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“A common, ordinary brick,” says Woody Harrelson, playing an architect in the movie Indecent Pr oposa l (1993), “wants to be something more than it is.” Harrelson proceeds to turn this proposition into a metaphor for the human condition, something never envisioned by the real architect who served as an inspiration for the movie’s monologue. It was Louis I.Kahn (1903–74) who first posed a question in the early 1970s that has since attained legendary status within architectural circles: “What do you want, brick?” The answer, according to Kahn, is that brick wants to be an arch and not merely an in-fill or cladding material with no structural role.

In fact, a key to understanding brick as a modern architectural material lies precisely in its dual potential to be both structure and cladding. For the greater part of the history of architecture, brick walls assumed both roles, simultaneously supporting floors and roof while at the same time providing enclosure. It is only since the late 19th century that it has become possible to separate those roles by creating an independent framework of steel or reinforced concrete (structure) to which exterior brick may be attached (cladding). In this case, the brick no longer supports the floors and roof, although its appearance as cladding might well obscure this fundamental distinction.

From the Kahnian viewpoint, brick as mere cladding was inherently suspect. However, other modernists were equally distrustful of brick as load-bearing structure, as this seemed to negate the idea of the “free plan,” the independence of structural framework from means of enclosure, and the opportunities for large glass areas. In fact, an influential faction of early 20th-century modern architects and theorists eschewed the use of brick in any form, associating it with the 19th-century cultural forces that they were attempting to overcome. They lobbied instead for the 20th century’s revolutionary new materials of construction: glass, steel, and reinforced concrete. Where construction with brick walls was still found expedient within this context, a coat of plaster could transform the deviant surface into something acceptably plain and neutral. As a symbol of traditional culture and pre-industrial technology, brick was an easy target. However, brick’s traditional role as load-bearing structure was also legitimately challenged by the need for greater heights and larger spans in the new commercial and industrial structures of the 19th and 20th centuries and by the ascendancy of heterogeneous, layered exterior wall systems that could accommodate air and vapor barriers, thermal insulation, and an air space (cavity) to block the migration of water through exterior walls.

Nevertheless, brick was never rejected absolutely and was, on the contrary, often found capable of embodying precisely the abstract formal values that helped define the new modernist aesthetic. Even load-bearing brick buildings remained influential well into the 20th century, acting as a kind of conservative moral datum of “honest” construction (what the brick really “wanted to be”) opposed to some, but not all, modern tendencies. Architects continued to use brick with enthusiasm and, like Frank Lloyd Wright (1867– 1959), boasted that in their hands the ordinary brick became “worth its weight in gold.” Other practitioners, however, were less confident about the appropriateness of brick in modern construction; for them, brick represented a kind of compromise—accepted with various degrees of ambivalence—between the new culture, technology, and aesthetics of the 20th century and those that preceded it. At the same time, brick itself was subject to technological change, evidenced not only in the increased systemization of its manufacture, begun in the late 12th century and culminating in the 19th century’s relentless mechanization of all aspects of the brick-making process, but in the application of Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management to bricklaying in the first decades of the 20th century.

Brick was widely used throughout the 20th century, accommodated within virtually all styles. The chronological survey that follows is therefore necessarily incomplete and somewhat arbitrary. That being said, several key developments can be high-lighted, starting with the period before World War I. Already, a number of trends can be discerned in the late 19th century that continued to be played out well into the 20th. The first can be illustrated by Daniel Burnham’s design for the Monadnock Building in Chicago (1889) and H.P.Berlage’s Amsterdam Stock Exchange (1903), both of which pointed the way toward a reinterpretation of brick informed by the modernist bias toward simple, relatively unornamented surfaces, even when used in load-bearing wall construction. A second, more complex tendency can be seen in the brick facade of Louis Sullivan’s Wain-wright Building in St. Louis (1890), which, while functioning as nonstructural cladding, was meant to express symbolically the “idea” of the steel framework behind it. What resulted, though, was a certain ambiguity—some would call it deceit—in which the actual construction of the building was severed from its outward form.

A third trend derives from 19th-century brick-walled factory buildings characterized by flat brick surfaces, functional massing, and the use—at least internally—of heavy timber or cast-iron structural elements. In Hans Poelzig’s chemical plant at Luban (1911), the asymmetric massing and unornamented surfaces were distinctly modern; in contrast, the small, rectangular and arched window openings that punctuated the brick walls evoked a premodern sensibility. On the other hand, the Fagus Werk factory in Alfeld-ander-Leine (1911) and the model factory, Werkbund exhibition, Cologne (1914), by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer—both brick-clad buildings—contained elements of classical axiality in their massing while their innovative glass curtain walls, when photographed from the proper perspective, gave the buildings a dynamic modern appearance. An additional variation on this theme can be seen in Poelzig’s Upper Silesia Tower in Posen (1911), where brick cladding is clearly expressed as nonstructural “infill” within an actual structural frame exposed on the building’s surface. However, this remained a minority position, in part because the exposure of an actual skeletal framework, especially of steel, invites problems with corrosion, differential thermal movement, water and air infiltration, and the continuity of thermal insulation. Instead, it is Sullivan’s attitude valuing formal expression above “truth in construction” that informs most brick architecture in the early 20th century. For example, many of Wright’s early projects, including the Larkin Building in Buffalo (1904), the Robie House in Chicago (1909), and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1916), although nominally load-bearing brick structures, were filled with hidden steel and concrete elements that allowed his formal vision to be actualized.

Finally, a fourth trend combining the textural possibilities of brick-bonding patterns with an interest in free-form massing and Romantic silhouette finds an analogue in certain so-called Expressionist projects from the early 20th century: examples include Michael de Klerk’s Eigen Haard and Piet Kramer’s De Dageraad housing estates in Amsterdam (1917 and 1923, respectively), in which otherwise straightforward brick facades are enlivened with curvilinear brick elements and decorative treatments.

Between the two world wars, brick was employed by a younger generation of European modernists experimenting with new spatial concepts informed by notions of Cartesian orthogonality and populated by interpenetrating planes and abstract cubic masses. In particular, the early work of Mies van der Rohe, starting with his brick villa project of 1923 and including his houses for Wolf (1925), Lange (1927), and Esters (1927), as well as his monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (1926), attempted to reconcile these new formal attitudes with traditional brick-bearing wall construction. However, more commonly, where load-bearing brick was present, it was covered up with a smooth plaster finish, as in Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam (1921), Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroder House in Utrecht (1924), and J.J.P.Oud’s Kiefhook Housing Estate in Rotterdam (1930). In the United States, architects seemed less interested in the ideological struggle between an evolving modernist aesthetic and the use of traditional materials: brick was used as a primary cladding material in Raymond Hood’s American Radiator (American Standard) Building (1923) and, combined with stainless steel, in William Van Alen’s sumptuous Chrysler Building (1930).

After World War II, the use of brick, in both load-bearing walls and exterior cladding, was revitalized by a new interest in raw materials of construction that could be expressed in an aggressively straightforward manner. Of several such projects by Le Corbusier in France and India, the most influential was his pair of houses, the Maisons Jaoul at Neuilly-sur-Seine (1955), consisting of brick load-bearing walls supporting concretecovered—but brick-faced—Catalan vaults. This so-called Brutalist aesthetic, in which brick was juxtaposed against deliberately exposed steel or concrete structural members, reappeared in buildings such as the Langham House Development at Ham Common, London, by James Stirling and James Gowan (1958) and in several projects by Louis Kahn, including the Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exeter, New Hampshire (1972), and the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, India (1974). It is only with these projects by Kahn that the traditional load-bearing brick arch was finally permitted to enter the vocabulary of 20th-century architecture.

However, having been once let in, load-bearing brick, whether as wall, pier, or arch, has had little further impact on 20th-century architecture. Instead, it is primarily as nonstructural cladding that brick has made its presence felt, even within the Brutalist oeuvre. Mies’s academic buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), designed at the end of World War II, used brick and steel as cladding over the actual steel framework: the brick appears ambiguously as both in-fill within, and foundation for, an elegantly detailed—but nonstructural—grid of painted steel. Yet the fact that the brick (and steel) could be seen on both the inside and the outside gave the construction a perverse kind of integrity, and it served as a role model for numerous other buildings, including the selfconsciously Brutalist Hunstanton School in Norfolk, England, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1949.

During this time, brick cladding became an accepted part of the modernist oeuvre, representing a compromise in which the historically resonant surface qualities of brick were fully integrated within the modernist vocabulary of unadorned orthogonal planes and cubic mass, of articulated solid and void. Kahn’s influential Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania (1961), with its expansive, windowless brick surfaces, spawned numerous derivative works, including Ulrich Franzen’s Agronomy Laboratory at Cornell University (1968) and Davis and Brody’s Waterside Housing in New York City (1975). Earlier, Alvar Aalto, in his Baker House Dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1949) and Säynätsalo Town Hall in Finland (1952), made of the brick surface an even more explicit medium for the play of sensuality, imperfection, and historic reference.

Yet this compromise proved unstable. In the latter part of the 20th century, references to tradition involving brick, however stylized or ironic, became less constrained by the modernist formal aesthetic and more overtly rooted in historical precedent. A key moment in the development of this Postmodernism was the Guild House in Philadelphia (1963) by Robert Venturi. His axially positioned brick arch—nominally a load-bearing form but here purposefully articulated as nonstructural cladding—acted like a sign pointing to an intellectual attitude about history rather than as an attempt at some kind of reconciliation. James Wines and his group, SITE, produced a series of architectural projects beginning in the early 1970s that used various characteristics of brick walls as a starting point for an ironic integration of sculpture and architecture. This attitude, as in Venturi’s Guild House, addressed brick forms not only as construction systems—SITE’s use of “peeling,” “notched,” and “crumbling” brick walls was directed more at brick as cladding and at the recent banal history of big-box retail design—but also as the classstratified culture supported by such projects. That issues of class became intertwined with the use of brick is illustrated as well by the so-called red-brick novelists in postwar Britain, associated with the “red-brick” universities (not the older and elite “stone” universities of Oxford and Cambridge), and the coincident phenomenon of Brutalist buildings in which the deployment of brick was meant to invoke a kind of working-class solidarity.

In a similar vein, American corporate Postmodern office skyscrapers of the 1980s were generally clad with thin stone veneer rather than brick. Nevertheless, brick continued to be widely used in Postmodern residences, schools, and related occupancies; a building that typifies the genre is the condominium project on 70th Street, New York, by Kohn Pedersen Fox (1987), in which a smooth, unadorned brick surface appears to support stylized stone moldings and pediments that step back much like the New York skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s. In Europe a far different Postmodernism emerged, favoring a synthesis of classical and Platonic geometric elements within which the Kahnian essence of brick—its weight, compressive strength, and solidity—were valued and exploited. Aldo Rossi’s Burial Chapel in Giussano (1987) and Mario Botta’s design for a private house in Vacallo (1989) serve as examples of this tendency.

Whether embraced, hidden, disowned, contrasted with more modern materials, or coopted within a new aesthetic, brick has played an active role within the cultures of both modern and Postmodern architecture. In contrast, so-called deconstructivist architecture in the final decades of the 20th century has virtually ignored brick, reverting to the radical modernist dogma in which abstract geometric surface and mass, the play of solid and void, the iconography of machine and grid, and the “new” materials of glass, steel, and concrete (or its nonstructural analogue, stucco) are once more combined, albeit in a selfconsciously distorted and fragmented way. Characteristically, where deconstructivist brick appears most famously—in Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts (1990) in Columbus, Ohio—it is as a fragmented and stylized archaeological reconstruction of an armory denoting the site’s past history rather than as “the building” itself.

During the course of the 20th century, as traditional loadbearing forms of construction encountered new structural and environmental systems, as well as new functional and spatial needs, and as traditional architectural paradigms encountered new forms of aesthetic expression, the answers to the question posed rhetorically by Kahn—“What do you want, brick?”—have shifted accordingly. That brick has continued to be commonly employed as cladding in the face of competition from more modern and technologically sophisticated materials is evidence enough that its nonstructural qualities—reasonable cost, flexibility, durability, impact resistance, and visual appearance—continue to be valued.


Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2004.

  1903-1905, Larkin Building, NEW YORK, USA, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
  1908-1909, Robie House, CHICAGO, USA, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
  1923, Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, JAPAN, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
  1957, Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA, LOUIS I. KAHN
  1958, Illinois Institute of Technology Master Plan, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, USA, MIES VAN DER ROHE
  1961, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India, LOUIS I. KAHN













  1903-1905, Larkin Building, NEW YORK, USA, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
  1908-1909, Robie House, CHICAGO, USA, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
  1923, Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, JAPAN, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
  1957, Richards Medical Research Laboratories,University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA, LOUIS I. KAHN
  1958, Illinois Institute of Technology Master Plan, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, USA, MIES VAN DER ROHE
  1961, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India, LOUIS I. KAHN


Brutalism; Deconstructivism;


The history of brick in 20th-century architecture can be pieced together from readings in general architectural histories and in the accounts of individual architects, but sections or chapters dealing specifically with brick are unusual. Notable exceptions include Giedion and Patterson. For a good general reference work dealing with the production, properties, and historical use of brick, see the work by Plumridge and Meulenkamp. Building construction textbooks also contain information on bricks; an excellent chapter that includes a short history of brick masonry can be found in Allen.

Allen, Edward, Fundamentals of Building Construction, New York: Wiley, 1985; 3rd edition, 1999 Brick Industry Association

Giedion, Sigfried, Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1941; 5th edition, revised and enlarged, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967

Patterson, Terry L, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Meaning of Materials, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1994

Plumridge, Andrew, and Wim Meulenkamp, Brickwork: Architecture and Design, New York: Abrams, 1993









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