CAMBRIDGE, MA, USA
On the Status of Bricks in Architecture
Things to keep in mind and agree upon when reading the following:
- This article is not about bricks as bricks are never merely bricks.
- One’s attitude towards it’s medium (maybe bricks), is ultimately about the attitude toward the truth and reality.
When Louis Kahn asked a brick what it wanted to be, the answer was an arch:
When you want to give something presence, you have to consult nature. And there is where design comes in. If you think of brick, for instance, you say to brick, “What do you want, brick?” And brick says to you, “I like an arch.” And if you say to brick,”Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that, brick?” brick says, “I like an arch.” 1
At first, he seems to talk about the structural qualities of an arch, as a solution that spans the openings by using discrete parts. In this case, being ‘honest’ to the nature of the material would be about the structural performance of an arch. In Indian Institute of Management, the explicit use of brick arches over the reinforced concrete slabs runs contrary to this reading. Here, an arch is clearly a sign rather than a structural solution for him. The strong, one-to-one correlation between an arch as a sign and what it signifies -structural loads- makes the arch the absolute form that a brick wants to take. Through this fixed relationship between the sign and signifier, Louis Kahn constructs a reality and loudly exposes it.
Almost 35 years later, when Greg Lynn asked the same question and the brick replied: “I’d like to be plastic.”2 While Kahn wanted us to believe that there was a true nature of a brick and that he could access its reality by utilizing certain signs, Lynn implicitly denied the familiar physical and formal reality of the brick and proposed another reality: digital materialism. This new reality broke architecture’s inherent connection to the established physical reality of the world.
Today, the status brick in architecture is presented to us with even more alternative realities. Counter-intuitively stacked blocks(see Figure 2), bricks that are deformed by fake physics (see Figure 3), cast-ceramics with the brick textured finish (see Figure 4).
Jennifer Bonner‘s Faux Bricks and Glittery Faux projects try to focus our attention on the everyday and the mundane. Bonner starts creating her ‘fakes’ by simply embossing a brick wall pattern on a stucco surface. Later she expands her techniques to a series of other representational techniques such as bump mapping, bad meshing etc. Although the resulting material has very little to do with the scientific definition of the clay brick, she calls them ‘faux brick’. This highly-intentional word choice reveals Bonner’s ambitions. It is not something new, it is fake. Fakeness is essential to the existence of this project in the sense that it forces us to read the artifact as a brick. Thus, faux brick becomes a sign of the clay brick. It is only through this association this work can embed itself into the everyday. The reality is of the brick is not about the material or structural properties but rather it is one that is aligned with the average American consumers’ understanding.
Operating in the territory made accessible by Lynn and other early digital experimentalists, Andrew Holder transforms the platonic solids by using a physics engine of an animation software. Based on the constraints, forces and ‘material qualities’ defined in the engine by the author, resulting pile of stuff is consist of both ‘rigid and ‘pliable’ parts that are subject to “clasping, sitting, resting and leaning.”3 Even though these objects are not subject to 3 real-world physics or the conventions of manufacturing, some of them are shaped as building blocks and stacked perfectly on top of each other and that has critical importance in order to understand the position of such work. Similar to Bonner’s faux bricks, cast of things can only be understood upon agreeing that a thing act as a sign for brick or a building block in a broader sense.
The tendency represented by these two contemporary architects can be described by two key features:
- Brick is no longer made out of clay, it exists in the digital realm.
- Sign and signifier are swapped: the digital brick now is a sign that signifies the conventional brick. Understanding this pairing of sign and signifier (the ‘ a-ha’ moment) is essential to their existence. Thus, I argue that both projects assume a pre-established relationship between the sign and signified that is very similar to Louis Kahn’s. If Kahn wanted us to see firmitas behind his brick arches, Bonner and Holder want us to see the clay brick (signified) behind the graphic and plastic (sign) respectively.
Even though these contemporary practices managed to change what constitutes a sign and a signifier, the pairing of the two has not been displaced. A sign still has a single, presupposed, meaning in the examples I have described above. Peter Eisenman calls this type of pairing between the sign and signified a strong form and criticizes it for being outdated.4
Such pairing in architecture may have been possible and even fruitful in a homogeneous world, where a group of people shares a common reality and a set of methods of symbolizing it. In Classical Architecture, from column capitals to ornaments all the artifacts of architecture could be read in terms of what they symbolize. However, today, we live in an extremely heterogeneous world where there are multiple realities of everything. Science and expertise (including architecture) could be considered the common binding phenomena up until the mid-20th century. After the 1940s, our trust in science and expertise has gradually decreased because of certain unfortunate events: the Atomic bomb, cold war-era expert opinions that led John F. Kennedy to ramp up the country’s nuclear arsenal etc.)5 Today, the examples of loss of trust in expertise and science can even be found in the presidential palaces of the Western world!
Graham Harman and his Object-Oriented Ontology, OOO, emerges in such world: the world of multiple realities. OOO provides us with a new model to look at the contemporary condition of objects and reality. He not only acknowledges the multiple realities but also claims that the real one is not accessible. In his, The Third Table essay, he tries the define the real table. He builds his argument around a quote from a lecture of physicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington in 1927:
“I have settled down to the task of writing these lectures and have drawn up my chairs to my two tables. Two tables Yes; there are duplicates of every object about me;-two tables, two chairs, two pens.”
For Eddington, these two tables are the everyday table and the scientific table.6 As it may be clear, the scientific table refers to a table that is made out of atoms. If we were to describe this table we would need to talk about the specific organization of the atoms, the physical properties of the wood etc. On the other hand, the everyday table refers to the table as we experience it, with its social, economic and personal implications. In other words, its function, its price, the memories that we have about it etc. Eddington, understandably, argues that the real table is the scientific table. A sociologist would argue for the reality of the everyday table.
If we were to map these two different realities of a table onto various approaches to brick, Kahn’s brick would best fit into the scientific table as he is interested in the physical properties of the material. Bonner’s bricks, for example, would be in the everyday table category. More importantly, almost all architects practicing today would fall into either of these two categories. Then the question that we need to answer is that is there a possibility for another reality?
Third Table or The Confused Brick of Architecture
Harman writes that both of Eddington’s tables are equally unreal and there is a third table:
When weighing the respective merits of the everyday and scientific tables, we shall find that both are equally unreal, since both amount simply to opposite forms of reductionism. The scientist reduces the table downward to tiny particles invisible to the eye; the humanist reduces it upward to a series of effects on people and other things. The real table is, in fact, a third table lying between these two others. And if Eddington’s two tables provided the moral support for Snow’s two cultures of scientists and humanists,our third table will probably require a third culture completely different from these two. This is not to say that the third culture is a completely, new one: perhaps it is the culture of the arts, which do not seem to reduce tables either to quarks and electrons or to table-effects on humans.
In a time in which the truth is rendered simply meaningless and institutions that claim to know things are losing their agency, can we thinker around architecture’s third table? What would happen when the material(scientific table) and the digital(cultural table) tectonics start to merge into one another to allow multiple readings? This new attitude toward the architecture would produce artifacts that do not race towards claiming ‘the reality’. Instead,these artifacts will create equivocal readings that eventually may provide a better model to understand the world surrounding us.
Now, if we go back to the agreement that we made earlier that This article is not about bricks as bricks are never merely bricks. This idea of equivocal readings and things that consist of multiple realities is not limited to the materiality, it should be seen as a way to confuse the architectural object completely: from its structure to organizational order. Almost like a Russian Matryoshka doll, every layer should have the capacity to deny or go against the previous ones: a detail that is not just a subset of a larger conceptual idea, rooms that do not follow structural order etc. This is not an architecture of no orders but many.
A concept that is often disregarded by the architects who are interpreting Harman’s work is the flat ontology. Simply put, flat ontology provides various beings with the same level of ontological dignity. Therefore it challenges the human-centric view of the world. However, it does not try to replace it with objects, rather it elevates the objects to a level where they need to be in the first place. The idea that humans share the same ontological plane with all the other things in the universe, is a powerful one for the architecture. Particularly in terms of the issue of reality and representation of it that I have been discussing above. In a type of architecture where form and meaning derived not only through the expression of forces -whether physical (Kahn), cultural (Bonner) or digital(Holder)- but also through borrowing relentlessly from the flat ontological plane, would produce new, unfamiliar realities.
Following five points intended as a set of formal strategies to tackle the issue at hand:
1. Bricks interact -formally and tectonically- but do not subsume one another.
The moment of interaction between the parts needs to be accentuated so that the participating parts can be distinguished better through this phenomena. This moment of interaction can manifest itself as partial formal and/or superficial deformations on participating parties or as a new emerging element(seams as objects).
2. Bricks are animate.
One should freely borrow formal qualities from animate objects and let them interact within animate building parts. This would add to the multivalent reading of the architectural object and contribute to the third point.
3. Nasty Bricks
A nasty object is understood through its counterparts. This is applicable to materials, building parts and systems, simultaneously. A misbehaving brick is better than misbehaving plastic.Since anomalies would be more clear when put next to the norms, familiar orders, structures and tectonics should always be present in this new formal language.
4. Confuse the architectural object on multiple levels.
A confused architectural object is different from the one that is divorced from the meaning.The confusion comes about through the juxtaposition of different, often contrary sign-and-signified pairs. Combine multiple strong forms together rather than weakening it.Coherent Whole.
5. Coherent Whole.
When all the different interactions between parts, nastiness, misbehavior and confusion put together, it should leave an open door for the audience to be able to enter and project meaning onto it.
- Kahn, Louis. “Master Class”, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. 1972. Lecture.
- Lynn, Greg. “The FORM Family”. Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA. 2013. Lecture.
- Holder, Andrew J. “On Sufficient Density”. Log 38: 104. Print.
- Eisenman, Peter. “Strong Form Weak Form”.
- For an article article about the crisis of expertise please refer to following: Nichols, Tom. “It’s Time to Reboot
the Relationship between Expertise and Democracy.”Aeon, 6 June 2017,
- Harman, Graham. “The Third Table”.