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Five million into one by Nick Green

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Commended

A single brick can be a beautiful thing. An object of solidity and reliability, its mass and texture provide it with a highly tactile, tangible presence. The humble brick suggests something more than itself, of a use beyond its simple form - be that in a vast building, a simple garden wall, or the makeshift bookshelves that I once imagined furnishing the bedrooms of students. Indeed, the brick is not intended to be a solitary form and its connotations come from its use as one of many equal but individually anonymous parts of a greater structure. Without this collective body, each part is only a shadow of its potential.  Take five million near-identical bricks, then, and gathered coherently the true significance of each brick becomes clear.

When I first chose to visit Grundtvig’s Church, in a northern residential area of Copenhagen, I was mainly interested in the hulking expressionist exterior. I had seen photos of the building, designed by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint, and was intrigued by its modern, minimalist yet distinctively Gothic form.

On approaching, the church seems mountainous, both vertically expressive yet slightly squat in its volume and scale, its facade stepping back and upwards towards a pinnacle. Stepped gables, reflecting the vernacular tradition of Danish church architecture, and the textured patina of pollution-stained brickwork add to the rocky impression forming in my mind. It seems to me that, although clearly modern, this is a building which could always have been here, or could perhaps have erupted from the ground as a cubist tectonic phenomenon, and remains shuttle-like, pointing towards the skies as if not finished on its trajectory.

After this impression and having previously only seen pictures of the building’s exterior, I am not fully prepared for the wholly different atmosphere of the main internal space. While the outside is solid, greying, and, in a way, excitingly brutal, the interior offers an immediate sanctuary. From herringbone floor to vaulted ceiling, the same pale yellow bricks form almost every surface. In a space where everything is brick, save for timber furnishings and details, the relative solidity and mass of the material is less apparent. Instead the masonry seems to drape effortlessly around the space, and protected from 90 years of weather and pollution, still glimmers a soft earthy hue in the subtly filtered Danish daylight.

Light is a key element in the architecture of Grundtvig’s Church, showcasing the simple but varied forms of the brickwork, and creating a range of tones and shades across the uniform yellow.  Through the minimally detailed arched windows, light cascades into the building, giving the structure a muted, respectful glow. Slender lines on the columns, accented by their shadows, draw my eye upwards to appreciate the height of the building, a reference to heaven surely, but also a profound secular celebration of the structural qualities of the bricks which flow up and down the vaults and ribs without meeting any other material.

Jensen-Klint and his son Kaare Klint, who completed the building after his father died, provide a masterclass in the versatility of brick. The total reliance on masonry does not lead to any compromises in detailing or expression.  The walls of the church, where not even punctuated by tall windows, are embellished by simple geometric reliefs, circles and arches stepping back through layers of brickwork, adding depth and detail to the space. Beyond this deft manipulation of brick, there is no further decoration to the architecture, nor does there need to be. Gone are the carvings and sculpted forms that would previously have been commonplace, and indeed central to, church architecture. Here, brick serves all aspects of the building’s structure, both physical and narrative, and walking around the building, treading from brick to brick, I feel calmed and contented, comforted by the warm and reliable material all around.

The Christian message of Jensen-Klint’s architecture, especially in its materiality, is clear. Individually, each brick is humble, none more special than another, yet together they form a beautiful structure, and a remarkable space, deliberately evoking the liturgical expression of the Christian Church as one body with many parts. Yet the meaning surely extends beyond religion, as indeed the qualities of the space, its lightness and simple materiality, can be appreciated by non-Christians. The plan of the building is classically cruciform, but the lack of ornamentation renders the architecture a less overt theology than the Gothic churches of earlier centuries. While the building’s function may be specific to one faith, the power of its materiality can be read in a much wider sense. In a country which prides itself on a strong sense of consensus, civic society and community togetherness, Grundtvig’s Church stands as a metaphor for national values and indeed for the universal value of co‑operation.

Since my first experience, I have now visited the church several times, and am struck on each occasion by the beauty that can be found in simplicity, and the craftsmanship that lies behind creating such a unique space out of standard bricks.  Through elevating a modest material to create all aspects of a magnificent form, Grundtvig’s Church celebrates the small and the big; the comprehendible touch and form of each individual as well as the gently awe-inspiring effect of the whole. Component, detail, structure, and form read as one. Each brick is made more beautiful by its neighbours - five million bricks crafted towards one aim. 

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