spring', I found myself working next to Eva Jirickna, then an intellectual, political and even ethical refugee from Neo-Communist Czecho-Slovakia. We had both been accepted to work in a firm, Louis de Soissons, as it turned out, for rather different reasons. She had been taken on for her clear talent as a designer of Modern buildings. I had joined because Louis de Soissons was the only firm, of all the many I had visited, which had a magnificent library of old architectural books and a history of designing buildings in a vaguely 'Classical ' manner.

However, 'de Soissons had recently died, and the firm had made the belated decision (this was in the late 1960's) to 'go Modern'. They began, as I suppose one would, in Britain, somewhere around 1926 minus the Art Deco. I was taken on to help design the Brighton Marina, a gigantic 'New City' of the kind promoted in the 1960's. Of course such projects are immensely attractive to ambitous young Architects. They bring out the megalomaniac in us all. However after learning, from my wife, of the windspeeds on that coast, where she went to school, I was not surprised to learn that only 10% of the yachts were ever expected to put out to sea. What we were inventing was no more than an upmarket floating caravan park to which the 'yachting fraternity' would repair, down the straight railway line from Victoria, to struggle with the technicalities of getting from the clubhouse to their floating cottage while carrying a full cargo of 'shorts'.

I soon became bored with the idea of being employed, as so many young designers are, with producing and endless succession of pretty drawings to service banks and letting agents. Fortunately, working in the same room, I found an 'old soldier' from the genuine 'de Soissons days (the office was run on strict military lines with Privates, NCO's and an Officer Class whose ability to retain facts without recourse to papers, and bring them forth at meetings, bordered on the occult. I soon learnt to respect the intellectual calibre of the Brigade of Guards). So, for some three years I sank out of sight and worked on restoring some of the giant white-painted Nash houses around Regents Park. I was fortunate in that the building site was only a five minute cycle ride from my drawing board. So I would go, during my lunch break, two or three times a week, and walk around the site, watching what was going on.

Our project was to slowly dissect and then rebuild, as separate apartments, a row of these huge, six to seven storey 'walk-up' terrace houses. Being 'Gloucester Terrace', one was examined by the Duke and Duchess of that name, but without a sale. I can think of no better way to learn what happens to a building 'under its skin'. After all, how do Doctors learn anatomy? They absorb their knowledge by slowly and carefully taking a human body to pieces. This is what I did, and it has stood me in good stead ever since. Disaffected as I was by my 'contemporary' Architectural Culture (I had already been working in the Public and Private sector for eight years), I began to buy books with some seriousness. I never had a salary rise in all of the four years with 'de Soissons. I never asked for one. None was offered. I took three hour lunchbreaks instead, spent, along with nearly all my salary, in second-hand bookshops: mainly what is now 'Gaunts' (but devoid of Art and Architecture books) in Marylebone High Street.

During this time, Eva rose to become the Principal's right hand 'man', ultimately obtaining Partnership status. I remained until my old soldier had his terminal heart attack, supervising the laying of a zinc roof, high above Regents Park. He was a noble old man, modest and skilled as a true craftsman Architect of the old school. His drawings were chaste and beautiful and his taste was equally so. He knew exactly how to divide a Georgian sash, design a neoclassical door case with paterae, and how to do the 'fruit and flowers' as they called the 'classical decoration' in 'de Soissons. His widow gave me some of his little books, reprints of Kent and so on, which I keep with affection.

Many years later, at a Reception in the RIBA, I met Eva again. We were, by that time, both Architects with our own design bureaux and our own 'personality'. She told me she had just won a commission to design a warehouse in California. I found this a remarkeable coup and asked her what she would make it out of. She replied, with that combination of sharp, cool, asperity and intellectual wit which one sees in her own work, that "John, it will not be made of brick!" Lady Architects, whom I have known, develop a certain steel in their personalities which, being ladies, they tend to keep hidden in the velvet glove of their femininity. But, working in the 'man's world' that is construction, it is always there to be unsheathed at a moment notice. A mere, muddy-booted, man learns circumspection in the company of women who have made it up to the Executive Class.

This sharp rebuke has always remained with me as a mark of the distaste which the High-Tech school regard the innocent, muddy, fabric of brickwork. Indeed, I know of one big High-Tech bureau where the word 'brick' is banned, The only permitted description is 'clay blockwork'.

The British Council, proud of the results of the building boom of the 1980's, had sent a huge model of the Square Mile around the world. It visited Brazil where it seemed part of the ceiling fell and destroyed the very vulgar model that my Developer had made in order to sell my building. God does protect his own. I was then sent to Barcelona to introduce it to the Architects of that City. It turned out to be an exercise in taking coals to Newcastle as the Architects and Planners of that City clearly thought that their expertise was greater than ours. This was an argument that I was not prepared to pursue as there could not be two more different conceptions of a city. The Spanish city is a place in which people are kept in order to be ruled and governed. The British city is a place into which the people used to escape from being ruled and governed by their landlords. Neither of these ancient prototypes was of huge intellectual interest, as my 'model city' derives from the association of free citizens we inherit from Greece via Italy.

I spoke my piece, explored Barcelona, noticed that the only ones of the famous little 'architectural interventions' that the Public had not vandalised were the ones exposing some real earth and planted with plenty of trees, and left.

The Council then sent this great model, together with the Exhibition that accompanied it, and a large company of Architects and Planners, to Prague. I found myself again in the company of Eva, this time in her home city. I again spoke my piece, a report of which I attach, and explored the city.

After a morning spent in 'old Prague' I was beginning to feel as if I gorged on too many of those high-calorie sweetmeats for which the Hapsburg culture is famous, perhaps because of their old proximity to the Ottomans. I had found, meanwhile, an extraordinary Monument (as well, of course, as buying some books on Heraldry, of which Bohemia has plenty).

I had never been able to grasp the meaning of "Le Style Pompier". To those unfamiliar with the kind of Art that all true Modernists find most distasteful, 'Le Style Pompier' combines Naturalism with the kind of sentimentality found in Landseer, Alma Tadema and Lord Leigton. But the true vastness of its vulgarity, which is gargantuan, is not found in Britain. We lack the taste for what the French call 'Le Spectacle'. In fact we have also, protected by our 'channel' and our wealth, now both departed, never needed to address ourselves with such 'force'. Le Style Pompier is Landseer translated from the British sentimentality over 'domestic pets' into the full, roaring, high-decibel volume of the Corrida. It is the bullfighting of 19C kitsch Pop-Culture.

But why 'Pompier'? What has a 'Fireman's Style' to do with this emanation of all that was gruesome about late 19C Continental culture?

Then I saw him, high above one of the tall, gabled Central European 'houses' fronting Wenceslas Square. Surely this was "The Fireman". His body, clothed in the stony armour of his many-buttoned tunic, crested with a helmet that, from this distance, was that of an Ancient Greek Warrior, was flung animatedly forward. He held the limp body of a girl, stripped to her waist, over his left arm. Her perfect breasts were outlined against the sky. His right hand, raised to the heavens, gripped a hose that snaked upwards like a rearing cobra, or maybe something else. Yet this was no Fire-Station. This was a heroic sculptural group on the model of some Hellenic myth. What was the story? Was the Fireman the worthy, popular, but faceless, working class culture hero, safely assimilated into the uniformed body of the Legalistic, Bourgeois, State, coming to its rescue? Was he saving its innocent, 'unconscious' (pace Freud), 'doves' from the fires of revolution? The epithet remained a mystery to me. But at least I had found its embodiment. This was the 'Pompier' and this was its true style.

I began to follow the history of the City itself. I became repelled by sugary Old Centre. I had had enough.

I remembered a black motor-car, like a cyclops, with one central headlight and a tail in the form of a fin, seen outside the Cumberland Hotel, at Marble Arch, back in the 1960's. I had the idea that this car came from Czecho-Slovakia. I recalled the pre-war excellence of the Czech aircraft designs and their reputation as designers of weapons. Finding a mapped rectangle called the Museum of Technology, I determined to walk over to it. It lay away from the City-centre, across the river and through parks in which children played. All was quiet around it and I entered. I was shown the way to the Toilet, which after a long walk I happily visited. Emerging again, and wandering around its Lobby, I was again shown the way back to the Toilet. It became clear that Tourists only visited this Museum to go to its toilets. Or at least this was the opinion of the Keepers. Eventually I managed to persuade them to sell me a ticket of entry. I had the whole place to myself. The dust lay thickly upon it and the Keepers sat in a row, smoking and quietly conversing. Was this the gentle moment of decay, the grass growing between the rusting railway lines of Communism, before the Museum-frenzy of Tourism burst upon it?

The Tatra-Plan(e) was a car designed like a wingless aircraft. Luftwaffe pilots were banned from driving them during the '39 War. Too many of these expensively-trained Officers were getting injured on the Autobahnen, driving at high speeds on dimmed headlights at night. The the inventor of the Tatra car taught Ferdinand Porsche how to design cars. One could see how Porsche would have been inspired by these wonderful vehicles. The Museum was filled with model aeroplanes, some of whom I had flown many years ago. I sat and thought of the world that I had wanted to enter as a boy and then deliberately abandoned when I discovered that the world of vehicles was, as I saw it in the 1950's USA, destroying the world of buildings and cities. I thought of what an accident of history it was that the Centre of Prague had escaped the blitzkreigs and bombings that had reduced many other Continental cities to the mere grassed-over cemetries (that they were in the 1950's) by the very machinery I was looking at.

I thought of all of the Tourists who now thronged the centre of Prague, driving out its inhabitants with their money. It is better to be bought out, I suppose than driven out by force, but the effect on the 'city of citizens' is the same. Why did these visitors like this 'perfectly preserved' city, the "Venice of Bohemia", as I heard someone call it? Why were they not coming over to see this automobile, one of the canonic 20C designs?

I began to understand how it was in these land-locked central European States. I could see that one could long for something like an aeroplane, or a fast car, or some effective weapon to hold off the powerful states that throng around one on all sides. One could fly over the Border Guards, escaping the Toll Gates that close one in. Britain's boundary is the open sea. One can walk from anywhere and very soon face it, vast and free. Ships and planes are second nature to us. What the British like, especially as they wander freely around the Globe, is the idea of a dwelling rooted like a barnacle onto the crowded surface of their native island.

This was why we liked our houses to be made of bricks. Bricks are made of our soil. The fact that they are burnt makes them 'feel warm'. A process always lingers, like a memory attached to a material. This is why most people dislike plastics and rubbers. They can still smell the acrid, poisonous, odour of their manufacture. So why was 'High-Tech so popular in Britain, and indeed, in France, and maybe here in the Czech Republic, as well? Why do people, or at least Architects and Designers, want their buildings to look like vehicles when nothing in a building and an aircraft, or an automobile, coincide?

There is 'fashion' of course, but there is something deeper than mere fashion. It is the longing to 'fly' from the bad to the good, to 'escape' and to rise above adversity and leave trouble behind. All of these are natural impulses. But we should be progressing beyond the construction of fantasy-theatres in which we pretend to be flying in aluminium pods and bubbles, as children do in Fun-Fairs, or tourists in Universal Studios.

The representation of feelings has in the past been mediated by an Architecture of larger intellectual achievment than literally aping 'space travel' in modalities more appropriate to the children's playground. Even Prague, for all of its sugary fin-de-siecle art, had more to teach, and learn, than this "aluminium folk art". The contradictory and paradoxical spirit of Bohemia, with its unique Gothic tracery, the 20C Architect Plecnik, and even the wingless wonder of the Tatra-Plane, deserved more than the Contra-Functional 'traincrash' Decon and Contra-Formal blob-buildings, that the 'liberated' West was now advocating.

The intellectual capital invested in the buildings of Prague linked them to a past so distant that it almost defied decipherment. This is why even Mass-Tourists flock to it from everywhere. These travellers are sensitised to old buildings, and newly confident in their company. No longer do they merely mean the dwellings of the Princes and Potentates they originally were. There is something else that the Visitor obtains from them.

These old cities are places in which we feel that the suburban dismemberment of our lifespace is, if only momentarily, reintegrated. In the suburb one must always be travelling between places that are merely monofunctinal or monosemantic. One place is all mechanism (like a factory) another all orderly spaces (like a school or an office) and the other a riot of information (like a shopping centre or city-centre). In these old cities we find them (still, but not for much longer wiithout serious effort) all located in the same place. In these old cities we can live in our bodies, and our social personae, and our private imaginations all together and all at the one and the same time. We feel 'whole' again.

This is the main utility of Architecture:- to bring about the increasingly difficult coincidence of all of the essential functions of the human being. This is the achievment of our 'Working Order'.

Its central medium is that of the measuring and ordering of space. That is very clear to any Architect who has been instructed by a real Client for a real Project. The Client always comes with some, more or less elaborated, 'plan' of how, and why, the space of his or her building is to be ordered. The underlying dimensional and spatial 'module' of this ordering is, in our technique, the humble 'brick'. This may seem ludicrous but consider the facts:

1. Architectural space is 'empowered' by the cubic lattice of the 'trabes' and the 'trabica'. In short it is both divided 'modulated', and cubic.

2. Architectural space, in that it is the space for our lives, should be divided by a measure that is dimensioned humanely. The brick is a piece of cubic space that fits the human hand in its capacity as 'builder of cubic spaces' by making the 'walls that divide them'.

3. If this cubic space is filled with earth, then that is best of all, for most people like to live on and in and of the Earth. This earth is then dried, baked and fired to change it into a ceramic material of almost infinite longevity. The monumental structures of the oldest 'higher', or 'urban', cultures were of brick.

4. Brick can take any colour, even bright blue (fired all through, with cobalt), in a form that is almost totally permanent. A brick is a little cube of matter that is also a sort of solidified light.

To summarise, therefore: a brick mediates between the two extremes of matter and light in a cubic volume dimensioned to the human hand.

These qualities alone would qualify it a status of almost primordial virtue in Architecture.

We add to this its ability to remain in place using the cheapest of all glues, that of gravity.

Then if we reveal its ability to render a wall waterproof by a method that, were it invented anew today, would render its Inventor a genius and a very rich man, we may be allowed to claim a status for the lowly brick which is quite as high as the aluminium profiles pretending to be wing-tips and nose-cones which one sees sported today as evidences of "modernity'.

Only two sorts of brick are perfectly safe to use in external walls: those that are very porous and those that are hardly porous at all. Frost can not break a dry brick. Nor will it break a very porous one. Clamp-burnt, or 'stock' bricks are fired wet. This drives off water as steam and leaves cavities in the interior of up to one third of the volume. Such bricks soak up rain-water like a sponge whenever it rains. Their suction is so great that they will suck the water out of the mortar joints, preventing it from passing through. They are, because of this 'blotting-paper' effect, even more waterproof than a wall of the hardest, most impervious, bricks manufactured. It never rains very hard or very long in Britain. So that even a solid wall of London Stock Bricks that is only 9" (250 mm) thick, with no cavity, is perfectly waterproof. Wheareas if one were to play a hose upon it it would eventually not only show a damp patch internally, but freeze and break up in a frost.

This the reason why stock brick walls age so evenly. The dirt and dust sticks to them equally all over. They are so absorbent that water never runs down their surface, dragging dirt with its free flow.

Concrete, on the other hand ages in a most ugly way. Concrete, so as to preserve its steel reinforcement, is made to be waterproof. It does not allow water to enter it and lodge there, as does a stock brick. A few minutes after rain begins, water begins to rund down the surface of a concrete wall, dragging the dirt with it to the limit of its travel. there it will remain in the form of a dirty, irregular, 'tide-mark'. This is one of the reasons that JOA colour, pattern and inlay our concrete elements. By attracting the eye and the mind to the iconically engineered surface of the concrete elements we use, we attract attention from the ugly way that concrete weathers.

Normally, the sky is clear before a frost. The highly-porous wet brick will evaporate its moisture as easily as it absorbed it. There will be more than enough water-free cavity inside it to allow whatever ice may form to expand inside. The medium density brick is sometimes as slow to absorb moisture as it is to give it up, so rendering it prone to frost attack before it has managed to evaporate any of its trapped water molecules. High-density, impervious, bricks have often been used by JOA for the base of walls, up the second floor, as on the Castle block of the Judge.

These walls, at the base of a building are not so likely to be heavily drenched by rain. Being impervious they can also be easily cleaned if vandalised by graffiti. The wettest part of any wall is the top of a parapet wall. This is because it is not only struck by rain falling downwards, but by rain that is being carried upwards by currents of wind seeking a passage up and over a building. The advantage of an over-hanging eaves, such as JOA normally design, is not only to hang our giant gutters outside the walls, but, by pushing the wind away from them, to stop the tops of brick walls from getting too wet where they are, because of the wind-chill effect, most vulnerable to frost damage.

How can Architects ignore all of these primordial 'conceptual values', as well as the basic technical virtues, not to speak of the financial virtues of a cheap, long-lived building material, and escape the charge of a kind of frivolity without the charm that featherlight brains can occasionally accrue. For to dress such things as buildings and cities in the metallic armour of weapons and vehicles is, if not sinister, revealing a certain paranoia, then it must surely be intellectually puerile as well as technically superfluous. 


End of FAQ No. 8: "Bricks",

Return to "The List of FAQ's"".  



* JOA can be reached by E-Mail at anthony@johnoutram.com , by telephone on +44 (0)207 262 4862 or by fax on +44 (0)207 706 3804. We also have an ISDN number : +44 (0)207 262 6294.




John Outram