EXHIBITION & BOOK
Sergison Bates Architects Brick-work: Thinking and Making At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 8 June gta Verlag, 2006.100pp. £23
At the original launch of this exhibition and book at the ETH in Zurich, Jonathan Sergison gave a short illustrated talk about the use of brick on buildings near his practice's Fitzrovia office. Architects' talks, regardless of their titles or the theme of the event, almost always descend into overlong explanations of their recently completed projects. They are our equivalent of the fluff which fills newspaper interviews when 'celebrities' have a new product to plug.
Sergison's talk was the diametric opposite: brief, observational, unpretentious and geared to its (educated, interested, Swiss) audience. It was followed by Stephen Bates' quick run-through of some largely unrealised projects, which formed the basis for the show and monograph.
The exhibition slotted seamlessly into the lobby of ETH, an almost municipal aesthetic hosting Sergison Bates' models and drawings to perfection. I was unsure whether the formality of the RIBA could work as well, yet it does - the brick seemingly thrown into even greater relief. The superb models bring a real texture which is so often lacking in the bland, perfect structures that are the staple of architects' presentations, and are complemented by the graphic rigour and striking format of the monograph.
Sergison Bates' architecture is based on a combination of rootedness in place and the everyday; of a passion for the ordinary; and a fascination with construction and material which - despite its obvious Englishness and its precedents from the Arts and Crafts though to the Smithsons - can seem closer to contemporary Swiss concerns, particularly Andrea Deplazes' unparalleled Constructing Architecture (AJ 20.10.05).
That both Sergison and Bates have taught at ETH, and acknowledge Deplazes' inuence and help in the book is revealing, as is their interest in another of the school's former teachers, Gottfried Semper.
He, of course, was instrumental in developing the notion of construction and building technique as a bearer of meaning, relating to traditional crafts. His conception of a brick wall as a cipher for textile, as the fabric of a tent, exerted a huge impact on proto-, actualand Post-Modernism.
But it also raises interesting questions about the relationship between literature and architecture: a text too can be woven; a page colonised by letters as a plan imposes gures on a landscape. The book Brick-work - designed (by Cartlidge Levene) as an extremely conscious extension of a carefully tended identity which sees graphics as an integral part of architecture - is both a beautiful thing and as important an architectural statement as Sergison Bates' buildings.
Like the book on Jonathan Woolf's pair of north London houses (AJ 06.04.06) with which it shares many preoccupations about making, meaning and presenting, this is text light, although what there is, including a brief essay by Peter Salter, is solid.
The dwelling on constructional sections (presented on smaller pages inserted within the larger body of the book), of the subtle and innitely variable modes of building brick walls, is reminiscent of Deplazes' book.
These are architects who take construction seriously, who view detail as an inherent and pivotal part of imbuing a structure with meaning, yet have managed to avoid the anal obsession with ddly, selfreferential details-for-the-sakeof-details (the hybrid legacy of High-Tech and Arts and Crafts) which seems to preoccupy so many British architects.
Sergison Bates' projects display an increasingly recognisable and serious blend of Heideggerian thinking on dwelling and building and the architectural rigour of Lewerentz, the Smithsons and the Swiss school. What they have in common, of course, is brick. Both the book and exhibition are fundamentally concerned with the language of brick, from Carlo Borromini to Carl Andre, and with the everyday fabric of the city in which they work, which Sergison covered so articulately in his Zurich talk.
Together, the book and show conrm Sergison Bates' reputation as one of the key ofces in the development of a British architecture which is capable, both intellectually and physically, of responding to both tradition and Modernism, and of creating moments of real pleasure from seeming mundanity. It is brick.
And it works.