Ordinary brick can be much more than a functional building material and modern architects are experimenting with exciting, innovative designs.

Whether accepted, concealed, rejected, desired or compared with more modern materials, clay brick has played an active role in architecture throughout the ages.

In the words of modernist architect, Louis I Kahn (1901 – 1974) in the movie Indecent Proposal (1993): “A common, ordinary brick wants to be something more than it is!” And it was Kahn who first posed a question in the early 1970s that has since attained legendary status within architectural circles: “What do you want, brick?”

Brick for structure and cladding
The answer, according to Kahn, is that brick wants to be both a structural material and cladding. This he achieved to great effect in the monumental Capital Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh – a sequence of iconic buildings in vernacular red brick and concrete that appear to float above the surrounding waters. The result is at once spiritually uplifting and magical, whilst being practical and robust.

Brick that floats in the air
Closer to home, award-winning South African architect, Peter Rich, who is well-known for his authentic contemporary African design, expressed a similar sentiment at the recent Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Awards, where a number of innovative projects featured brick prominently.

He spoke about the 1 500m² Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre on South Africa’s northern border, which was named Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in 2009. In collaboration with engineers John Ochsedorf from MIT and Michael Ramage from the University of Cambridge, Rich designed vaulted structures inspired by the rugged landscape.

The design of the domes was based on a 600-year-old timbrel vaulting construction method, and required minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement.

Commenting on his research into historic building methods, he said: “Using mathematics and ancient ways of doing things, we realised you could harness the forces of nature in a natural way to actually make brick float in the air.”

Value beyond function
Through the decades, architects have used brick with enthusiasm and, like Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), boasted that in their hands the ordinary clay brick became “worth its weight in gold”.
 
For the greater part of architectural history, brick walls have played a functional role providing support for walls and roofs. It is only since the late 19th century that brick has become a creative source used by architects to capture the essence of a design project.
 
And with award-winning architects such as Peter Rich, whose projects harness African authenticity, and Paraguayan architect, Solano Benitez, whose interest is focused more on building methods than form, both experimenting with the versatility of bricks, we can look forward to increasingly innovative, exciting and challenging design projects which harness the beauty of the humble brick . . . and perhaps, go a long way to answering Kahn’s question: “What do you want, brick?”
 
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Caption: Using an African timbrel vaulting construction method, the dome structures of the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre required minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement.
Courtesy of Peter Rich Architects