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Entries in masonry (9)


Wang Shu: Ningbo History Museum, 2008

Wang Shu, Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, China, 2008. Photographer: Fernando Guerra, Project 679, FG+SG fotografia de arquitectura

Wang Shu, Amateur Architecture Studio, Hangzhou, Zhejiang.  When most of China seems to be the playground of capitalist architectural excess: an excess of ambition and money, the new China seemingly free of inhibiting content, we have Wang Shu, whose statement of intent on his website reads:

I design a house instead of a building. The house is the amateur architecture approach to the infinitely spontaneous order.
Built spontaneously, illegally and temporarily, amateur architecture is equal to professional architecture. But amateur architecture is just not significant.

One problem of professional architecture is, that it thinks too much of a building. A house, which is close to our simple and trivial life, is more fundamental than architecture. Before becoming an architect, I was only a literati. Architecture is part time work to me. For one place, humanity is more important than architecture while simple handicraft is more important than technology.
The attitude of amateur architecture, - though first of all being an attitude towards a critical experimental building process -, can have more entire and fundamental meaning than professional architecture. For me, any building activity without comprehensive thoughtfulness will be insignificant.

Ningbo History Museum is built from tiles, brick, concrete and stone, salvaged from other buildings, sites of collapse, rubble: each piece comes with a fragment of history and unrepeatable form, giving an elasticity to its use: fit is unpredictable but follows very old techniques.  There is a patience both to assembly and to the concept as a whole: the building evolves from its materials.  

When one thinks that the Great Leap Forward only happened in 1958, the Cultural Revolution  in 1966 and the economic reforms in 1978, it is possible that Wang Shu is reclaiming China's deep past — not historicism, but a sophisticated historical thinking.  

Wang Shu, Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, China, 2008. Photographer: Fernando Guerra, Project 679, FG+SG fotografia de arquitectura


Gerard Hoffnung: the bricklayer's lament

Hoffnung was born in Berlin, 1925, went to London as a refugee in 1939, became a writer, a composer and a cartoonist of a particularly gentle kind:

Gerard Hoffnung, cartoon.

From 1958:

And how dreadful, he died in 1959 of a cerebral haemorhage, just 34. 


St Basil

St. Basil's cathedral, 1554. Restoration scaffolding, 1968

Found this 1968 photograph of St Basil's Cathedral undergoing a restoration.  Evidently during the Soviet era, the backdrop for news reports was generally one of the other more utilitarian modern faces of Red Square, but today its polychromed glory is the ubiquitous backdrop to anything coming out of Moscow.  

Somewhat surprisingly, for those of us who have never been there, this is a brick building, built in 1554. Previous churches throughout Russia and on this site had been wood, probably much like this one from the mid-1700s.

Richard Davies, photographer: Podporozhye, Arkhangel region, Church of St Vladimir , 1757

During a 1955 restoration of St Basil's, a wood frame was found inside its load-bearing brick walls.  This would seem to indicate that the long tradition of stud or stave churches (that date from the late 900s) was used as the internal scaffolding for the new, aggrandised St. Basil's.  It is, they say, a veritable textbook of experimental brick work.  The traditional tall thin volumes of Russian Orthodox stave churches suits brick well: spans are narrow.

St Basil was something of a mendicant himself, something his beautiful but gaudy presence on Red Square belies.


Union Bay, British Columbia

Demolition of the Union Bay coke ovens, May 1968. ©Cumberland Museum and Archives.

Yesterday I mentioned that we have a patio made from pale cream brick, scavenged from one of the old Union Bay brick kilns that used to sit crumbling beside the Island Highway. It was a devil to lay as each brick is shaped to be part of a beehive kiln, i.e. no face is parallel to any other.  It turns out that the kilns were coke ovens, part of the coal industry of Vancouver Island.  And the bricks came from Scotland complete with Scottish bricklayers, all imported, in 1880 or so, by Robert Dunsmuir, the coal magnate who effectively owned the island. 

Coke.  From wikipedia 'it is the solid carbonaceous material derived from the destructive distillation of low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal'.  Coal is fired at high temperature driving off coal gas (hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, CO2 and H2O), coal tar (phenols and aromatic hydrocarbons) and water.  Coal gas and tar are recovered and used in a number of industrial processes, otherwise, coal gas especially, is fairly toxic.  Coke burns at a higher temperature than coal, thus its value.  It didn't stay on the island, it was exported by the shipload

Union Bay was a company town, with a coal mine, a railway line, a wharf, the coke ovens and a coke washer.  Labour was imported: Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Scots.  Anyone who thinks that the present day anti-development, 'let's keep Vancouver Island natural and beautiful' lobby is stemming the tide of industrial exploitation of the land hasn't taken the coal industry seriously.  It was a significant, extensive, disruptive extraction enterprise, connected by water to the rest of the British Empire in all its outlines.


Gabriola Island brick

Stacking brick at the Gabriola Brick and Shale Products, ca 1914. GHMS Archives 1996.040.006

So what are bricks made of.  Easy, I thought, clay. Ha. Not exactly. Gabriola Brick and Shale Products that operated from 1910 - 1954, used Gabriola Island blue and brown shale.  While fireclay, a glacial clay that produces a much harder brick, was found in conjunction with coal seams near Victoria and Comox on Vancouver Island, Gabriola brick used shale, crushed by millstones made from local sandstone, plus diatomaceous earth and sand.  There are perfectly round basins on Gabriola, clearly where the millstones were drilled out.  I leave that purposely vague because I don't know how they could do that.   

Cretaceous shales of ceramic value are from the Pleistocene era, are sedimentary, have a low fusion temperature and a short vitrification range.  All the deposits in British Columbia turn out pink to red building brick.  In the nineteenth century, every city had a brickworks, just as they had a lime kiln. Evidently there is either shale, clay shales, or clay throughout the western provinces, but it is only deposits near cities that were developed – it says something about the cost of transportation in the early to mid-twentieth century: punitive relative to the cost of developing a local brickyard.  China and stoneware clay, rare in BC, were the basis of the large pottery industry in Medicine Hat, Alberta, which, unlike local brick production, was given a national reach facilitated by the Canadian Pacific Railway. 

It seems obvious to say it, but the colour of local brick gives a specific and often unique colour to a city that derives directly from the kind of shale or shale clay the city sits upon.  Today, in Canada, all brick comes from one source of brick manufacture in Ontario.  Even I-X-L of Medicine Hat, the once dominant brick manufacturer in Western Canada, is gone.  According to the 1952 BC Department of Mines bulletin (No. 30): Clay and Shale Deposits of British Columbia, clay and shale are everywhere in abundance – it is impossible that it is mined it out.  There must be some other economic equation in operation that makes one vast centralised brickyard with extreme delivery costs more efficient than a local industry.  Personally I don't get it.


mexican vaults

Mexican vault. photo by Michael Ramage, Scaffolding to structure seminar, Cambridge University. This example was done by unskilled students in a learning process sort of way, but it shows the nature of the brick used.

A very interesting pdf of a Scaffolding to Structure seminar, under Philippe Block and Lara Davis at Cambridge University in 2010, is here.  It includes the building of a mexican vault, above, outlined for them by Alfonso Ramirez Ponce, a Mexican architect who lectures at UNAM and teaches low cost sustainable construction using regional materials. 

Such vaults are called bovedas; an odd little video, below, shows precisely how they are done in Mexico, by skilled masons:


The Boveda at Casa Chorro from bloodredcolt on Vimeo.



the timbrel vault

Rafael Guastavino's patent application for the centuries old timbrel vault. ca 1880

This wide, flat vault relies on thin layers of brick, tile or stone with carefully misaligned joints, that make a laminated shell. The layers are mortared and so all the edges are held in place not by the gravitational pressure exerted on each chamfered brick or tile face running parallel to the direction of the vault, but by laminated continuous lightweight surfaces — cohesive construction, called so by Rafael Guastavino who imported the technique to the United States from the northern Mediterranean where it was ubiquitous — the Catalan vault, for example.
All this is from a dandy set of photos and texts from Low-Tech magazine

What is quite interesting is the absence of formwork, other than some regulating lines at the base of the vault.  Masons stood on the finished portions of the vault itself as the next section cantilevered ahead.  And all layers were laid down at the same time.  It is an incredibly elegant construction system, and was what Dieste used in his extended cantilevered ribbon-like vaults.

The timbrel vault in construction


Eladio Dieste's bricks

Eladio Dieste. Salto bus station, Uruguay, 1974

Dieste's hallmark: double cantilever self-supporting thin-shell single-layer brick vaults.  Here for a bus terminal in Salto, Uruguay in 1974.  Dieste lived from 1917 to 2000, a surprisingly contemporary career, little known here.  Gaussian vaults: double curves.  The book on all of this is Remo Pedreschi's The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture.  Pedreschi's explanation of masonry vaults points out that the thinness of the shell is dependent on the dimensions of the block and the finishing layer, typical ratio is 30/80. Dieste's vaults were 130mm thick, and the vaults spanned 50m, an astounding relationship using bricks and mortar and not achievable using concrete.

Pedreschi writes that 'Dieste's sense of cosmic economy' – what a lovely phrase – led him to derive strength from form, rather than from mass, using hollow brick (2/3 the weight of concrete) and extremely shapely catenary curves, i.e. higher, curvier vaults.

So, what was going on in Uruguay while this beautiful work was being built? State of emergency in 1968, Tupamaros geurillas defeated by the military in 1973, torture, break up of the unions, torture, the removal of the Communist Party, torture, political prisoners, dictatorship, mass emigration, economic crisis, desaparecidos. 

Does stability lead to complacency, and does complacency lead to dull thinking?  I've always thought so myself.  In theory it should be the opposite, but in practice it isn't.


Melnikov's bricks

Konstantin Melnikov's Moscow house in construction, 1929. © / janvaneyck

The AD Classics description of Melnikov's house by Tim Winstanley  explains:
'Exterior walls finished with white plaster are constructed in a honeycomb latticework using local brick.... The shapes of the windows are a direct result of the honeycomb structure, with the angles determined by quarter lengths of the standard local bricks. Nearly 60 hexagonal windows employing nine types of frames establish the aesthetic quality of the rear cylinder, showering the interior with light. The manner of structure and glazing system employed also eliminated the need for structural lintels or sills. Voids that were not glazed in the honeycomb structure were filled with clay and scraps, adding mass to a wall system that helps to mitigate the extreme temperature differentials of summer and winter.'

Is brick the material for this?  In 1929, did Melnikov say, hey we could do a diagrid. Shukov did it in steel in 1896, but times are tight so we could do it in — BRICK!  

Probably.  Embargoes, economic collapse, 5-year plan failures, absence of the full spectrum of building materials is the spur to invention.  We need them as much as we need advances in technology.