The world is beautiful and made of brick.
This has been my motto since I started documenting bricks and architecture as Brick of Chicago in 2016. But I didn’t always believe that. If you had asked me three years ago what color a brick was, I would have said red—and then I probably would have asked you why you were even asking. Bricks are bricks: they cover buildings, they’re commonplace, and they’re boring.
Three years ago, I was lucky in two ways: first, I was wrong, and second, I live in Chicago.
Brick is everywhere in Chicago. The city was initially built of wood– thousands and thousands of cheap balloon-frame wood buildings. Then, it burnt down in 1871, and then again in 1874. Not wanting to try for a third, Chicagoans dug down into the clay underneath their city to make a fire-resistant material: bricks.
As the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote in 1912: “The new Chicago is being built mostly of itself. The clay that makes the products used in the loftiest buildings is the clay dug from the mud of the territory embraced by what is called the Chicago district. The skyline that rises above Michigan Avenue is simply a pleasingly modified form of clay like that deposited in the made land a few hundred feet to the east.”
The bricks made from this local clay, called Chicago Common Bricks, were messy. The clay was rich with lime and aggregate, giving the bricks a wild texture and the propensity to be misshapen (and occasionally explode in the kiln). The iron content was variable and batches came out buff-yellow, pink, red, and shades in between. The places where the bricks touched in the kiln burned cooler and remained on the face of the fired bricks as spots and stripes. Each brick, in turn, was unique.
This is what drew me to bricks and masonry. I don’t have a background in architecture, brickmaking, or bricklaying. I’m a middle school theatre teacher. But once I started noticing bricks — red bricks, blue bricks, rug-textured bricks, glazed bricks — I couldn’t look back. So I started photographing and researching them. Because I’m an educator, I couldn’t keep it to myself– I needed to tell everyone!
My friends had mixed feelings about this, I can assure you. “How can a brick, a boxy lump of clay, be architecturally interesting?” they rightfully asked.
A brick lends itself so easily to design. Each face provides a unique surface and shape to catch light or add interest to the wall. Louis Kahn famously said that when he spoke to a brick, it told him that it desired to be an arch. Part of what I love about bricks is how many other things they can become as well.
Still not convinced? Let me give you an example. St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish Catholic Church in Chicago’s Pulaski Park neighborhood is one of the finest examples of what a simple brick can be. Opened in 1881 at a cost of $50,000, the immigrant parish saved money on construction by using common brick for the entire building (with limestone added later as the coffers grew). This budget is also reflected in the rose window, which is (comparatively) small with the tracery done in wood rather than carved stone. But the church still manages to impress and hold space thanks to the use of brick.
Architect Patrick Keely created a sense of more windows and tracery detail through an intricate brick medallion that dominates the facade. Outlined in multiple bands of brick, the medallion is then divided up by stripes of dentals, made by turning the brick and alternatively pushing out or pulling the brick back. Below the single window are two smaller false windows of brick. Combined with the mottled color of the wall (thanks to the common brick), what could have been a massive blank wall is instead a symphony of detail and color.
When I feature St. Stanislaus Kostka on my walking tours, I compare it to a
painting by Van Gogh. Seen from afar, the building blends together. Up close, each brick proves to be its own little world of color and texture, like the thick streaks of paint that dot Van Gogh’s canvases.
Each brick a beautiful part of a more beautiful whole.
At its base level a brick is designed to hold a building up, or (more so nowadays) cover a facade. But too often I see new construction using brick only as a masking product and not as an expressive tool of design. We should embrace a brick, not for what it is at its base level, but what it can be.
A brick can be more than just structure and facing. It can be a brushstroke. It is capable of much more expression than it is given credit. Through simple moves like changing the orientation of a brick, or pulling out or pushing back a brick, a wall and a building can be a tapestry.
Since discovering that bricks are not boring, I’ve spent three years documenting, researching, and sharing bricks with the world. Some of my favorites have been found on grand buildings like St. Stanislaus Kostka. More often, however, my favorite bricks are on school, apartments, office buildings, shops, and the other seemingly mundane buildings that fill up our cities.
I know not everyone is or can be as obsessed with brick as I am. But through this column, and my photography, I hope I can encourage you to think of the humble brick, and masonry in new ways. St. Stanislaus Kostka proves that if you embrace the brick as an artistic and sculptural tool, even the cheapest building materials can come together to create a holy site.
Will Quam is an educator and architecture photographer based in Chicago. His project, Brick of Chicago, has been featured on PBS Chicago, CBS Chicago, The Chicago Tribune, The Journal of the International Brick Collectors Association, Chicagoist.com, and Italy’s Il Post. Will is also the creator of the Case Studies in Brick for Bricks Inc in Chicago. He can be found online at www.brickofchicago.com