Lovely rough-hewn brick

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Jumbo Utility brick known as “Bark.”

Beauty is not always symmetrical, or smooth or polished. Neither is nature. Some of the most beautiful buildings have a sort of rough-hewn quality, often provided gratis over the years by time and weather. The matter came up yesterday when Barrington, R.I., architect David Anreozzi, a member of the TradArch listserv, asked listers whether anyone was familiar with the type of brick pictured above.

“Does this ugly brick look familiar to you? I need to match it in size and texture for a proposed addition – before I paint it all,” wrote Andreozzi, who specializes in very high quality traditional houses. A lister then replied, identifying it as “Jumbo Utility — 7 ⅝ x 2 ⅝ x 4 ⅝.” He added, “Texture seems to be what Glen-Gery [a maker of brick] calls ‘Bark.’ Appropriate, it is a dog!”

As a TradArcher in good standing, I sent in a reply:

No, no! This brick is not ugly. It might be put to ugly use but its rough texture is not ugly. It is sort of naturally integrated into the order of laid brick. Not ugly. Maybe unusual, but not ugly per se. Actually, it is quite attractive. Is it machine made? I always loved the rough-hewn, hand-made quality of brick from old buildings in colonial times (here in America). This brick may be a sort of latter- day substitute for that hand-made quality. Or maybe it actually is hand made. Anyhow, I like it.

To my post here, Andreozzi replied: “It is more complicated than the brick style alone. The combination of the brick’s style, the contrasting darker grout lines, on a 1980s boxy modern house make for a difficult combination to work with. As part of a new facadectomy – :^) – we are trying to make it look more traditional.”

Good! But if the client wants the brick painted over, maybe it will be ugly after all! Maybe the client is the famous Ugly Client. Maybe what the Ugly Client really should do is tear his house down and replace it with a house of béton brut – French for rough concrete, better known as the modernist architec- tural style Brutalism. The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture describes Brutalism as “handled with an overemphasis on big chunky members which collide ruthlessly.”

Back in the early 1990s when Providence built a city-owned hotel to go with its convention center, it was to be of brick. An über-modernist member of the design review panel, Derek Bradford, urged that the mortar between the bricks be of the same red color as the bricks. His clear aim was to make the traditionally designed Westin look a little more modernist by eliminating the small detail of the contrasting coloration of the mortar. The building would have been flatter and more plasticky as a result. Bradford’s real intent was probably not to make it a better building – he is too smart for that – but to make a new traditional building look worse in the public eye, diminishing the very idea of new traditional architecture. It was a bad suggestion, and it was thankfully ignored.

The brick on top may be aptly called “Bark,” but not because it is a dog but because its surface resembles bark, the stuff on tree trunks. As with any material, it may be beautiful or ugly depending on how well or poorly it is used. Below is a great example of brick well used. It is from the new Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center at Brown University, winner of a 2016 Bulfinch Award and designed by Gary Brewer, of Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Providence has seen much new brick in recent years, some of it pretty horrid, such as the orange brick used in the new wing of the RISD Museum of Art, designed by Rafael Moneo. Excuse me, I will spare you a picture of that. (But you can Google it if you are a masochist.)

After I posted this, Tim Kelly sent in these interesting remarks. I was actually going to mention the too-sharp edges of the brick but I did not. Kelly mentions it. He writes:

It looks like a type of wire-cut brick. Machine-made. While this type of brick may have some charm as a close-up or a few individual bricks, when spread over an entire façade, it is really quite a dog.

There are three issues I have with this type of brick: 1) its a machine-made texture – there is no variation from brick to brick. 2) because of the manufacturing process, the bricks all have perfect 90-degree edges as opposed to the subtle irregularities they are trying to mimic. 3) the texture is too unnatural.  Perhaps there is traditional brickwork with a similar character I haven’t seen, but to me it just screams fake.

Take a look at the other offerings from Glenn Gery:
Molded Brick:  http://www.glengery.com/brick-products/facebrick/molded-brick
Hand-made Brick:  http://www.glengery.com/brick-products/facebrick/handmade-brick

Compare those two offerings to the version to be matched. Those have the appearance of a pleather jacket.  or leopard-print polyester fabric…

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Brick at Nelson Fitness Center, Brown University. (Photo by David Brussat)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Lovely rough-hewn brick

  1. Nikos Salingaros says:

    David,

    The beauty of a brick wall has to do with the variation of brick color, degree of surface texture, and the relationship between brick size and the thickness of the grout. This has been discussed at length elsewhere.

    At RISD, Moneo uses bricks so they have none of the marvelous qualities that bricks normally have, and I believe this is intentional. To remember Louis Kahn, these particular bricks cannot be what they wish to be!

    Cheers,
    Nikos

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did you see the version of my post with the paragraph on Derek Bradford’s attempt to blandify the brick on the Westin Hotel in the 1990s? I added it maybe five minutes after posting the original. It speaks to your point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen J. ORourke says:

    Looks like I can’t make coffee this morning. How about 2:00 today? Do you know where the 7 Stars is in East Providence? Lovely old and restored brick mill.

    Like

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