Brick in 20th-Century Architecture

Jonathan Ochshorn

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"A common, ordinary brick," says Woody Harrelson, playing an architect in the movie, Indecent Proposal (1993), "wants to be something more than it is." Harrelson proceeds to turn this proposition into a metaphor for the human condition, something never envisioned by the real architect who served as an inspiration for the movie monologue. It was Louis I. Kahn (1903-1974) who first posed a question in the early 1970s that has since attained legendary status within architectural circles: "What do you want, brick?" The answer, according to Kahn, is that brick wants to be an arch and not merely an infill or cladding material with no structural role. In fact, a key to understanding brick as a modern architectural material lies precisely in its dual potential to be both structure and cladding. For the greater part of the history of architecture, brick walls assumed both roles, simultaneously supporting floors and roof while at the same time providing enclosure. It is only since the late 19th century that it has become possible to separate those roles by creating an independent framework of steel or reinforced concrete (structure) to which exterior brick may be attached (cladding). In this case, the brick no longer supports the floors and roof, although its appearance as cladding may well obscure this fundamental distinction.

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Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal

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The real architect: Louis Kahn

From the Kahnian viewpoint, brick as mere cladding was inherently suspect. But other Modernists were equally distrustful of brick as load-bearing structure, since this seemed to negate the idea of the "free plan," the independence of structural framework from means of enclosure, and the opportunities for large glass areas. In fact, an influential faction of early 20th-century Modern architects and theorists eschewed the use of brick in any form, associating it with the 19th-century cultural forces they were attempting to overcome. They lobbied instead for the 20th century's revolutionary new materials of construction: glass, steel, and reinforced concrete. Where construction with brick walls was still found expedient within this context, a coat of plaster could transform the deviant surface into something acceptably plane and neutral. As a symbol of traditional culture and pre-industrial technology, brick was an easy target. But brick's traditional role as load-bearing structure was also legitimately challenged by the need for greater heights and larger spans in the new commercial and industrial structures of the 19th and 20th centuries; and by the ascendency of heterogeneous, layered exterior wall systems that could accommodate air and vapor barriers, thermal insulation, and an air space (cavity) to block the migration of water through exterior walls.

In spite of this, brick was never rejected absolutely and was, on the contrary, often found capable of embodying precisely the abstract formal values that helped define the new Modernist aesthetic. Even load-bearing brick buildings remained influential well into the 20th century, acting as a kind of conservative moral datum of "honest" construction (what the brick really "wanted to be") opposed to some, but not all, Modern tendencies. Architects continued to use brick with enthusiasm and, like Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), boasted that in their hands the ordinary brick became "worth its weight in gold." Other practitioners, however, were less confident about the appropriateness of brick in modern construction; for them, brick represented a kind of compromise—accepted with various degrees of ambivalence—between the new culture, technology, and aesthetics of the 20th century, and that which preceded it. At the same time, brick itself was subject to technological change, evidenced not only in the increased systemization of its manufacture, begun in the late 12th century and culminating in the 19th century's relentless mechanization of all aspects of the brick-making process, but in the application of Frederick Taylor's theory of scientific management to bricklaying in the first decades of the 1900s.

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Bernham: Monadnock Building

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Berlage: Amsterdam Stock Exchange

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Sullivan: Wainwright Building


Brick was widely used throughout the 20th century, accommodated within virtually all styles. The chronological survey that follows is therefore necessarily incomplete and somewhat arbitrary. That being said, several key developments can be highlighted, starting with the period before the first World War. Already, a number of trends may be discerned in the late 19th-century that continued to be played out well into the 20th century. The first may be illustrated by Daniel Burnham's design for the Monadnock Building in Chicago (1889) and H.P. Berlage's Amsterdam Stock Exchange (1903), both of which pointed the way towards a reinterpretation of brick informed by the Modernist bias towards simple, relatively unornamented surfaces, even when used in load-bearing wall construction. A second, more complex tendency can be seen in the brick facade of Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1890) which, while functioning as non-structural cladding, was meant to express symbolically the "idea" of the steel framework behind it. What resulted, though, was a certain ambiguity—some would call it deceit—in which the actual construction of the building was severed from its outward form.

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Poelzig: Chemical plant at Luban

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Gropius and Meyer: Fagus Works


A third trend derives from 19th-century brick-walled factory buildings characterized by flat brick surfaces, functional massing, and the use—at least internally—of heavy timber or cast iron structural elements. In Hans Poelzig's chemical plant at Luban (1911) the asymmetric massing and unornamented surfaces were distinctly Modern; in contrast, the small, rectangular and arched window openings that punctuated the brick walls evoked a pre-modern sensibility. On the other hand, the Fagus Works factory in Alfeld an der Leine (1911) and the model factory, Werkbund exhibition, Cologne (1914) by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer—both brick-clad buildings—contained elements of classical axiality in their massing, while their innovative glass curtain walls, when photographed from the proper perspective, gave the buildings a dynamic Modern appearance.

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Poelzig: Upper Silesia Tower

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Wright: Larkin Building

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Wright: Imperial Hotel

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Wright: Robie House


An additional variation on this theme can be seen in Poelzig's Upper Silesia Tower in Posen (1911) where brick cladding is clearly expressed as non-structural "infill" within an actual structural frame exposed on the building's surface. But this remained a minority position, in part because the exposure of an actual skeletal framework, especially of steel, invites problems with corrosion, differential thermal movement, water and air infiltration, and the continuity of thermal insulation. Instead, it is Sullivan's attitude valuing formal expression above "truth in construction" that informs most brick architecture in the early 20th century. For example, many of Wright's early projects, including the Larkin Building in Buffalo (1904), the Robie House in Hyde Park (1909), and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1916), though nominally load-bearing brick structures, were filled with hidden steel and concrete elements that allowed his formal vision to be actualized.

Finally, a fourth trend combining the textural possibilities of brick bonding patterns with an interest in free-form massing and romantic silhouette finds an analogue in certain so-called "Expressionist" projects from the early 20th century: examples include Michael de Klerk's Eigen Haard, and Piet Kramer's De Dageraad housing estates in Amsterdam (1917 and 1923 respectively), in which otherwise straight-forward brick facades are enlivened with curvilinear brick elements and decorative treatments.

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de Klerk: Eigen Haard housing

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Kramer: De Dageraad housing


Between the two World Wars, brick was employed by a younger generation of European Modernists experimenting with new spacial concepts informed by notions of Cartesian orthogonality and populated by interpenetrating planes and abstract cubic masses. In particular, the early work of Mies van der Rohe, starting with his brick villa project of 1923, and including his houses for Wolf (1925), Lange (1927) and Esters (1927), as well as his Monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (1926) attempted to reconcile these new formal attitudes with traditional brick bearing-wall construction. But more commonly, where load-bearing brick was present, it was covered up with a smooth plaster finish, as in Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam (1921), Gerrit Rietveld's Schroder House in Utrecht (1924), or J.J.P. Oud's Kiefhook Housing Estate in Rotterdam (1930). In the United States, architects seemed less interested in the ideological struggle between an evolving Modernist aesthetic and the use of traditional materials: brick was used as a primary cladding material in Raymond Hood's American Radiator (American Standard) Building (1923); and, combined with stainless steel, in William Van Alen's sumptuous Chrysler Building (1930).

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Rietveld: Schroder House

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Mies: Monument to Liebnecht and Luxemburg

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Mendelsohn: Einstein Tower

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Van Alen: Chrysler Building

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Hood: American Radiator Building


After the second World War the use of brick, in both load-bearing walls and exterior cladding, was revitalized by a new interest in raw materials of construction that could be expressed in an aggressively straight-forward manner. Of several such projects by Le Corbusier in France and India, the most influential was his pair of houses, the Maisons Jaoul at Neuilly-sur-Seine (1955), consisting of brick load-bearing walls supporting concrete-covered — but brick-faced — Catalan vaults. This so-called "Brutalist" aesthetic, in which brick was juxtaposed against deliberately-exposed steel or concrete structural members, reappeared in buildings such as the Langham House Development at Ham Common, London, by James Stirling and James Gowan (1958), and in several projects by Louis Kahn including the Phillips Exeter Acadamy Library in Exeter, New Hampshire (1972) and the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, India (1974). It is only with these projects by Kahn that the traditional load-bearing brick arch was finally permitted to enter the vocabulary of 20th-century architecture.

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Le Corbusier: Maisons Jaoul

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Stirling and Gowan: Ham Common

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Kahn: Exeter Library

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Kahn: Institute of Management


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Mies: I.I.T.

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Smithsons: Hunstanton School


But having been once let in, load-bearing brick, whether as wall, pier, or arch, has had little further impact on 20th-century architecture. Instead, it is primarily as non-structural cladding that brick has made its presence felt, even within the Brutalist oeuvre. Mies' academic buildings at I.I.T., designed at the end of the second World War, used brick and steel as cladding over the actual steel framework: the brick appears ambiguously as both infill within, and foundation for, an elegantly detailed — but non-structural — grid of painted steel. Yet the fact that the brick (and steel) could be seen on both the inside and outside gave the construction a perverse kind of integrity, and it served as a role model for numerous other buildings, including the self-consciously Brutalist Hunstanton School in Norfolk, England, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1949.

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Kahn: Richards Medical Research Building

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*Franzen: Agronomy Building

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Davis and Brody: Waterside

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*Aalto: Baker House Dorm


During this time brick cladding became an accepted part of the Modernist oeuvre, representing a compromise in which the historically-resonant surface qualities of brick were fully integrated within the Modernist vocabulary of unadorned orthogonal planes and cubic mass; of articulated solid and void. Kahn's influential Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania (1961), with its expansive, windowless brick surfaces, spawned numerous derivative works including Ulrich Franzen's Agronomy Laboratory at Cornell University (1968) and Davis and Brody's Waterside Housing in New York City (1975). Earlier, Alvar Aalto, in his Baker House dormitory at M.I.T. (1949) and Säynätsalo Town Hall in Finland (1952), made of the brick surface an even more explicit medium for the play of sensuality, imperfection, and historic reference.

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Venturi: Guild House

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SITE: Best "Peeling Project" Showroom

Yet this compromise proved unstable. In the latter part of the 20th century, references to tradition involving brick, however stylized or ironic, became less constrained by the modernist formal aesthetic and more overtly rooted in historical precedent. A key moment in the development of this "Post-Modernism" was the Guild House in Philadelphia (1963) by Robert Venturi. His axially-positioned brick arch — nominally a load-bearing form, but here purposefully articulated as non-structural cladding—acted like a sign pointing to an intellectual attitude about history rather than as an attempt at some kind of reconciliation. James Wines and his group SITE produced a series of architectural projects beginning in the early 1970s that used various characteristics of brick walls as a starting point for an ironic integration of sculpture and architecture. This attitude, as in Venturi's Guild House, addressed not only brick forms as construction systems — SITE's use of "peeling," "notched," and "crumbling" brick walls was directed more at brick as cladding and at the recent banal history of big-box retail design — but also at the class-stratified culture supported by such projects. That issues of class became intertwined with the use of brick is illustrated as well by the so-called "red-brick" novelists in post-war Britain, associated with the "red-brick" universities (not the older and elite "stone" universities of Oxford and Cambridge), and the coincident phenomenon of Brutalist buildings in which the deployment of brick was meant to invoke a kind of working-class solidarity.

In a similar vein, American corporate Post-Modern office skyscrapers of the 1980s were generally clad with thin stone veneer rather than brick. Nevertheless, brick continued to be widely used in Post-Modern residences, schools, and related occupancies; a building that typifies the genre is the condominium project on 70th Street, New York, by Kohn Pedersen Fox (1987), in which a smooth, unadorned brick surface appears to support stylized stone moldings and pediments that step back much like the New York skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s. In Europe, a far different Post-Modernism emerged favoring a synthesis of classical and "platonic" geometric elements within which the Kahnian essence of brick — its weight, compressive strength, and solidity — were valued and exploited. Aldo Rossi's Burial Chapel in Giussano (1987); and Mario Botta's design for a private house in Vacallo (1989) may serve as examples of this tendency.

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Kohn Pedersen Fox: Condominium project

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Botta: House in Vacallo

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Rossi: Burial Chapel


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Eisenman: Wexner Center

Whether embraced, hidden, disowned, contrasted with more modern materials, or co-opted within a new aesthetic, brick has played an active role within the cultures of both Modern and Post-Modern architecture. In contrast, so-called "Deconstructivist" architecture in the final decades of the 20th century has virtually ignored brick, reverting to the radical Modernist dogma in which abstract geometric surface and mass; the play of solid and void; the iconography of machine and grid; and the "new" materials of glass, steel, and concrete (or its non-structural analogue, stucco) are once more combined, albeit in a self-consciously distorted and fragmented way. Characteristically, where Deconstuctivist brick appears most famously—in Peter Eisenman's Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Columbus, Ohio (1990)—it is as a fragmented and stylized archeological reconstruction of an armory denoting the site's past history, rather than as "the building" itself.

During the course of the 20th century, as traditional load-bearing forms of construction encountered new structural and environmental systems as well as new functional and spatial needs, and as traditional architectural paradigms encountered new forms of aesthetic expression, the answers to the question posed rhetorically by Kahn — "What do you want, brick?" — have shifted accordingly. That brick has continued to be commonly employed as cladding, in the face of competition from more modern and technologically sophisticated materials, is evidence enough that its non-structural qualities—reasonable cost, flexibility, durability, impact resistance, and visual appearance — continue to be valued.



Further reading:

The history of brick in 20th century architecture can be pieced together from readings in general architectural histories and in the accounts of individual architects, but sections or chapters dealing specifically with brick are unusual. Notable exceptions include Giedion, Sigfried, Space, Time and Architecture, 5th edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967; and Patterson, Terry, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Meaning of Materials, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1994. For a good general reference dealing with the production, properties, and historical use of brick, see: Plumridge, Andrew and Meulenkamp, Wim, Brickwork: Architecture and Design, New York: Abrams, 1993.

Building construction textbooks also contain information on bricks; an excellent chapter which includes a short history of brick masonry can be found in: Allen, Edward, Fundamentals of Building Construction, 3rd edition, New York: Wiley, 1999.

The Brick Industry Association (BIA) publishes numerous books and technical articles on brick construction which can be ordered at 11490 Commerce Park Drive, Reston, VA 22091. Alternatively, refer to their web site at http://www.bia.org/; especially their link to "technical notes."