'Brick Love' in: Kieran Long, David Chipperfield and Shumi Bose, Common Ground: A Critical Reader (New York, Marsilio, 2012) by Patrick Lynch
Going with your brother and my brother
To see your father die,
We arrived back in a fog of tears and fog,
And were lost.
“If you turn left three times you arrive
back where you started”,
But you described a spiral father,
When you thought you’d described a square.
Geometry and Love, 1992
When I was a young boy my father would sometimes care for me on his building sites, whilst my mother was busy shopping or doing errands. Thus my first encounters with bricks and with making brickwork walls were emotional ones. Bricks smell of course. On a wet day in autumn they smell of rust, like blood. They discolour your hand, and when you touch them, your hand smells of blood and rust afterwards. Bricks smell of love to me.
My father was what is known as a ‘small builder’, which means that he undertook small domestic projects in the main, building extensions to large Victorian houses along The River Thames at Henley and once he built a new house. Sometimes he just repaired and amended old walls. He was principally a bricklayer in a period when this was a common and yet respected trade, although he was apprenticed as a surveyor and trained at night school to achieve his B-Tech certificates. Office life bored my father and he longed for outdoor work and the independence of his own building projects, and so he fell back upon skills learnt from his step-father and used these alongside his draughting skills to gain planning consent for small projects which he subsequently built. In a rather obvious way, looking back, my brother and I fulfilled an unspoken ambition on behalf of our family, and we became architects. Bricks smelt of love to us, I guess.
When my son was a few months old we took him to stay in Norfolk in a house we’d designed for a friend. We went in July and spent a week there beneath the timber tent and the brick chimney, frying in the hot sun, and then again six weeks later protected from the September rain.
At university the first building that I studied was the Villa Mariea, which the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto built for the Gullischen family in 1936. Aalto was a flamboyant womanizer and a drunk, and for a long time I felt that his magical imagination was tainted with a sort of sickness and thwarted love that repelled and attracted me like a love-song. His designs inscribe in plaster lines of longing; deep strokes of someone’s hand caress absences, air thickens into the loss of form, shadows sit melancholically beneath windows, dragging them down like eyes. Deep raked joints in brickwork walls seem heavy with the gravity of being, forms rise up but matter falls down again, they seem to say to us.
Asked why he always used timber in his interiors he replied: ‘The origin of materia, is mater’, and that wood ‘is most like human fibre’. When his mother died he was a young boy, and he claimed that the forest where his father worked as a Ranger and where he lived became his playground, the trees his friends. In the famous photograph of him in his own villa - which he called ‘the experimental house’ for tax reasons, Aalto is dousing a fire in the courtyard, which is essentially all an outside hearth; the forest is again all around the 4th wall of this theatre of longing, and trees from it are burnt like a sacrifice in the ancient barbecue pit. Barbecue is a word that derives from the Taino people of Caribbean: “Barbacoa” meaning sacred fire pit. Wood smelt of love to him, I guess.
Aldo Rossi shows a photograph of a kitchen in an Italian farmhouse in his ironically entitled ‘Scientific Autobiography’. The earth floor sits beneath a timber sky, and furniture sets up a horizon of use and occasion between these two gravitational pulls on the human imagination, grounding common life on a weak and fibrous table lit from above. Bricks protect this.
Bricks protect timber, in almost all domestic architecture. Bricks form almost all British cities, form Georgian and Victorian houses, allowing the timber structures within to weather and endure, making timber houses almost immortal. The great Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza speaks about ‘How to Live in a House’ in terms of never ending work and war. House Work is never done he says, like love we have to keep it up for ever whatever the weather. Caring for a house is a labour of love; this is love-work, it always defeats us in the end. In his early projects clay tiles bake in the sun, reminding us that they are ‘terra cotta’, baked like the earth that they have been dug from. Bricks of course are baked earth, cooked earth, loved earth, worked earth. Effort combined with skill to dig them up and to lay them down changed again. In Siza’s hands bricks are clearly individual parts of a bigger system, particular but nonetheless absorbed into a pattern, like words and sentences in flows of meaning. At F.A.U.P (the architecture faculty at Porto University) there is a miniature brick furnace behind the library that appears like a memory of a factory building, shrunk to become a synonym of industry and of burning, distinct from the white rendered walls of culture and learning. Brick reminds Siza of labour I think, before it is converted via architecture into the white light of ideas. White walls are the things rising in his buildings, terra cotta falling like roofs wet with rain, dripping down to the earth again. His architecture seems caught in this arc of rhythmic pull and pushing of the sky, floating forms are pummeled almost back into the ground yet are incapable of simply becoming earth again, separated from it by their original transformation.
Architects’ careers too seem typified by this metamorphic process; from makers of simple brick buildings to the creators of immortal objects. We are formed by the fire of imagination and ambition, and something gets burnt off in making us; usually this is empathy and the power of memory and so many architects seek through bricks a way back to something emotional and meaningful, although usually this is something more like ‘materiality style’ than the mother of imagination, Materia itself. Along with the inhabitants, furniture appears fragile in contrast to brick floor and walls. Appearing like human bodies, just as Aalto claimed. Chairs appear as caricatures of sitting figures. Coiled against a brick background, chairs appear like folded bodies; tables as a crowd scene; doors like upright figures that have just fled the scene. Brickwork protects all of this domestic drama and allows it to co-exist within another scale of time, where everyday events exist in a continuum with the seasons and momentous events, part of nature and part of the cultivated world. Bricks smell of love to me.