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Simply edible

VIEWPOINT

We were on the Grand Canal in one of those paper-sharp, black-painted boats, the sky above far bluer than anything Constable had ever painted. Perfect.

I had even promised the gondolier $5 if he promised not to sing. But by the second bridge it had all turned to ashes. It was the brickwork that did it.

As the house of cards collapsed, I had to recognise that the sky was blue because it was indeed painted - that, although these were real Venetian gondolas, the Grand Canal was not in Venice but on the first floor of The Venetian casino on Las Vegas Boulevard in the middle of the midwinter Mojave desert.

You might expect this kind of thing in your local new housing estate. But this was in a building complex so meticulously, rigorously and expensively recreated from measured drawings that you gasped in disbelief at the telling. Eighteen months earlier I'd had a drink with the US architect in London and seen the slides.

What blew the gondola fantasy out of the water was the next brick arch over this first-floor waterway. There was not a voussoir brick in sight. The arch was simply cut through the bricks like a wire cutting through cheese.

Why, when the bricks were almost certainly slips glued on to particle board and all around was meticulously observed repro, could they not have bothered to get it even vaguely right?

Rules of propriety For brickwork has its rules of propriety. They are easy enough to grasp, probably because there aren't all that many of them. So when brickwork designers and bricklayers fail in this way, it's like a stick in your eye.

Bricks are small things, just small enough to lift comfortably in one hand.

This means that, however you put them together, they have to comply with whatever laws of statics apply to 9x4 1/2x3-inch building components held apart by beds of mortar. And when they do apply, brick can be the most gloriously edible building material ever thought of.

I have two brick reference walls that I carry around in my head. One is a long stretch of red Accringtons in the restaurant of what, nearly 30 years ago, was Runcorn's only motel - Esso's Beechwood motor hotel as it was then.

Designed by the new town's deputy chief architect, Keith Smith, it was built in the frenetic early '70s building boom, when even vaguely skilled brickies could command small ransoms.

They had to bring a foreman bricklayer out of retirement to supervise the work. He soon had the surly youths presented to him as quondam bricklayers hanging on his every word, watching his every trowel stroke - or so they told me.

And they produced this stunning wall of plain brick, which I would sometimes visit, sitting at the circular, leather-edged bar in admiration.

More recently, there's been CZWG's wonderful blue-glazed Circle in Bermondsey and practically any brickwork of John Outram.

Wonderful decrepitude The other wall is - or perhaps was - a garden wall in a leafy lane opposite a small, smart new group of houses in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. It was, I think, a very old wall with what looked like medieval or even Roman bricks at the base, some courses of vernacular hit-and-miss brick and flint and, on top, a shoulder-high Georgian, possibly Victorian, garden wall, its rambling, sagging length supported here and there by those massive, sloping abutments, a wonderful decrepitude of clay, stone and lime beneath the tangled greens of hanging trees and wild foliage.

And it sagged. It's one of old brickwork's glories, sagging. It's something of which any brickwork is capable, providing it came before the introduction of hard cement mortars and regulations calling for massive foundations.

Brick is the only building material that bothers to provide us with a diagram of the bearing capacity of the soil on which it stands.

Oh, and chimneys. Blaise Hamlet, on the outskirts of Bristol, has a collection of John Nash-designed picturesque cottages whose chimneys are a mad brick delight: barley sugar twisted, doubled, decorated, demented they rise from their thatch a knobbly, crusty metaphor of the aged retainers for whom the village was designed.

Immodestly, Blaise Then, right across the country in Kent, near Tonbridge and perhaps 40 years later, there's the beautifully observed fake half-timbered and brick village of Leigh, designed mostly by George Devey and with chimneys quite as good. It is the mature, near-realistic version of the vernacular English village of which Blaise is an early parody and which our mass house builders fail to imitate with such style.

Who needs ersatz Venetian campaniles and bad brick arches when we have such delicious pleasures as these at our back door?

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