Brick: the humble storyteller of the built environment

The language of bricks

Brick is a humble material with a rich history of development, innovation, politics and technology. For those reasons, it is arguably amongst the most intricate of storytelling components in our built environment. It’s a material that is conspicuously synonymous with English architecture, embodying both rural and urban development. The ability to read and interpret the language of bricks therefore helps us to better perceive our historic – and future – urban environment.  

Early use of brick

Brickwork has been recorded in England since the Roman Era. At this time, bricks comprised heavier, wider, thinner, tile-like bricks fired at an external source and that required two hands for lifting and laying. Given their impracticability – principally caused by size – bricks were subsequently developed in line with the anatomy of the male hand and the ability for them to be individually lifted, manually.

Early firing techniques and hand-made construction often resulted in uneven firing which produced both burnt and undercooked bricks, along with bricks of a deeper or lighter pigment, and varying quality; principally dependent upon their proximity to the heat source.  As such, handmade and/or early brickwork often comprises warped bricks that are, dark purple, grey, red or orange.

Geographical and geological factors

Whilst uneven firing is a significant factor in the varying pigmentation of bricks, other factors might include the region in which bricks were produced. Prior to the development of wider transportation networks, bricks were produced locally, in situ, and therefore throughout the texture, colour and quality of bricks varies throughout the country, depending on the geological properties that were readily available, which in turn contributed toward local vernaculars.

Refining the appearance of brick

The use of bricks was to develop significantly in the Tudor period, and standards, technologies and construction began to improve. At this time, bricks were deliberately used to adorn buildings, perhaps by means of diaper patterns, English and Flemish bond, or spiral, twisted chimney stacks. Notable buildings from this time that reflect this change in innovation, include Hampstead Court (c. 1514) and Fulham Palace (also early 16th century). Despite brick being a humble material, it evolved from a utilitarian material to one communicating status and power.

The high point of brick began in the seventeenth century, although it was from the mid-eighteenth to nineteenth centuries that standards and methods of production were to be considerably improved. Given that symmetry was an important element in architecture, new technologies such as down-firing kilns, and improved standards in clay, moulds and firing techniques were introduced, thus ensuring that bricks were consistent in terms of quality, colour, size and shape. At this time, favoured colours were red, purple, and grey, although by the mid-eighteenth century, yellow stock brick was also popular.  However, rural development continued to embody more local, vernacular approaches to brickwork.

Brick use for railway infrastructure

The introduction of the railway enabled the cheaper construction of bricks, necessitated via the construction of warehouses, bridges, railway lines, tunnels etc. required at this time. By the nineteenth century, brick-making had adopted new, more efficient manufacturing via advances in kiln technology, which enabled still more consistency of colour, size and shape.

Reading the history of our surroundings from brick

Whilst this brief account provides an insight into the evolution of brickwork in England, it is demonstrable that bricks are fundamentally products of their environment. Technology, geology, and locality are all factors resulting in a wide variety of unique bricks, to the extent that, arguably, no two bricks are alike.

In both built and more rural environments, the presence of brick is testament to this evolution, and further reinforced when different types of brick or different phases of development are juxtaposed. When reading brick in this manner, we therefore notice peculiarities in our built environment that fundamentally enriches the experience, understanding and perception of our surroundings.

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