Brick: the humble storyteller of the built environment

Brick has a humble yet rich history

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.

Egg and Dart – a captivating architectural ornament

The egg and dart ornament appears frequently in the historic architectural landscape, such as this example at St Marys Church, Warwick

The English built environment is one of layers, variety, and cohesion. Its development – which spans over centuries – has resulted in a conglomerate of styles, representations and features that are characteristic of their time. As a result, exploring and observing these features create different experiences that are unique to their environments. That being said, when observing more closely, viewers can recognise that certain ornamental features and styles often reoccur.

Such is the case for the ubiquitous use of egg-and-dart ornament.

Egg and what?

Sometimes referred to as egg-and-tongue, egg-and-anchor or even egg-and-star, this simple yet captivating ornament has been used in England since the medieval times and can therefore be identified in various architectural examples throughout the country. It is created by alternating between an oval shape, which resembles an egg, and a narrow dart and/or arrow. It is stated in the Dictionary of Ornament (1985) that egg-and-dart is ‘one of the most widely used classical mouldings […] to enrich and Ovolo moulding such as the echinus on Ionic Capitals.’ In turn, it creates a ‘rhythmic and repetitive pattern of curved and non-curved elements [that creates] delicate and detailed designs’ (knoweledgebank.com).

The egg and dart ornament appears frequently in the historic architectural landscape, such as this example at St Marys Church, Warwick
An example of the Egg and Dart ornament at St. Marys Church, Warwick

What is the origin of this architectural feature?

Whilst it originated in ancient Greece, there are various speculations regarding its symbolisms and iconography. For example, it could be a representation of ‘life and death’ (Marinij.com, 2013), or originated as a ‘lotus border and alternating bunches of grapes’ (Dictionary of Ornament, 1985), or it could represent ‘Greek soldiers holding shields and spears’ (knoweledgebank.com).  

How is it created?

This bas-relief ornamentation is usually carved in wood, stone or plaster and can – most commonly – be found on the echinus, friezes, or columns of classically inspired buildings. Egg-and-dart was frequently used in the English built environment, particularly in the 19th century, and its adoption within an English context has resulted in its use not only on Ionic columns, but also in churches and other internal decorative features.

Where can it be seen?

Despite egg-and-dart being a small ornamental feature, it has adorned large scale and prolific buildings such as St Pauls, the British Museum, and the Queens House, Greenwich. Other, more modest examples include the columns found along Brook Street, London, and internal mouldings and cornices in domestic buildings.

Curiously, egg-and-dart has also been translated into a medieval context, as it has appeared in churches such as St. Mary’s Warwick. Although not as commonly used as other medieval decorative features such as chevron, beakhead or dogs-tooth, when exploring with an inquisitive eye the use of this classical motif can be spotted in medieval structures. In addition to its appropriation by different architectural styles, its ongoing use has created various types of egg-and-dart.

This subservient classical ornament appears in the most unlikely of places when you know to look for it

Despite its frequent appearance in the historic landscape, this subservient ornament often goes undetected and/or unnoticed. Its location, typically in cornices, mouldings, and columns requires viewers to look up and have a more active and inquisitive interaction with their surroundings. However, once identified, egg-and-dart will be recognisable in the most unlikely of places and can help viewers gain an appreciation for the language of classical ornamentation.

Sources and further reading:

Lewis, Philippa, and Gillian Darley. (1985). Dictionary of Ornament. London: Macmillian

https://www.marinij.com/2013/07/13/marni-jameson-the-symbolism-hidden-in-motifs/https://knowledgebank.materialbank.com/articles/architectural-ornamentations-exploring-egg-and-dart-and-dentil-mouldings/

Legacies of Olympic Games’ Venues

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London now has new purpose that continues the lasting community spirit of the Olympic games

The 2020 Olympics are well underway in Tokyo, Japan. Whilst eager to witness incredible athletic achievements, there is an equal sense of anticipation to view the structures and developments of urbanism and town planning that have been carefully and thoughtfully designed to encapsulate these moments and are, for the decades to come, embedded with the ethos underpinning modern Olympics.

A combination of new and reused structures

Although new purpose built structures include the Japan National Stadium by Kuma, ‘several venues that were completed for the previous Olympics in Tokyo in 1964’ have been reused (Dezeen, 22.07.2021). The repurposing of structures has therefore raised the question; to what extent are former Olympic villages reused? 

This is a query that is reverberated in London, which has been host to the Olympics on three separate occasions. Hosted most recently in 2012, the atmosphere and the memories that have been engendered at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford continues to resonate with spectators today, although, arguably, in a different social and architectural context.

The London Olympic Park repurposing efforts has received mixed reviews

The area, wherein evidence from the Bronze Age, and Victorian period have been identified, the Stratford Marshland remained largely unoccupied throughout the late 19th to 20th century (The Guardian, 27.07.2017). Cartographic evidence shows that whilst its environs were developed with mills and factories, the area itself was only developed as recently as 1995.

As such, the development of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park would have resulted in a change of use in the first instance and its ongoing use would further diverge from its working-class historic context. In doing so, and as acknowledged in the article Legacy, what legacy? Five years on the London Olympic Park Battle Still Rages (The Guardian, 27.07.2017), its development received mixed reviews not merely upon its construction but also in the ongoing efforts to reuse and repurpose this large, purpose-built space.

What is the London Olympic park like now?

Nearly a decade following the London Olympics, the area is now populated with large business, event spaces, a shopping centre, and mixed-housing. A breadth of visitors from all over are welcomed by the conglomerate of different activities, venues and parks.

Examples of reuse include the London Stadium which is now the home of West Ham United Football Club and the ‘Pringle’ which continues to be used for recreational and leisure activities, and mixed-housing. The Olympic venues have also encouraged other developments in this area such as the development of educational campuses, including UCL’s Here East.

New meaning for the spirit of the Olympic games

Although these approaches to reuse are notable for their economic prosperity, it is acknowledged in the article (The Guardian, 27.07.2017) that, for example, the Clays Lane Housing Estate was purchased and demolished to accommodate the Olympic master plan. The article has also raised that the area is strictly managed as a means to prevent anti-social behaviours. Despite this, the article acknowledges that the area is a nice and demographically diverse place to live and visit.

The community and social environment can therefore be understood to have persisted in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and therefore the spirit of the Olympic games, which are becoming a distant memory, have taken on new meaning in its evolving urban context which will ensure that its legacy continues to thrive for the decades to come.

Sources and further reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/27/london-olympic-park-success-five-years-depends

https://www.dezeen.com/2021/07/22/tokyo-2020-olympic-games-venues-architecture/

New 3D printed bridge opens in Amsterdam

The new Amsterdam MX3D 3D printed bridge

This past week, the long awaited MX3D Bridge, the first 3D printed bridge, was unveiled in Amsterdam across the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. The pedestrian bridge, which commenced six years ago, has been ‘fabricated from stainless steel rods by six-axis robotic arms equipped with welding gear’ in a factory and craned onto site (Dezeen, 19 July 2021). This innovative structure embodies the evolution of fabrication and craftsmanship whilst also creating a curious precedent for pushing the boundaries of architecture and what this might mean for the future of the historic urban environment.

A familiar construction

The bridge is constructed of stainless steel and as such, juxtaposes against the existing pallet of brick, stucco and stone – that is prominent along the waterfront – in a way that recalls the 18th and 19th century Industrial Revolution. This era had an unapologetic use of exposed wrought and cast iron and its significance in the English built environment resulted in rapidly developed and transformed cities, societal changes and new architectural forms (Britannica, 21 July, 2021).

Historic examples from this movement throughout England include the Bridge over the River Sever in Shropshire (1779), the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (1818-21), and Crystal Palace in London (built in 1851, demolished 1936) amongst many others. Despite the resistance against industrialisation due to its divergence from traditional craftsmanship, the benefits of this time are still felt and appreciated in architecture today – as evidenced in the creation of the MX3D Bridge.

Modern architecture now has new roles to fulfil to realise these types of structures

In this regard, the ambitions that have driven the success of the MX3D Bridge in Amsterdam echo’s the narrative of the 18th century Industrial Revolution via its machine operated and robotic technology. In doing so, the role of the modern architect has been redefined where this now largely includes coding and software design as well as craftsmanship.

That being said, this leads to question the contemporary role of the craftsman and its place within architecture, and how this ongoing narrative may further omit this trade and the repercussions this may have on the future of the historic environment. On the other hand, what has been created in Amsterdam is a unique and engaging precedent for how innovations in technology can help create a distinctively modern way of interacting with existing built forms.

How did they produce the 3D printed surface texture?

The 3D printed surface created a texture that, arguably, has not been experienced in the built environment yet. The texture is created by the welding and layering of metal that has created small and tight ridges and as such the surface is left as it is. There is an authenticity and honesty in this texture that is created by this new technique, one that communicates the contemporary and distinctively modern approach to its construction.

A new era for architecture and construction, with inspiration from the Industrial Revolution

In sum, there is a revival of the 18th and 19th century movement via the reimagination of the limitations of steel construction in our high-tech world and as such, is an exciting innovative step forward in the realm of architecture. The materiality and the mode of construction are distinctively of their time and as a result would engender curious and engaging interactions with the existing historic environment.

Sources and further reading:

https://www.dezeen.com/2021/07/19/mx3d-3d-printed-bridge-stainless-steel-amsterdam/

https://www.britannica.com/event/Industrial-Revolution

https://www.dezeen.com/2015/12/30/video-interview-robots-worlds-first-3d-printed-bridge-mx3d-joris-laarman-movie/

Plyscrapers! Timber high-rise buildings are becoming a growing trend

Plyscrapers: a resurgence in timber framed buildings, even for skyscrapers. Photo credit: By Øyvind Holmstad - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79435356

Materiality is a significant factor in the built environment. Not only does the palette used have significant visual and/or aesthetic implications for the external envelope of a structure and its incorporation into its surroundings, but can also result in positive and/or negative interactions with these buildings on a personal level, whilst assisting long-term sustainability more generally.

Within the context of high-rise buildings, the choice of building material has traditionally included steel, iron and concrete, which has resulted in visually intriguing if not astounding structures. However, in recent years there has been a growing tendency toward experimentation with timber high-rise buildings – also known as ‘Plyscrapers’ – as a more sustainable and more socially beneficial material.  

Considerations for timber structures

Although timber is amongst one of the oldest building materials, following devastation caused by the Great Fire of London in 1666, building regulations and more general stigma has restricted its use. However, the contemporary and innovative resurgence of timber can serve to reimagine its character and place within the urban environment, whilst doing so in a sustainable and aesthetically exciting way.

The recent BBC video ‘Will We All Live in ‘Plyscrapersin the Future?’ has considered interesting benefits concerning sustainability as a result of using timber for high-rise buildings. These include carbon capture, improved structural integrity using CLT (cross laminated timber), and reducing carbon emission by 4 %.

Timber elicits positive responses

In addition to ecological benefits, timber is commonly admired for effecting warmth, comfort, and positive physiological and psychological benefits. In addition to other health benefits, it helps users reconnect with nature. Further effects are widely acknowledged throughout the wider environment.

The Concise Townscape (Gordon Cullen, 1971) notes that ‘Trees and buildings have always borne a special relationship to each other … so great as to demand a reassessment of the relationship between the two … Today the art of bringing trees and buildings together is based on the tree lending its richness to buildings, and on buildings pointing out the architectural qualities of trees so that the two together make one ensemble.

But more fundamentally – with respect to the use made of timber in individual buildings – Dezeen (November, 2015) notes that wood ‘… makes the most amazingly beautiful spaces. These are buildings that feel very good to be in…

The reimagining of timber ensues

‘Plyscrapers’ have therefore begun to emerge from the English skyline. Such buildings include the 33-meter-high apartment block in Shoreditch by Hawkins Brown, and the nine-storey Murray Grove in Hackney by Waugh Thisleton. In 2016, a proposal was forwarded by PLP Architecture and researchers from Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture, which entailed a 300-meter-tall timber high-rise for the Barbican Estate.  

The reimagining of a traditional material in this way results in a refreshing, dynamic, yet warm juxtaposition against today’s intensively glass, concrete and steel environment. This would undoubtedly elevate the urban experience from a perspective of streetscape, whilst creating visually engaging spaces that are also a pleasure to use whilst proving environmentally beneficial.

Sources and further reading:

Gordon Cullen. The Concise Townscape. Oxford: Great Britain. 1971, p.168.

http://www.plparchitecture.com/oakwood-timber-tower.html

https://www.ribaj.com/intelligence/plyscrapers-timber-skyscrapers-paul-fast-ian-king-what-now-what-next

https://www.dezeen.com/2015/11/09/cross-laminated-timber-construction-architecture-timber-age/

https://www.architectureanddesign.com.au/news/timber-makes-you-feel-good-and-helps-you-heal-says#

Art in the Age of Now: art brings Fulham Town Hall back to life

Among the high number of significant architectural gems located throughout West London, the former Fulham Town Hall is particularly striking. Located on Fulham Road, adjacent Fulham Broadway Station, the redundant town hall is a captivating structure and one that draws the attention of visitor and local alike.

A snapshot of Fulham Town Hall’s history

Its robust presence was designed by George Edwards in 1888-1890 and includes a handsomely ornamented exterior with Italianate influences and a twentieth century Baroque Extension designed by Francis Wood in 1904-1905. Given its special architectural and historic interest, the former Town Hall was as such designated Grade II* on 31st of July 1981.

Given the changes to Fulham’s social, economic and environmental circumstances over time, it became redundant as a town hall from 1965 and, whilst still intermittently used for offices and events, has remained vacant for the past decade. Now closed behind iron rail gates and sealed by large oak doors, it is no longer accessible to the wider public. That is, until recently.

Art has recently given the building a new purpose, but with the interiors left in tact (degradation included)

From May 20th – for the first time in over a decade – Fulham Town Hall’s doors reopened to welcome visitors back into its interior space via a new art exhibit, Art in the Age of Now. This free exhibition gave visitors the freedom to explore and discover not only hundreds of art works but also the ‘seen and unseen’ spaces of Fulham Town Hall in what is an immersive and unique experience.

Here, the extravagance of the exterior can be seen to have been reciprocated throughout the interior, with tall ceilings, elegant stairwells, beautiful tiling, large halls and a wealth of lavish materials, colours and textures. That being said, it obviously remained in an state of deterioration as a direct result of its long vacancy.

The art works made effective use of all available spaces including rooms, corridors, halls, ceilings and floors, and, when juxtaposed against interior’s currently poor condition, have resulted in an unexpected interconnectedness. The exhibit not only utilises the space as it is – unapologetically, given the degree of loss and erosion evident there – but has been curated in such a way that ensures existing spaces compliment and remain in dialogue with individual pieces.

Some areas of the building look like works of art in their own right as a result of the art installations

Within this context, some of the art works cause no undue harm to original fabric, with examples including projections, or free-standing installations, frames and sculptures; all of which result in negligible impacts upon the listed building. Otherwise, some exhibits have been far more intrusive in terms of original fabric, as artists have (temporarily) executed their pieces directly onto the walls, ceilings and floors, which has in turn transformed these spaces – particularly the basement – into works of art in their own right.

Both approaches result in unique interaction between audience, artworks and space, and as a result, the exhibition and associated impacts are – in the main – understood to be wholly beneficial; principally by repopulating and making effective use of space, where the interrelationship between use and preservation is widely recognised a fundament of best conservation practice.

Here, reimagining existing yet eroded and redundant spaces has reinvigorated the vacant building whilst establishing an inspiring precedence for not only the future of the Fulham Town Hall, but also the reuse of all derelict buildings alike.

See it here: https://fulhamtownhall.com/