The Beauty of Bricks

by Tania Wannenburg
The beauty of bricks

Brick is an age-old, sustainable, affordable and practical building material that can be made almost anywhere. But it is also an exciting design tool with which fascinating, modern structures can be created.

“Brick is of the earth, a durable and natural material. But brick in itself is just a dead thing, it is what you do with it that brings it alive.”

This is according to award-winning architect, Peter Rich. Known for his authentic contemporary African architecture, Rich has done extensive research into the spatial vernacular of local rural and urban architecture and historic building methods. “Using mathematics and ancient ways of doing things, we realised you could harness the forces of nature in a natural way and you could actually make brick float in the air,” he states.

“There is an incredible way of building that we have forgotten of. And my adventure was to understand and rectify that, which lead me back to authenticity.”

Project focus: Mapungubwe domes
The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre was part of this journey of discovery where Rich, together with engineers John Ochsedorf from MIT and Michael Ramage from the University of Cambridge, designed vaulted structures inspired by the landscape. The design was based on a traditional which is believed to have originated in North Africa 800 years ago and was taken by the Moors into Spain where Gaudi And Gaustavino to name the most famous, were to develop it further. African Timbrel vaulting construction method that required minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement.

“In this particular case we used compressed instead of baked bricks and tried to see how little cement we can use. It was an experiment in the middle of nowhere, six and a half hours from the closest major city, so our aim was to rely on the materials of the site, mud and bricks, and save on transport,” Rich explains.

The project was named Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona in 2009.

“With bricks you touch the earth. The clues are all there – the colours and the weaving,” states Rich. “These vaulted structures are like a brick cloth that is flying through the air while distributing its forces to the ground. It deals with the mathematics of a certain form, so it has discipline. Because of the bricks handmade quality it also has the wonderful feeling of being ancient. The vaulted structures at Mapungubwe are deceptive in scale, being both monumental and yet intimate. Like an elephant you see it loom only to disappear in the bush, as it blends with the landscape,” he comments.

Project focus: Earth Pavilion
Also using the same vaulting technology as in the design and construction of the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, Rich designed the Earth Pavilion for the START exhibition on request of the Prince of Wales. This pavilion shows that the historic construction method is innovative and cost-effective, but at the same time exciting and beautiful.

Project focus: Fox River Partners offices, Chicago
When Rich was asked to design an office in Chicago where the client wanted architecture that one could taste and feel, he applied the soil-brick vaulting method in a modern context. “The client wanted the raw ooze of the bricks,” says Rich.

Project focus: Brick-topia
For the 2013 International Festival of Architecture, EME3, held in Barcelona, Spain, Map13 designed a vaulted brick pavilion that showcased the material in a contemporary, striking form of architecture.

Brick-topia’s unreinforced brick and masonry shell was constructed using a traditional construction technique called the Catalan vault, combined with detailed structural analysis and form finding computational tools. The free-form vault shape was optimised through geometry, and the colour and texture of the bricks are mirrored by the walls of the 19th-century factory surrounding it.

The pavilion was built within three weeks during which an economic and low-tech falsework system, using scaffolding, cardboard, wire and steel rods, was developed that can be replicated in almost any context.

Project focus: Gabinete de Arquitectura exhibition
Most recently, Solano Benitez, a Paraguayan architect known for his fascinating brick structures, lead the design team for the Gabinete de Arquitectura exhibition at the 2016 Venice Biennale.

The latticed, arched brick structure won a Golden Lion Award for the best exhibition in the central pavilion for demonstrating what can be achieved using simple materials, structural ingenuity and unskilled labour, especially in the context of it being accessible by underserved communities and achievable in tough economic times.

Brick is a versatile, sustainable and affordable building material, and it isn’t boring.

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to Peter Rich Architects, World Architecture News, Arch Daily and Map13 for the information and photos used in this article.

Structures that showcase the beauty of bricks:
•    Mapungubwe domes.
•    Earth Pavilion.
•    Fox River Partners offices, Chicago.
•    Brick-topia.
•    Gabinete de Arquitectura exhibition.


The vaulted roofs at the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre were created using an historic North African timbrel vaulting construction method.
Courtesy of Peter Rich Architects

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