“Bricks are in a natural relationship with the hands, and they allow for building with them blindly, like using words to write something.” – Ai Wei Wei
The art of ceramics has given culture two very important tools. The first, obviously, is pottery, all the vessels and containers made with fired clay that have so contributed to the advancement and comfort of humankind as a species on earth, as well as to the aesthetic quality of human experiences. The second ceramic tool is equally important, although it is often neglected in the general literature on ceramics, which focuses primarily on pottery. That other tool is the brick, and by extension the tile, and both are necessary building blocks of architecture.
The brick is the basis for volumetric form, 3-D space, while the tile relates to surface, 2-D space. Yet the tile as a repetitive modular system is also implicitly volumetric, since if expanded to its logical potential, it would cover the earth! Under such conditions, tiled surfaces would still appear flat since they would be viewed only from a small section at a time. If pots are in many ways, conceptually, miniature architecture, it could as easily be stated that a building is nothing other than a very large pot as well, at the conceptual level. Both operate on the same principle of containment. They are articulated formally around the transition between an interior and an exterior, defining a volumetric space; the interior being functional, while the exterior is ornamental. Both pots and buildings are about transition and passage, about entrances and exits, with a period of relative stasis between the two events, when the content is contained by the container.
Are pots older than buildings? This is an interesting question. Did humanity develop and build habitable structures before, simultaneously, or after it had felt the need to make pots and other containers? I would conjecture that developments in pottery making and in built environments happened simultaneously, due to their commonality of material, structure and, to a lesser degree, of process, and since both these forms of containment of space could learn from each other by osmosis. By making larger pots, humans learned to make larger buildings and vice versa.
As with pottery forms, two main concepts are at work in building: function and decoration. Both pottery and architecture are arts of containment. In ceramic architecture, the building is constructed with bricks, and its surface is covered with tiles. The brick structure operates in defining a volumetric space as the clay wall of the pot does; the tile surface is similar to the glaze covering the pottery form and acts as a distinct surface, all necessary to ceramics as an autonomous art form. Given that there are obvious differences of scale between pots and buildings and to a lesser degree of structure as well, at the conceptual level, the two are basically similar, if not identical, in many ways, especially when both imply ceramics as a constitutive element. It is interesting to keep in mind that for a long time (and even today, in some cultures), buildings were round, like most pots. Square buildings, that confine, restrict, and limit space, like framed square images, are much more recent.
A recent revival and renewal of the old technique of cut-and-paste, where thrown or hand-built clay forms are altered and reorganized by subtraction and addition, provides another interesting parallel between pottery and architecture. This form of making is highly intimate. It remains imminently tactile, bordering on the erotic, with its folds, curves, and bulges. The results are like miniature buildings, at least this is true of the best examples, and many of these types of pots look like nothing if not models for Frank Gehry buildings, which reorganize space in a similar fashion, by deconstructing it and reassembling it in an often jumbled, even seemingly arbitrary manner at times. Cut-and-paste potters could learn a trick or two from Gehry, yet he might learn a trick or two from them, too, especially at the level of surface and decoration, which ceramics have explored in more significant ways recently than has architecture, although this is, happily, changing. The best examples with structural complexity at both the form and surface aspects can be found in the superb pots of John Gill, the Frank Gehry of ceramics, although it could also be said that Frank Gehry is the John Gill of architecture, if things were different in the hierarchical power structures of culture. A more organic exploration is also manifest in the large, slab-built vessels of Alison Britton. The point I am making is that we could all learn from each other, something that happens all too rarely in the categorized hierarchies of the art world.
A Bit of History
The first clay buildings, like the first pots, date from the beginning of agriculture and the sedentary life that created the first true villages and towns in the late Neolithic. Before then, nomadic humans lived more or less in the open, protected by impermanent, movable, and light structures, tents and huts, or in caves and grottoes. With the beginning of agriculture, ceramic technology emerged, and fired clay bricks came into use as a building material for granaries, family huts, and walls around villages that protected the inhabitants from predatory animals and attacking enemies. Before the use of fired bricks (starting 5,000 years ago), such buildings were made with raw clay, brick-shaped or not. Few of these fragile and vulnerable structures have survived the passage of time, raw clay being susceptible to rain, wind, frost, and earthquakes.
The oldest shaped raw-clay bricks date to nearly 10,000 years ago and are found in the upper reaches of the Tigris River Valley in Iraq. Elsewhere in Mesopotamia, unfired bricks were used to build ziggurats, high ceremonial towers that were the inspiration for the Tower of Babel story in the Bible. (When that story was written, people were already using fired clay bricks.)
In Jericho, the use of sun-baked bricks predated using clay to make pottery. High mud-brick structures were covered with a more weather-proof facing of plaster or stone or, later, colored tiles and fired bricks, and the top stages were surfaced with tar, the earliest known use of Iraqi oil. In their tall form, overall structure, and colorful surfaces, ziggurats were the forerunner of the minaret. Recently, a raw-brick fortress in Bam, Iran, that had endured for millennia was destroyed by earthquake. If it had been constructed from fired bricks, it would have sustained less damage. The use of raw versus fired bricks in this region was determined by economic and geographic factors: trees, the necessary source of fuel (wood, charcoal) to fire the bricks, were scarce.
One theory of why the Mayan culture crashed is that overplanting and harvesting of corn led to ecological degradation. More recent scholarship suggests that the decline may have been caused by extensive deforestation resulting from the production of plaster. Limestone must be calcined – pulverized by being heated to a high temperature – before it can be used as an ingredient of plaster. The Mayans plastered their temples, pyramids, palaces, and other important buildings to create a smooth surface for painted decoration, but the plaster layer dissolved in the wet, rainy environment and was not readily detectable on the ruins until recent technology revealed it.
In the Moche valley in Peru, the arid coastal plain is bracketed by large hills marked by deep ravines, which are the result of erosion by periodic, heavy rains in this otherwise desert environment. Many of these hills are not natural: They are manmade pyramids. Large raw-clay bricks were used to build ever-larger temples over centuries, one on top of the other, onionlike, to monumental proportions. When the Moche culture collapsed, following an extended drought and invasion by neighboring enemies, the religious structures were abandoned and they deteriorated to their present state resembling hills that blend with the natural environment.
Every year, each citizen or family unit of Moche communities had to produce a certain number of bricks in a prescribed standard size and bring them to the construction site. Much of the necessary raw material came from digging irrigation canals. Although the Moche culture was preliterate, each producer had a specific mark stamped on their bricks so that everyone’s contribution was accounted for. This brick making served as a form of taxes imposed on the populace by the ruling class. The structures themselves served to reaffirm and maintain the rulers’ authority. In the Moche valley and elsewhere in Peru’s coastal desert plain, wood is still a rare and precious commodity. In the Moche era, wood would have been reserved for cooking, heating, and firing ceramic pots for daily domestic use and for use in elaborate funerary rituals. If there had been sufficient fuel, no doubt they would have fired their bricks, too, and their buildings would have survived in more intact form until today.
Recently, a 5,500-year-old, raw-clay-brick ceremonial structure has been discovered in Sechin Bajo, Peru. Believed to be the oldest surviving structure of any type in the Americas, it was preserved by being buried underneath another structure. Everywhere else in the world where fuel was abundant, raw-clay bricks were quickly replaced by fired-clay bricks, which are much more resistant to deterioration, easier to transport, easier to use, and better protection from nature and enemies. Although brick structures are sometimes taken down and the bricks reused, very often obsolete buildings are left intact because often it is easier, simpler, and more economical to make brand-new bricks than it is to take down, clean up, reuse, and recycle old bricks.
The earliest examples of the use of fired bricks are in Pakistan, in the Indus valley, at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. They date from about 3500 BCE, when the earliest real cities were built. Fired bricks were used for private and public buildings, ceremonial structures, city walls, an elaborate network of canals, and sewers, both of the latter based on extensive brick-lined cisterns for storing and distributing water.
The most beautiful use of bricks in antiquity is certainly the fortifications and gates of Susa and Babylon in Mesopotamia. Many of these bricks are carved and modeled in mid-relief, with life-size lions, soldiers in procession, and mythical winged beings, all meant to protect the city and display its richness and power. The large panels of bricks were carved as a unit while raw, then glazed with vivid colors, notably blues, greens, yellow, white and black, and fired individually to be recomposed after firing, within the structure of monochrome glazed bricks (a vivid blue is often used) constituting the rest of the very high walls.
Glazed bricks are quite rare in ceramic architecture. The labor of glazing and the added cost of refiring the bricks, which need to be stacked so that the glaze does not fuse them together (a precise process that requires time and extra space in the kiln), all contribute to their rarity. That’s unfortunate because glazed bricks are particularly attractive and can add permanent and bright colors to buildings, something altogether too rare.
Bricks are an ideal architectural material because they are very resistant to compression and can sustain a very large load under pressure. (Ceramics are quite susceptible to shock, however.) Fired clay bricks can be stacked almost endlessly without the added weight affecting the bricks at the base. The monumental walls and gates of Mesopotamia, made with polychrome glazed bricks, are also among the earliest examples of glazed ceramics. It is in itself interesting that glazes were first applied for ornamental, decorative, and aesthetic purposes, for the ostentatious display of power in large architectural, theatrical structures, rather than for domestic pots and vessels, a use that will come only much later.
The culture that has used bricks above any other building material is that of the Romans. Although we may think more of marble than brick when we think of Rome, that is a false impression. Buildings in Rome and all over the Roman empire were mostly built with bricks of a rather unusual shape and proportion, a large yet rather thin square (twelve by twelve by 1½ inches). These bricks were not meant to be visible: the buildings were usually faced with marble, often inside and out, yet even the veneers were usually rather thin. As we can see today, the Colosseum is mostly a brick building, but originally, from its appearance, it would have had you believe that it was entirely made of marble. Eventually, the marble was removed to be calcined in kilns, then used to make mortar, a fate that also awaited most figurative marble sculpture from antiquity.
The Romans were the first to make wedge-shaped bricks, or voussoirs, which facilitated the building of arches and domes. Bricks were also used to build hypocausts, subfloor heating systems. Heated air flowed through flues lined with brick beneath a building’s rooms. As is typical of Roman ingenuity in general, the engineering was superb, and gases from the furnace never leaked into the building itself. Clay, especially fired clay that often remains rather porous, retains heat and then releases it slowly.
Bricks are also essential to the building of chimneys, which not only serve to remove unwanted smoke and gases from a living space but also greatly improve the efficiency of heat distribution of fireplaces, furnaces, stoves, and ovens, while permitting a more efficient use of energy. Although they did not come into common use until the late Middle Ages in Europe, the origin of chimneys also goes back to Roman times.
The Islamic World
The walls and gates of the major urban centers of Mesopotamia are amongst the most beautiful brick structures ever built, but nonetheless this distinction truly belongs to the architecture of Islam. Extraordinary mosques were built all over the Middle East and the Islamic world as a whole, from Northern Africa all the way to the far reaches of Indonesia. The mud-clay mosque at Djenné, in Mali is not a ceramic structure per se. It is made, modeled really, of raw clay, but even then it does have a ceramic aspect, since the ventilation holes on the roof are covered with fired clay lids, which can be removed or replaced easily to control the interior temperature and keep the air fresh at all times by creating drafts.
The most stunning and elaborate examples of ceramic mosques are in Iran, most notably, the Majid-I Shah (1611-1630) in Isfahan Meidan Square. In my opinion, it is the most spectacular architectural ensemble found anywhere (irrespective of materials), and it is beautifully reflected and mirrored in a central pool. Other exceptional examples can be found in Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara, Baku), as well as in Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock, built in 690 CE, one of the earliest mosques in the Islamic world.
These impressive, magnificent, jewel-like buildings are basically total ceramic objects and, as such, among the largest ceramic containers ever built. Excepting its stone foundation and the bottom two-meter-high sections of the walls covered in marble, the remainder of these mosques is all ceramics, including their very high walls reaching to the heavens (represented symbolically by the color blue, usually the predominant color in the decorative schema), their columns supporting the expansive vaulted, arched ceilings and the imposing, phenomenal domes. (The marble veneer on the walls was probably used because marble is more resistant than brick or tile to erosion by splattering rain, from the friction of countless hands over centuries, and the impulse to steal more removable decorated surfaces.)
All the mosques are made with either standard bricks or bricks customized and shaped into intricate forms to modulate the interior of domes in pendentives that resemble geometrical stalactites. (This stalactite vaulting, called muqarna, is particular to Islamic architecture and typical of dome construction.) The interior surface of the dome becomes a faceted, reflective surface of complex geometry. The muqarna system for domes originated in brick buildings, as an innovative variation in making spherical domes. By stacking bricks in a certain way, in what can only be described as brick acrobatics, the interior of the dome would present protuberances instead of the expected smoothness of previous domes. That faceted surface given by the particular stacking of protruding bricks, in itself quite beautiful, was subsequently developed further into the muqarna, the stalactite vaulting so typical of Islamic religious architecture. This highly modulated, elaborate and complex surface would then be covered with polychrome glazed ceramic tiles, whose shrinkage had to be precisely calibrated to fit the complex and varied surfaces. The overall brilliant and breathtaking effect enhances the formal, structural, and visual complexity and dynamism of the ensemble. Bricks are ideal for the bridging of large domes because of their relative lightness compared to stone or even metal, and for the ease of assembly they provide in a stacking system where identical, dimensionally engineered forms are required. Domes in Islamic architecture are also symbolic, and they express the spiritual flight of the soul toward God and heaven.
The most arresting and impressive aspects of these mosques nonetheless remain their surfaces, usually covered inside and out with glazed, polychrome tiles and mosaics in patterns of incredible complexity and intricacy to a degree of visual power and richness not achieved before or since. In Istanbul, Turkey, the church of Hagia Sophia, erected at the end of the Roman empire (360 CE) is built largely of bricks. It boasted the largest expanse of dome in the world at the time of its construction and for centuries afterward (for that reason alone, it remains an engineering marvel of its time). It was later converted into a mosque during the early Ottoman period with the addition of the essential, typical minarets, and served as a model for countless mosques throughout the Islamic world.
Many Turkish mosques and palaces have interiors covered in Iznik ceramic tiles that have intricate arabesque floral decoration representing paradise metaphorically. In other parts of the Islamic world, large religious complexes of mosque, Koranic schools (madrasas) and public squares create impressive architectural statements, notably at Isfahan, in Iran, and at Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. Other examples include the palaces of the Alhambra (1360-1390) in Granada, Spain, which are covered with elaborate geometric tile panels, and the also specifically Moroccan “zelij” mosaic decoration where the ceramic surface achieves its highest complexity of intricacy by the application of the geometric mathematical sciences of the Arabic world. The Koranic prescription against representation in art created the obligation and necessity for the development of these highly complex and refined formal solutions to the problem of symbolic ornamentation, by imposing the necessity of geometric abstraction, something also facilitated by the advanced mathematical knowledge in Arabic lands.
In Europe, ceramics has also contributed greatly to the rise and development of both architecture and culture. A great example is the Duomo of Florence, the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, with its double brick dome, one nested inside the other, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436. Brunelleschi was the most innovative mind in structural engineering of his time, and he was a pioneer of perspective depiction in the visual arts. The dome-within-dome design, each supporting the other, provides great strength while maintaining lightness. This reduced weight, facilitated by the use of bricks instead of a heavier material, permitted the structure to reach and bridge a vast expanse of space.
One of Brunelleschi’s seminal discoveries consisted of alternating bricks on their side and on their edge to distribute the forces created by the weight of the dome and thus prevent its collapse. This method of stacking the bricks creates a fishbone pattern and when the upright bricks are placed at ninety degrees from the horizontal rings, they ascend in diagonal bands all the way to the top of the dome, forming a zigzag and twisting herringbone pattern. This effect is not decorative (as it sometimes is in Islamic architecture) but purely structural. The upright bricks projecting from the horizontal course serve to stabilize the arch and prevent it from falling into the void space the dome is progressively enclosing. This pattern helps to hold in place the surrounding horizontal bricks as the mortar cures, by holding laterally, like periodic bookends, three layers of bricks simultaneously. Brunelleschi didn’t have a fast-setting mortar like the one used for the building of domes in Persia, so he had to rely on this particular strategy of holding the bricks and distributing the weight of the dome as it was being built. Each row of the surrounding horizontal bricks was thus locked into position by the vertical bricks on either side, and there was no need for an internal support to build the whole dome from beginning to end.
Overall it was an effective and original solution to the problem of building such a large dome without any internal support, as had always been necessary before. When building a circular dome, it is also necessary that each subsequent layer be perfectly centered, otherwise the uneven distribution of weight will cause the dome to collapse, either as it is being built or later. When a supporting structure is used during construction, this is easily done by making sure that such a structure is perfectly centered first. Because Brunelleschi didn’t use such a supportive structure, but had his dome built unsupported over the void to cover, he had to devise another highly original solution. The straight drum at the base of the dome for Santa Maria del Fiore had already been built (although it is still unfinished…), and the center of the church’s interior had remained exposed to the elements for decades, thanks to a large circular opening in the roof. Brunelleschi attached eight graduated chains at each corner of the octagonal drum: the circular metal hooks can still be seen in place today. His exterior dome is not a perfect circle but an octagonal form reinforced by marble ribs that are more aesthetic than structural, and provide great vertical, visual thrust to the final form. By connecting each chain to the side directly opposite, each layer of bricks could be positioned at exactly the same distance from the ideal center as the dome progressively narrowed, to eventually close on top, with the addition of a lantern, surmounted by a very large metal sphere at the summit.
When it was built, the Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome was the largest in Europe. Its exterior is covered with terracotta tiles in that distinctive red color, that gives Florence and so many other Mediterranean cities their warm visual character. The construction methods of Santa Maria del Fiore became standard for all subsequent domes in Europe. St. Paul’s cathedral in London, although built of masonry, follows the same principles in its double-shelled dome, as does Saint Peter’s in Rome, and many others.
Brunelleschi, one of the greatest architects of the Renaissance or of any other time, for that matter, collaborated with ceramic sculptor Luca della Robbia, who provided his distinctive glazed ceramic reliefs, a technique he invented and perfected and for which he remains celebrated. Two of their common (and uncommon) achievements are the Hospital of the Innocents –, the arches of its loggia are adorned with della Robbia’s medallions depicting charming cloth-wrapped babies,– and the Pazzi Chapel at Santa Croce, both in Florence. The Pazzi Chapel’s covered entrance portico is crowned with a glazed terracotta dome that is surprisingly decorative in its chromatic schema, a surprise reinforced by the otherwise formal and visual austerity of the whole building, possibly the most perfectly beautiful ever built.
The serene yet minimalist, understated architecture of Brunelleschi, with its subtle use of gray stone framing white plaster walls, hiding brick structures, articulates the space in a rigid, severe geometry that contrasts very effectively with the sculptural modeling of the shiny glazed, blue and white tondi (with limited descriptive polychromy) provided by della Robbia. A tondo is a circular image, in itself rather rare in visual arts, notably in paintings, but quite often part of the formal vocabulary of architecture, especially when fitted with a ceramic bas-relief, so typical of della Robbia’s work. These circular images of saints, madonna and child and evangelists can be found in many other Italian buildings, inside and outside – their ceramic surface is resistant to rain and light. They give a distinctive aspect to so many Italian piazze and churches, in what remains one of the great contributions of sculptural ceramics to art history. While not being structurally architectural, the glazed terracotta panels of the della Robbia family are nonetheless so integrated with the architecture and contribute so effectively to its overall effect that they cannot be separated from it and constitute an integral aspect of many Italian Renaissance buildings.
During the Byzantine era, the earliest church of San Vitale in Ravenna (begun in 567 CE) also features a double shell dome, but it required the use of internal support to be built, and it is much smaller than Brunelleschi later dome in Florence. By placing terracotta pots in a dome, the sound within the structure is amplified naturally and the acoustic of the space greatly enhanced, an effect particularly incorporated in Orthodox churches in Russia.
An even earlier example of a dome from Roman times is the Pantheon in Rome, built by Hadrian in 126 CE. Here the large dome (the largest at the time) was cast in concrete over a supporting structure covered with wood casings. After the casting, the structure and wood molds were all removed. The cast concrete dome is lined with another layer of bricks, lighter than concrete; towards the top of the dome, bricks are replaced with hollow pots to lighten further the weight of the roof and reduce the stress on the exterior walls supporting the dome. It was long thought that Hadrian may not have been responsible for the construction of this spectacular building, yet a recent restoration has brought to light that each and every brick is stamped with this emperor’s name, thus settling the matter once and for all.
Rafael Guastavino (1842/1908) is another great innovator in using bricks and tiles for arches and domes by placing bricks in an herringbone pattern, which makes the structure self-supporting. His best examples of this original method are the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station and in various parts of the New York subway system.
It had always been my belief that the Great Wall of China was a masonry structure built largely with stone, over compressed earth. When I visited a section of it, I was very surprised to discover that it is made of fired clay bricks! Ordinary, conventional bricks tend to be of a familiar, standard size, more or less the same all over the world. For the Great Wall, each brick is about five times larger than what you would expect (which makes them look like dressed stones on photographs, an impression reinforced by their light gray color), a dimension probably made necessary by such a large structure. The soldiers that manufactured the bricks, also guarded this imposing structure. Before being fired in large, reducing, horseshoe kilns, each brick was stamped with the date and the army unit. The wall’s two slightly sloping sides are filled with rammed earth, rubble and stones. A lime mortar joined the bricks together. The fact that the Great Wall, built over a period of at least 2,000 years (since it is still being re-built today), is constructed of fired clay bricks makes it the largest ceramic object ever made.
Traveling through the Chinese countryside, one can witness tile making happening anywhere there is suitable clay, that is to say just about everywhere in the vast alluvial plain that is most of eastern and coastal China. The widespread availability of clay explains why ceramics is such an integral part of China’s culture. The clay is dug right on the site and shaped using traditional methods and simple yet ingenious tools that haven’t changed for millennia. The tiles are also fired on site, and the whole process is the labor of a work force that travels to where their skills and products are needed. Bricks are produced in a similar fashion, but larger factories tend to be at the same site for longer periods of time, until the clay source is exhausted, which can take centuries. Near Xian, in North Central China, I have seen a brick factory with its huge kiln situated at the bottom of a large pit, a few football fields wide and easily 50 meters deep. When bricks were first made there, I am guessing as early as the Han or Tang dynasties, when the area served as the capital of the empire, the brick factory was probably at ground level and, as more and more clay was dug out to make the bricks, the whole installation sunk as the material underneath was slowly depleted. This process will probably only end when rock bottom is reached, but there is no end in sight.
Northern Chinese houses made with bricks take full advantage of the particular dimensions of ordinary brick: the length twice the size of the width, which is twice the size of the thickness, in a ratio that can be described mathematically as 4: 2: 1. Temperatures there are cold in the winter months, and so houses are built with an inner and an outer wall which creates a hollow insulating space by trapping air and retaining heat. The walls are constructed by stacking bricks on their narrower edge (a shiner brick, as we will see later) and making two parallel walls as far apart, if we measure from their exterior reach, as the length of a brick, which then permits the placing of a perpendicular brick (a header brick) every so often to connect the two walls and stabilize them. This ingenious method has an aesthetic effect: the repetitive, predictable pattern of the single unit is periodically altered by another pattern created by the smaller edge of the header brick.
Not only are the houses made of bricks, but so are beds! Kang beds are raised platforms built with bricks, by joining short stacks and connecting them with tiles at the top, which becomes the roof of the platform, about the size of a double bed. At the foot of the bed, there is a door so that a fire can be lit under the structure. At the head, a brick chimney connects to the outside. The bed is not a stove or a heating device for the house itself. But before bedtime, it is fired up so that the whole structure is warmed. The mass of bricks absorb heat, then release it slowly, for most of the night. In Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, notably in Germany, large brick and tile stoves, sometimes beautifully decorated and glazed, may also have a bed on top or benches on the sides, usually reserved for the elderly, who find this warm spot the perfect place to rest. The heat-retaining properties of fired clay, heat that will be very slowly released, makes for ideal use in a wide variety of heating needs.
During Imperial times, a tall, multistoried pagoda was entirely built of glazed ceramic bricks and tiles in Nanjing, China. The polychrome porcelain bricks and tiles were made as exterior cladding in in Jingdezhen, Jianxi province. The pagoda was the only one of its kind anywhere. Although the roof and floors of pagodas are usually made of tiles, the rest of the structure is masonry and wood, the latter being much lighter and easier to work with. Called the Porcelain Pagoda, although it was mostly made of glazed earthenware, it was eventually destroyed in the mid-nineteenth century. Only fragments remain today.
In Xian, the Goose Pagoda (625 CE) is 64 meters tall. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest structure of its type in the world. It is a solid, massive structure with an interior staircase and periodic openings at each floor. It still stands intact in Xian today.
There are too many important brick buildings all over the world to mention them all. At Ayutthaya, in Thailand, thousands of Buddhist stupas stand among the ruins of the former imperial city, all in bright red terracotta bricks. The Min Gun Paya temple in Myanmar, with a constant accumulation of more bricks over centuries, the largest brick structure in the world.
Today, in Tianjin, just south of Beijing, a rich entrepreneur has renovated a late nineteenth century, European-style four-story mansion, covering its exterior and a good part of the interior with ceramic mosaics made with broken porcelain pots and dishes. Whole pots, stacked foot to mouth, were used to build the tall, wavy fence with double doors at the front of the property, and even to cover the roofs, as if pots were tiles. Pretend columns are made with porcelain vases, stacked foot to mouth, in a chain. Hundreds of inverted bowls, plates, and dishes are organized as an elaborate blue-and-white pattern under the roof of a large, circular balcony. The broken shards as well as the pots are grouted with cement, covering almost all of the original structure. The fantastic house also sports large, tube-like twisted excretions covered in mosaic, coming out of the roof and giving the ensemble the effect of some organic growth attacking the whole thing.
The blue-and-white or polychrome decoration of the ceramic pots and shards serves as the predominant, overwhelmingly busy and rather confusing visual effect. This relentless organization of ceramic shapes, colors, textures and patterns, presented in such an unusual fashion, enchants the eye and boggles the mind, in a typical, exaggerated, obsessive, and endlessly charming Chinese manner. “China House” as it is called, in a not-too-subtle double-entendre, is of course inspired by the architecture of Spanish visionary architect Antoni Gaudí and his collaborator, Josep Maria Jujol. While it remains an impressive and convincing realization, it doesn’t have the inventiveness or originality of the source or the strong personality of the work of the Catalan architects. Like all other works that imitate or reference their source too closely and in a stylistic manner that bypasses a deeper formal, stylistic and conceptual understanding, the Tianjin house remains more a curiosity, the fanciful undertaking of an idle mind with too much money and not quite enough creativity and imagination. It is “outsider” art, characterized by self-indulgence and “horror vacuii,” and it lacks the necessary critical distance of legitimate art and architecture.
Bricks and Brick Kilns
Bricks are basically standardized all over the world, and their shape is usually given by a specific ratio, I repeat, their length being twice their width, which is twice their thickness (4:2:1). Due to those specific proportions, bricks can be arranged in a variety of patterns depending in which direction and orientation the brick itself is laid. There are five main ways to position a brick into a wall and each of these positions has a somewhat poetic, descriptive name. They are:
Stretcher: The brick is laid in the usual way, horizontally, with the long, narrow side of the brick exposed.
Shiner: The brick is also laid horizontally but on edge, with the broad face visible.
Header: The brick is laid perpendicularly in the wall, connecting two rows, laid parallel to each other. The smallest end of the brick aligns with the surface of the wall, and the brick is either set as a stretcher if the connected rows are stretchers or as a shiner, depending.
Sailor: The brick is laid vertically, standing up on its end, with the widest, broad face exposed.
Soldier: the brick is also laid vertically but with the narrow side exposed to the face of the wall.
Permutations of these five ways to lay a brick can produce endless possibilities (with the added permutations of diagonals) to animate a brick wall surface with texture and pattern. These also have various names, and I would refer the curious reader to investigate these other ways to organize bricks into complex patterns further. As well, bricks can be set into a wall so they either recess or protrude, which creates cast shadows animating the structure further, the very principle at work in the Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara, arguably the most beautiful brick building in the world.
Clinker bricks create yet another ornamental effect. When bricks are fired in the kiln, if they are over-fired to a temperature that starts to melt and bloat them, they will all stick together. When unloading such a kiln load, the bricks need to be broken off each other and in the process chunks of bricks remain attached to other bricks, giving them a lumpy and rough aspect. This method of firing bricks is very uneconomical, as it implies a lot of loss and adds significantly to handling and labor. Clinker bricks are thus more expensive and they are used strategically on buildings, often on chimneys and other distinctive features, to add texture and visual interest to the surface appearance of the brickwork, which can be otherwise repetitive and predictable. Clinker bricks are often used in Arts and Crafts domestic architecture (late 19th, early 20th C.) where they add to the whimsy and textural qualities of the other materials, notably wood.
Tiles and bricks are usually single-fired in specialized kilns that vary in size and shape all over the world. The most ingenious have two side-by-side platforms that serve as the base for the kilns. The dried bricks are stacked on one platform following a very rigid, precise method that will allow the air to travel between the stacks, creating a good draught within the structure, to suck in oxygen during the firing and permit efficient combustion and the reaching of the necessary temperature. During the stacking, combustible materials – straw, branches, wood – are also inserted within the load. Once the “inside” of the kiln is full, an actual kiln (called a clamp or a scove kiln) is also built with other raw, dried bricks, all around the load of bricks to be fired. Then the whole thing is fired and while the material inside will reach temperature, the stacked bricks that serve as walls for the kiln itself on the outside will remain largely unfired. This impermanent “kiln” is then dismantled and restacked in the middle of the other platform and a new load of dried bricks is added, then a new “kiln” is built all around and then fired, the whole process is endlessly repeated from one platform to the other, alternatively. The sculptural brick “kilns” of Nina Hole, built and fired on site with community involvement (and now found all over the world), somewhat continue this principle in conceptual/aesthetic form today, if for very different purposes.
Kilns themselves are the architectural form of the necessary ceramic process, firing. A kiln is nothing if not a building, made with fired clay bricks, to fire other clay objects. Some kilns can be monumental in size and scale, and some of the largest are used exclusively to fire bricks. Oval in shape, like an elongated doughnut, their continuous oval interior can be hundreds of meters long. Firing is done continuously, moving from section to section as the fired bricks are removed from one side and dried bricks are added and stacked on the other side. The process moves in a circle within the kiln; about one quarter of the kiln is being used at any given time, while the rest waits for its turn.
Oval kilns are very efficient and economical as there is less energy loss; the heat of the firing is used to dry the unfired bricks instead of being dispersed in the normal cooling found in other type of kilns. Their main disadvantage is for the workers stacking and unstacking the bricks, loading raw bricks on one side and removing fired bricks continuously on the other in the enclosed environment that remains quite hot at all times. But brick making by hand without the recourse to mechanical means is back-breaking labor. Unlike pottery making, it is not a highly skilled craft nor one that pays well, and often whole families are engaged in the activity, even small children in the developing world. In India, China, and many other developing countries, building booms created by an expanding economy create a large demand for bricks. Many farmers have moved to brick-making centers in large number to provide the necessary labor that at least generates a steady income, to make bricks for buildings and housing that they may never be able to afford, for now anyway.
Architectural Ceramic Wonders
One of the most extraordinary use of ceramics in architecture is in the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who worked in Barcelona, Spain, in the late 1800s and the early part of the nineteenth century. Gaudí’s first use of ceramic tiles to ornament a building, inside and out, was for Casa Vicens, a home he built for a tile and brick manufacturer, and the object was to feature and promote the business of his patron. But polychrome glazed tiles were to become an essential element and greatly influential in his work.
Gaudí had an important collaborator for most of his professional life, architect Josep Maria Jujol i Gilbert, a fact often neglected to be mentioned. Gaudí and Jujol’s major and most relevant ceramic-based works are the mosaic towers of the stone Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, still under construction today. Equally important are the mosaics of Gaudí and Jujol’s at Park Guell (1900-1914), an architectural fantasy without peer anywhere. Jujol was primarily responsible for the use of discarded, broken tiles and plate shards and for their complex organization into dynamic and challenging patterns, which I would describe as the first true use of formal collage in visual art in its use of recycled material.
A close competitor would be the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia in Los Angeles, likewise covered with ceramic found objects that recycle refuse into a sublime expression of singular vision and individuality, as well as in numerous other “outsider art” garden creations found all over the world and often incorporating ceramics, as we have already seen with China House in Tianjin, China. An “insider art” version is the Niki de Saint-Phalle garden extravaganza in Garravicchio, Tuscany.
Gaudí and Jujol’s Park Guell is celebrated for its extraordinary snaking bench that encircles its superior terrace. The long, continuous, sinuous, and ergonomic seating arrangement is completely covered with a dynamic, wild collage of shards from dishes and broken tiles that animate the moving, undulating form to bring it alive under the sun in an original and efficient way. Other benches in public parks have followed suit in many other places, but none achieve the inventive richness and peculiar beauty as well as ergonomic comfort of Gaudí and Jujol’s.
The long bench of Lover’s Park in Lima, Peru, situated on a cliff with a view of the sea and the sunset, incorporates fragments of love poems within its more prosaic mosaics. In Melbourne, Australia, a neighborhood has been outfitted with bloated ceramic tiled couches, set in the middle of the large sidewalk at intersections, to provide a meeting place for the community. They serve that purpose efficiently and playfully, but their aesthetic is more cute than potent; they tell us more about the particular (limited) taste of the maker than they reflect the spirit of the place. Another of Gaudí’s (and Jujol’s) ceramic masterpieces is Casa Battlo, a private home completely designed by the Catalan master, not only the building itself, but all the furniture, hardware, wallpaper, carpets, etc.
The roof of this fantastic, sculptural structure constitutes its most characteristic and impressive aspect; here Gaudí found the most fertile ground for the expression of his near-delirious formal imagination. Gaudí’s bricks and glazed roof tiles were custom-designed and -made for each of his buildings, and he generated new forms for each particular need. Considering that bricks and tiles (and particularly roof tiles) are basically the same everywhere, following a few fixed, conventional models, it is quite extraordinary to see how inventive and imaginative Gaudí’s formal creativity was, always finding a new solution to what was a very old problem.
The roof of Casa Battlo is exceptional in that sense. It presents a surreal fantasy of shapes and forms referencing nature without copying it, something Gaudí was always particularly successful at doing. He absorbed fully in his work the structural, organic systems used by nature, plants, animals, marine life forms, geology and sedimentation, to generate amazing, original forms, shapes, structures and surfaces. Gaudí never directly imitated or even referred to these natural sources but instead transformed them into a vision that remains profoundly unique and again, original. Instead of following or imitating nature, it could be almost said that he succeeded in “thinking like nature,” conceptualizing formal growth as a plant or a crystal would.
Others may attempt to imitate Gaudí, but it’s a pointless exercise. Better to learn and absorb his lessons, not by stylistic imitation but by conceptual emulation, then apply the results to new work, as he did himself.
The roof chimneys and ventilation towers on the roof of Casa Mila, near Casa Battlo, are also phenomenal in their dynamic form and their white mosaic coverings. Gaudí’s contemporaries Puig I Cadafalch and Luis Domenech I Montaner also used ceramic tiles extensively. Montaner’s version of the use of polychrome ceramic surfaces in his buildings, is notably found in the Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona, likewise covered inside and out with art nouveau ceramic tiles, mosaics, and panels. His masterpiece is the Hospital de Santa Creu i de Sant Pau, also in Barcelona. His talent, while real, is nonetheless more conventional and of a lesser scope than Gaudí’s genius. In architecture as elsewhere there are many more followers than leaders, and Gaudí was a visionary. Visionaries usually end up leading only themselves.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses an impressive collection of decorative arts, including more ceramics than you might care to see at any one time, and a spectacular ceramic staircase, designed by Frank Moody in the Victorian era. All the steps, landings, walls, and ceiling are covered with highly decorated, polychrome porcelain tiles, made by the firm of Minton. The restaurant of the museum is likewise completely covered, floors, walls, and ceiling in patterned porcelain tiles. These Victorian ceramic extravaganzas were inspired by Gothic architecture, and the tiled floors were based on the encaustic tiles Cistercian monks made for their monasteries during the Middle Ages. The designs of encaustic tiles are created with clays of different colors, red and white usually, which goes all the way through the tiles and never wears away. Even today, after centuries, after having been tramped on by countless feet, Cistercian encaustic tiles retain their pattern.
In 1770, Coade Stone was developed. A fired clay material, it resembles stone and being much cheaper than carved stone, led to a profusion of highly decorated terracotta-faced buildings in the nineteenth century. Too many great examples exist to look into it here.
The unique and significant contribution architecture has made to ceramics as a conceptual field needs to be reinserted in its history to comprehend fully the scope of its impact on culture and civilization all the way to today and into the far future.
If pots and vessels are informed by the concept of containment, which implies a nonhierarchical approach to both making and experience, it remains that buildings are much more hierarchical than pots, conceptually and politically as well. Architecture tends to have a clear hierarchical, political purpose and function within society and culture. Buildings themselves are hierarchically structured, with a clear emphasis on the facade over the back, on the frontal elevation aspect first presented to view where the entrance is usually located. Likewise, the exterior aspect is often more important than the interior organization of spaces, which tend to be more conventional than the showy, expressive shell of the building.
One of the most popular architectural conceits found in China today is the perverse quoting of ancient Greek orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. In Chinese cities are numerous buildings of all types adorned with Greek-inspired columns, porticoes, and pediments. There are even skyscrapers, office towers, and large condo complexes, thirty to fifty stories tall, crowned with debased Greek references. The orders of Greek architecture, as it was the case for Greek Attic pottery, are instantaneous and clear signs of elegance, refinement, and sophistication, in a direct lineage with an ideal, utopian age. They represent for everyone, everywhere, constancy and continuity, stability, power and strength and they carry an overall implication of status and hierarchy. Quite simply, they are, universally, the most obvious sign for culture and for civilization that we have.
The eternal forms of Greek architecture and Greek pottery, probably the most successful designs ever, in term of dispersion and permanency anyway, do not change much, if at all, with time and even space, since they quite simply do not need to change. Their basic shapes (more complex than the extraordinary simplicity of bricks and tiles) are perfectly performing the task for which they are destined, whether it is practical, symbolic or aesthetic or simply stylistic and iconic, as familiar signs for stability and constancy. They are a rather rare example in the history of design, of styles, of forms that remain the same, basically unchanged, with very little variation, if any, over such a long period of time, roughly 3,000 years and counting.
Paul Mathieu's most recent book, The Art of the Future: an History and Theory of Ceramics, of which the present essay is an excerpt, can be found online for free, texts and images, at www.paulmathieu.ca/theartofthefuture