Lowly mud and clay rise into the highest of temples


December 17, 2004

A world history of brick may sound about as dry as brick dust. But if you have never given a second thought to the humble brick, a look at this substantial volume may change your perspective on the brick buildings of the world.

This is a lavish large-format publication - the title page announces that it contains more than 600 illustrations, 570 of which are in colour. Besides maps and diagrams, the illustrations are largely the magnificent colour photographs of Will Pryce. Alone, these images would have made this book worth its price, but there is also the highly readable commentary by James W. P. Campbell.

In the preface, Campbell writes that this was very much a collaborative project: the pair visited every building they cover together, making ten separate expeditions to locations around the world, and the work took almost three years to complete. The result is organised chronologically, beginning with the sun-dried mud brick of Neolithic Jericho and ending with the results of industrialised brick production in the Western world of the 20th century, such as Rick Mather’s Arco Building at Keble College, Oxford, the Byker Wall Housing Project in Newcastle, and Evry cathedral near Paris.

The seven chapters are divided into short sections, variously devoted to a single building (such as the tomb of the Samnids and the cathedral of Albi), a group of related buildings (“China and the rise of the pagoda”, “Early brickwork in Colonial America”), an architectural
theme (“Twisted chimneys of the Tudor period in England”, “Brick and iron in French architecture 1850-1900”), or developments in brick manufacture (“French encyclopaedias and kilns in the 18th century”, “Rubbed and gauged brickwork”). The format makes this book ideal for leisurely yet instructive browsing.

Reading straight through, we encounter the civilisations of ancient Egypt (where mud brick was the norm), Mesopotamia and Babylon (where glazed bricks were perfected); the empires of Greece, Rome and Byzantium; the medieval period in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and China; the Renaissance in Europe; the contemporary East and China (exemplified by the Third Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty); the Enlightenment; and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century - when brickmaking was transformed from a manual to a mechanised process and brick was used to construct much of the architecture of the industrialised world: viaducts, stations, sewers, factories and slums.

In a book of this vast chronological and geographical span, it has been necessary to make difficult choices about what to include. Campbell explains: “I have simply endeavoured to select those buildings and topics which I thought were most characteristic of a particular period and region and that had something important to say about the development of brick as a whole.” Yet some of the buildings have doubtless been chosen for their fame rather than for their innovative use of brick. The panoramic interior view of the Colosseum, for instance, may show many arches of brick-faced concrete, but the technique of facing concrete with brick can be traced back some 60 years earlier to the far less photogenic camp of the Praetorian Guard.

Also, being a history of brick and “not strictly a book on architectural history”, the book cannot dwell on the role of complementary materials: the Colosseum, despite its partial brick skin, largely comprises a skeleton of radiating rows of huge travertine piers, the outermost rising to a considerable height. Similarly, although it is explained that the terracotta faade of the oldest surviving skyscraper in New York - the Flatiron Building (finished in 1902) - is supported on an iron framework, no mention is made of the huge masonry piers without which the magnificent brick dome of Justinian’s cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul would have been impossible.

Given the scope and ambition of this work, specialists will no doubt point to omissions or
inaccuracies in their areas of interest. For instance, their “examples of Roman brickstamps” are all legionary and are hardly representative of the great variety that existed in Rome. The legendary account of the construction of Hagia Sophia probably tells us more about the mentality of the time in which it was written than about building in the 6th century. I also missed an explanation of the pitched-brick construction technique that is typical of Byzantine architecture, although a mention is made of a move towards this in the form of the superimposed brick arches of the dome of Diocletian’s mausoleum at Split.

Indeed, since the text for any monument, region, period or theme is brief, I suspect that any specialist looking at anything of which he or she has an intimate knowledge is likely to wish for more detail. But this is not a serious complaint, for the same specialist will turn elsewhere in this book and learn much about places and buildings that are unfamiliar. Campbell and Pryce have done a splendid job of discussing and illustrating a great range of material that demonstrates brick’s versatility.

A glossary usefully illustrates the numerous types of brick bonds, jointing and pointing; and a bibliographical essay serves to direct the reader to more specialised literature. These will ensure that the book is a first-stop reference tool for students of architecture. They are preceded by a concluding chapter titled “What future for brick?”, which is largely retrospective - but no reader is likely to question the final assertion that “having seen how successful brick has been over so many thousand years, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that brick will be with us for some time to come”.

Jonathan Bardill, a research associate at Newcastle University, is the author of Brickstamps of Constantinople .

Brick: A World History

Author - James W. P. Campbell and Will Pryce
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 320
Price - £39.95
ISBN - 0 500 34195 8

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