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Grundtvig’s Church, probably the best brick building in the world

Black Box: Which building would have won a Brick Award in 1940?

According to Wienerberger, whose Brick Awards take place in Vienna this week, time spent constructing a square metre of brick wall is decreasing year on year. In 1940, it was three hours, in 2009, just 30 minutes.

But celebrating the most innovative brick architecture around the world is not a question of rewarding the fastest efforts. It’s about quality, and the entries for this award are usually pretty good.

Two years ago (it’s a biennial), the grand prize-winner was Liechtenstein’s parliament by German studio Hansjörg Göritz. The citation reads: ‘The materiality is truly enchanting, with 680,000 yellow ochre customised bricks covering walls and ceilings from the garage to the conference room.’ Very nice.

But which building would have clinched it back in the days when we built more slowly?

In 1940, the winner would have been Grundtvig’s Church in Copenhagen designed by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint. But you can’t compare this rum, uncanny masterpiece with anything built today.

Grundtvig's church

Grundtvig’s Church

With a jagged silhouette of stepped vertical forms looming over a terraced avenue of worker homes by the same hand, even on Google Streetview, the impression is overwhelming. This is architecture – or ‘built culture,’
as Jensen-Klint called it – as art.

It took 19 years to build. But Grundtvig’s Church is made entirely of bricks, a cool six million of them, each lovingly smoothed into place by seven tobacco-chewing master masons personally selected by the architect. When Jensen-Klint died in 1930, nine years into the project, supervision passed to his son, Kaare, who learned his craft on site. This matched Jensen-Klint’s belief that architecture students should be trained to build rather than design, as well as those of the man who the church was built to honour, N.F.S Grundtvig (1783-1872).

The influence of this poet-priest’s Folkehojskol, an education programme, on Danish intellectual life is central to the nation’s culture of craft-conscious, pragmatic design. To Jensen-Klint, Grundtvig’s national romanticism meant looking to farmhouses, barns and Zeeland country churches for inspiration to find what William Curtis calls an ‘archetypal response’. The result can be ranked alongside the best churches of the 20th century.

Its cavernous, unadorned interior has a primal intensity, with towering columns, pointed arches and ribbed vaults soaring high above the nave and aisles. The facade, however, is unforgettable: like an enormous church organ about to take off, with the same thrusting vigour as Chicago and Manhattan skyscrapers built around the same time. There really is nothing quite like it. Wienerberger? You need a hall of fame for Gruntvig’s: probably the best brick building in the world.

Inbox

Vartov Square

This is Hall McKnight’s model of Vartov Square in Copenhagen, a 2009 competition-winning scheme nearing completion.

Situated alongside City Hall (where much of the drama in Danish thriller The Killing takes place) the design establishes a new identity for the previously under-used, undefined space. A grove of birch trees form a strong, permeable edge to the square, which contains a pavilion used for events.

As well as addressing the practical challenge of managing pedestrians, bicycles and traffic, it had to work in two phases while a metro station was under construction nearby.

The scheme marks a great year for the talented Belfast firm, formerly Hackett Hall McKnight, whose Metropolitan Arts Centre in the Northern Irish capital opened last month and will feature in next week’s AJ.

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