There is a long brick wall that is very reassuringly dirty and venerable on my walk to work. About three metres high and where it tilts, at two metres, very slightly, to face the sky and the plane trees overhead, a band of yellow lichen of constant width stretches end to end. The lichen has no depth at all: it is more of a colour wash living off a certain level of humidity in the brick and light under the big trees. Brick keeps its own counsel, there are secrets in its making and in what it endures that have plenty of tricks for our idle, semi subconscious moments.
We were once going to make a magpie nest of contrasting bright and dun materials – corten, zinc, painted timber and stucco – to clothe a building currently known as the Hothouse on London Fields. The idea was to fragment all the volumes and make a properly confusing mess on the park. Then by chance at just that moment we re-fell in love with brick, looking at the baroque facades of the Carignano Palace in Turin by Guarini. You have to be there in person to appreciate its wild and restless surfaces on a monumental scale. It is all done in small pink bricks. The strength comes from the continuity of that material as it advances and retreats.
After that it seemed obvious that our weird skinny building wanted to be brick, brick that did everything. It could sweep round a boomerang shaped perimeter, be punched with cookie cutter windows, and it could hold its own against the sky. The brick we used which we struggle to now escape from is a water cast red brick with a delicate, pale pink skin. It looks like playdough more than a serious brick. We think the name Olde English Buff is too musty for this fresh brick. It is difficult now to be genuine and wholesome with brick: its structural role is so demeaned. But once you see it has jumped a quadrant in Semper’s categorisation of materials from hearth to enclosure and weaving, so becoming a dress and cladding system, the freedom for brick to play different roles in different projects is clear.
In a quarter of deep red brick in Leicester we brought out the Olde English Buff pink dress again to hang over a hated, white tiled, ninety seventies concrete bus depot and thereby saved the building from demolition. A certain quantity of stainless steel jewellery was required to create the hanging and cantilever new window openings but it made perfect sense as a warm winter coat and new acceptable image for LCB Depot, a media centre in the up and coming ‘cultural quarter’ there.
In Southwold, a specially sensitive and charming seaside town in Suffolk where older people go to find their childhood and young people a hip and kitsch nostalgia, we built thirty four new brick houses. They replaced a seventies warehouse used by Adnams, whose brewery in town is almost as loved as the luminous twelfth century church. The houses, like most residential construction these days, could have chosen from any number of different constructional means ranging from timber frame to precast concrete: in this case, though, they ended up being built with a conventional cavity wall, though with such oddities too as glass reinforced plastic chimney formers. But again the pink dress fitted the bill to clothe the outer cavity skin and, as brick slips, to dress the chimneys. It worked because you could find similar aged brick tones in the village all around.
Here in Southwold we learnt how to paint brick with black tar against wet east winds and how to lift some faces with white paint, so that some houses had a particularly strong impact on the stage sets of the village. Our houses on their twisted plots are so cheek by jowl, the ground so full of tricksy walls to swallow cars, that the brick here is in your face. The brickwork is well done: traditional lime mortar mixed with areas of intense gluing around concrete lintels and chimney formers.
The glue continued at the UK Centre for Carnival Arts the compound wrapped with a sort of Ikat cloth, a taut skin of bricks with two millimetre mechanically glued joints. The long curves of the outer wall are in a deep black brick. Where the wrap breaks with recessed shop front windows a white brick in acute angled specials maintains the illusion of a thin skin finishing at each reveal with knife-sharp edges.
This year we having been working on a digital media centre in Cardiff, an isolated, fairly gaunt slab on a windy dockside promontory which will, one day, be swallowed into the urban grid of an emerging ‘masterplan’. Here the brick we chose dodges the surrounding near-ubiquitous Ruabon Red. The long faces of this building are painted white, while both the window reveals in this façade and the end elevations of the building are in staggered brickwork headers, fair faced like raw meat, a building with a grain.
This weekend we have been haunting Tyneside looking for the perfect local brick for seventy one houses we are building on a derelict former industrial site on the banks of the Ouseburn. We need something that is simultaneously at one with the anonymous nineteenth century sheds and mills of the valley, while announcing a new beginning. We think we’ve found it.
Post written by Cany Ash