100 Contemporary Brick Buildings, a new architectural tome from Taschen, opens with a quote from Mies Van Der Rohe, taken from the New York Herald Tribune of 28 June 1959: ‘Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together, there it begins.’ It’s a sentiment both literal and profoundly symbolic, and one that stretches across this attractive, eye-opening book.
An extremely swift zip through the history of brick architecture follows (in short: the form is pervasive, transcending both geography and distinct historical periods), though we’re brought to the modern period with the author, Philip Jodidio's echoing of Mies, stating that the ‘unitary, serial nature of brick construction is at the very origin of modern buildings’ – a notion exemplified by the book’s case studies.
These run the gamut of shape, size and purpose: from small-scale residential projects (like San Francisco-based Christi Azevedo’s Brick House; a converted laundry boiler room with a Lilliputian floor area of 8.6 sq m) to outré municipal and educational builds (such as Peter Eisenman’s 1989 Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University; the segmented, castle-like form recalling Giorgio de Chirico’s chimeric Red Tower, painted in 1913).
Termeh Office Building, Hamedan, Iran, by Farshad Mehdizadeh & Ahmad Bathaei. Photography: Parham Taghiof. Copyright: Taschen
It’s hard to pick highlights – in part due to the canny curation of the projects included, not to mention the basic aesthetic consistency afforded by the material. Saying that, Tadao Ando’s subtle interventions on the Venetian Punta Della Dogana in 2008–09 (a renovation also pitched for by Zaha Hadid) are particularly impressive. The project, reinvigorating a long empty 17th century customs house, saw broad swathes of brick, steel and glass installed throughout the historic triangular building while also maintaining the original structure.
The challenge, Ando explained, was to create a project possessing ‘modernity, while drawing out the latent power of the buildings’ (a task, even this short profile displays, that was successfully accomplished). The simultaneously quieter and more purpose driven builds herein – such as Solanito Benítez’s atmospheric LA Farm House in Santani, Paraguay; or Shigeru Ban’s Sri Lankan post-tsunami rehabilitation houses – are no less striking.
By highlighting the creative, versatile and improbably attractive uses of such a basic material, we’re given just a hint of its multifaceted potential. ‘Architecture,’ says Alvar Aalto in the opening passages, ‘is the transformation of a worthless brick into something worth its weight in gold.’ So the book’s projects prove: human creativity moving onwards and upwards, brick by brick.