Behold the brick. The red, six-sided rectangle that changed the world.
Its ubiquity renders it almost invisible, a hidden-in-plain-sight part of our built environment, whose fascinating history and radical architectural applications are often overlooked. In Phaidon’s new mini edition of the 2015 photo book “Brick” — sized perfectly for a tweed coat pocket — author and editor William Hall pays homage to “the humblest thing imaginable … [a] brick is after all just earth.”
Yet the 168 eye-catching photos of this small, brick-size book — featuring buildings spanning millennia and continents, and highlighting modern architects from Alvar Aalto to Peter Zumthor — prove otherwise.
A brick is anything but ordinary; it’s an essential building block of humanity’s story.
In the book’s opening essay, Hall's collaborator, art historian and BBC television presenter Dan Cruickshank, writes that the first cities made by man — such as the 6,000-year-old urban center of Uruk in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley cities from 4,600 years ago — utilized bricks. In the ancient Sumerian ruins of Uruk, Cruickshank still finds kiln-fired bricks that “were as sound as the day they were made.”
While a computer is useless after just a few years or an iPhone goes out of date — planned obsolescence, of course — a brick can last for centuries; it’s the best technology we have ever developed.
In the world’s oldest book, “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the ruler of Uruk recognized how bricks paved a road toward the infinite. “Gilgamesh realized that his name stamped on hard bricks, ‘where the names of famous men are written,’ meant that his creations and his memory would last for eternity,” Cruickshank writes. “The kiln-dried brick was the passport to immortality, a guarantee that your creations — and your name — would live forever.” Built with fire- and sun-baked bricks, the monolithic Ziggurat of Ur — created around 2100 B.C. in a bustling metropolis of around 50,000 people, perhaps the Los Angeles of Mesopotamia — presaged the pyramids by centuries. A reconstruction of it exists today near Nasiriyah, Iraq, built by another ruler with an ultimately unsuccessful dream of immortality, Saddam Hussein.
To unify and divide
Bricks can divide, like China’s Great Wall or the gently sloping fortress the Ark, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, built circa 500 A.D. But bricks can bring us together, like many houses of worship, schools and universities. The material is an architectural chameleon, expressing itself through the cultural context in which it is created. The contemporary brick churches of Scandinavia whisper with austerity, but St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow commands attention, with its nearly candy-coated onion domes topping red blocks. The 164-foot Mahabodhi Temple in India, built around 260 B.C., ornately marks the spot where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, while Frank Lloyd Wright’s V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco is a stark church of consumerism. Inside Wright’s building, light fills the atrium where a spiral walkway — a prototype for his later Guggenheim design — swirls upward. But from the outside, it’s windowless; a wall of bricks with an arched mousehole-like doorway.
“We are not going to dump your beautiful merchandise on the street, but create an arch-tunnel of glass,” Wright told his client.
A red canvas
A brick is also an object upon which we project meaning. A brick can remind us of the colleges of Cambridge, Mass., the esteemed ivy-covered institutions that were perhaps out of reach for many. Or they can evoke memories of housing projects of the Bronx or the council flats of London, utopian dreams that struggled with complex realities. And the gradient of these meanings can shift as we change.
As a boy, Hall lived in a 19th century Sussex farmhouse built from local Horsham red brick. At sunset, he saw the walls turn salmon pink.
“Later that day,” he says, “hours after the sun had gone down, I remember feeling the warmth held in our tread-worn century-old brick path.” These man-made immortal stones were memories made real. “Bricks held warmth as well as history.”
Time made tangible
“There’s a comforting honesty to a clay brick,” Hall writes. “We can hold a brick and know its weight, its texture, and its composition in a way that a concrete wall is comparably unknowable.”
But to really know a brick, you have to make one.
My first brick was made in an abandoned hacienda on the outskirts of Mexico City. I was there to build a community garden with some mohawked anarchists (it’s a long story that began, as many great stories start, with a woman I met at a Chipotle in Marina del Rey). As a clueless gringo, I was put on brick detail.
We shoveled horse manure, scooped up wet earth and poured it into a wood frame. The punks pointed at the slop and made squishing-motions — our previous communications were entirely composed of heavy metal band names, the only English words they knew. Instead of asking for Purell, I plunged my hands into the mix, smooshing my fingers in the manure and mud. Then the magic began. The brick began to make itself as the mud became warmer with each knead and fold. It began to dry, even before the sunlight broke through the afternoon clouds.
As I watched the birth of the brick, I felt a connection to the earth, the grass, the horse and the sun. I felt connected to the ancient and universal process, the technique used everywhere from Peru’s thousand-year-old adobe “pyramids” that Cruickshank mentions in the book to the plaster-covered mud bricks of the 13th century Great Mosque in Djenné, Mali. “Brick is modest, unpretentious and inclusive,” Hall writes. And he’s right.
Plato once wrote of anamnesis, the idea that humans have innate knowledge buried within us, and that learning is the act of unearthing it. As I stood over the drying blocks, my hands stinking like rodeo boots — I was a long way from Marina del Rey — the bricks became a gateway bridging the past and the present. And maybe they unlocked the elemental knowledge hidden within me, buried deep under the digital flotsam that clouds my attention. Maybe there’s a brick in all of us.
After all, as Cruickshank writes: “bricks breathe, almost as living beings.”
Phaidon, 368 pp., $19.95
Tewksbury is the acting Books editor of the Times.