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Solid edifice

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Brick: A World History By James WP Campbell and Will Pryce. Thames & Hudson, 2003. 320pp.


True to its ambitious title, this book presents the first comprehensive history of brickmaking and building. The discussion ranges from the material's origins in the Neolithic period to its use in contemporary architecture, and covers processes, structures and cultures that may be largely unfamiliar to many architecturally minded readers. The 570 colour photographs, specially taken by Will Pryce in a campaign sponsored by the Brick Development Association, are superb.

For every predictable pleasure - the domes of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral, the swelling bays of Albi Cathedral (above right), the twisted chimneys of Tudor houses - there is an unfamiliar delight, like the magical array of 2,000 temples presiding over the Burmese city of Pagan, the 26m-span double-shell dome of the Mausoleoum of Oljeitu in northern Iran, and the tiny, exquisite Tomb of the Saminids, unearthed in 1934 by a Soviet archaeologist and strangely reminiscent, with its intricate basket-weave walls, of Wright's textile block houses.

Pryce's photographs are also good enough to make you reappraise the familiar. The elliptical arches of Brunel's Wharncliffe Viaduct (above left) are renowned as a structural tour de force but the view taken through the enfilade of piers reveals a combination of force and grace - at once sublime and beautiful, to use the aesthetic language of the time - that makes the comparable combination of tapering piers and arches at Kahn's Exeter Library appear, dare one say it, slightly contrived.

As a visually seductive and accessible account of its subject, this book is unlikely to be bettered for many a year. It is not, however, without its minor shortcomings.

The writing is workmanlike rather than inspiring, and marred by occasional lapses of grammar and expression ('Early Greek architecture was, as one might expect, extremely simple'; 'History is concerned with the past') that ought to have been eliminated at the editing stage.

More problematic are the difficulties attending any attempt to bridge disciplinary divides and cover so much ground. Both Campbell and Pryce are architects, and for all the often fascinating information about brick technologies, the book is dominated by buildings of architectural ambition. It therefore comes across primarily as a collection of outstanding monuments - at least until the need to demonstrate the material's continuing potential demands the inclusion of a string of less magisterial works.

Although many of the major 20th-century brick buildings are here - the Grundtvigkirke in Copenhagen, De Klerk's housing in Amsterdam, Hilversum Town Hall, Aalto's Baker House, Lewerentz's Klippan church, Kahn at Exeter - there are some surprising omissions.

These range from individual masterpieces great and small, such as Stockholm City Hall and Aalto's summerhouse on Muuratsalo, to what are arguably the most influential designs of the last century - Mies van der Rohe's 1920s houses, Le Corbusier's Maisons Jaoul and Aalto's Sõynõtsalo Town Hall.

Missing, too, is a searching analysis of why brick has widely been seen - to quote the dust-wrapper - as the 'Cinderella of the building industry'. Although deepened by the Modernist love of 'new' materials and search for lightness, this neglect is not, as Campbell acknowledges, a recent phenomenon. Nor, as he sometimes seems to imply, is it the result of blind aesthetic prejudice.

You have only to look at the stone and brick Renaissance churches he illustrates, or even at the beautiful photographs of Holkham Hall, to realise that the impact of much of the greatest Western architecture is heightened by reflective, homogeneous stone and plaster surfaces, and diminished by textured, light-eating brickwork. Similarly, despite their virtuoso exploitation of brickwork's pattern-making potential, Islamic architects soon favoured the seamless surfaces made possible by glazed tiles.

Despite these minor reservations, this book is widely informative and a continual visual delight, both in content and design. It demands shelf space in any serious architectural library, and will doubtless linger on many a coffee table as well.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University

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