Architects are readopting brick as London’s building block

Cities were once built from the earth from which they were extruded: Rome from its creamy travertine; Bath from its warm limestone; Paris from its cooler, bluer limestone; Glasgow its ginger sandstone; Jerusalem from Jerusalem stone. Others were built of the mud excavated from beneath the site or from timber from the woods which engulfed them. London, meanwhile, is built on soft clay and owes everything to those compacted, fired blocks of its substrata.

The fabric of London is brick. The city’s key landmarks may be dressed in stone but the buildings which form the backgrounds to the everyday domestic lives of London’s citizens are of solid brick. From St James’s Palace to elegant Queen Anne terraces, from genteel Georgian garden squares to stolid Victorian streets, the fabric of the city’s domesticity is invested in bricks and mortar – a term which has become synonymous with property.

Brick, however, was not generally seen as the material of modernity, a movement more readily associated with the slippery transparency of glass and steel. Brick evoked dark interiors, soot-stained stations and oppressive mills. Construction techniques changed, as steel frames, cavity and curtain walls obviated the need for brick. When it was used it was often as a cladding material, which raised issues about Ruskinian honesty – such as, should a material which appears structural be used as a decorative skin? Such modernist dogma appears to have subsided.

Brick survived an onslaught of glass and steel and thrived in a line of extraordinary buildings from the vast Battersea Power Station (reputedly made of 66m bricks) to the British Library in St Pancras.

London’s most architecturally inventive buildings are also built from brick, from William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath to JF Bentley’s awesome, neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral. A whole language of 20th-century brick forms emerged embracing Charles Holden’s inventively moderne Underground stations, the London County Council’s Dutch- and deco-influenced social housing, garden suburb arts and crafts and the endless rows of bypass semis.

Perhaps the most spectacular of all is Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station, now the Tate Modern, where the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron are constructing a striking new tower at its southern end. This huge structure is part of a renaissance in brick in the capital. It has not been sudden. Architects have been slowly readopting brick as the city’s fundamental building block for some years.

Sudbury Town Station, designed by Charles Holden

Early harbingers included a number of very fine, often austere houses. Caruso St John’s Brick House (2005), in west London, featured an interior expressed in the raw brick more usually used on elevations. Jonathan Woolf’s Brick Leaf House, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, is larger and more conventionally luxurious, yet its brick wrapping is pure puritan. Woolf’s Painted House is an abstracted reinterpretation of Golders Green’s brick semis.

Earlier this year, Sir David Chipperfield’s elegant (and eye-wateringly expensive) new house, 7-10 Cottage Place, replacing some mews houses beside the Brompton Oratory, brought a kind of severe, stripped classicism to the private house, mediating between the baroque of the Oratory and the red brick of Knightsbridge. Here is a house built entirely of brick, even the chunky columns, and the effect is pleasingly restrained. This is super-prime property made unobtrusive through its everyday material.

Other architects have used brick on cheaper projects. Over the past couple of years it is housing, more than houses, that has seen an explosion in brick. Duggan Morris has created an oeuvre of brick buildings, including a very fine housing scheme in De Beauvoir Town currently under construction. Sergison Bates’ housing in Finsbury Park is a reinterpretation of the brick-built London mansion block.

The most successful and most sophisticated of these schemes is Maccreanor Lavington’s Saxon Court in King’s Cross for developer Argent. This is the kind of dense, solid, urbane architecture that London has traditionally struggled with. That Maccreanor Lavington split their time between London and the Netherlands is clear: this is a building of continental panache and scale, one that learns both from the slender brick houses of Amsterdam and the industrial architecture of King’s Cross. It is also, unusually in the current climate, a building that accommodates a genuine social mix: it has a large proportion of affordable housing and no visible distinction between the private and social element.

The elevations at King’s Cross are designed around a grid and the elements are contained within it – a double height ground floor with large retail windows, the extrusion of a taller central section and the recessing of occasional balconies. The windows are topped and tailed with green brick spandrel panels which seem almost woven. The complexity of depth in the façades, the constant recession and bringing forward of elements, creates a delicate play of shadow and texture which uses what is best about brick, its capacity for modelling and its subtle variation in colour and surface to create one of the finest façades to have appeared in London since the war.

Having said that, there is little here that is new: look for precedent in Sir Albert Richardson’s Bracken House (1959), the former headquarters of this newspaper. This is architecture that is generous to both resident and city, but also aware of a harsh context which embraces railway arches and council blocks, warehouses and terraces, all built in brick.

The new assembly hall at Brentwood School, designed by Cottrell & Vermeulen

This gradual reabsorption of brick into the architectural expression of the city (as opposed to the suburb and the dormitory where the mass housebuilders never abandoned it) has spread beyond housing into the public realm. A few very finely considered new school buildings, for example, have seen architects using brick decoratively and to great effect. Cottrell & Vermeulen’s delightful Brentwood School blends Dutch gables with a kind of neo-Tudor diagrid, while Spa School treats its façade as a mini terrace with a variegated strip of gables and richly patterned brickwork.

But this is not an exclusively London – or even a British – story. Northern Europe has, in a sense, rediscovered its brick roots too. The use of the material to create and define the industrial, trading and residential centres of many of the most successful (often port) cities – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Hamburg, London and Liverpool, among others – gives brick a sense of urban continuity which allows architects to concentrate on space, light and mass to create the finest possible buildings, without getting hung up on finish, appearance and style, which has led to such a strange, disparate and unsatisfying series of urban regenerations across Europe.

With its roots spread across Dutch houses, British mills and Hanseatic warehouses, brick facilitates a kind of northern modernism that can embrace both the expressionist modernism of Fritz Höger’s Chilehaus (Hamburg 1924) and Sigurd Lewerentz’s restrained St Peter’s (Klippan, in Sweden, 1963), as well as the exuberance of English maximalists such as John Outram and FAT, an art and architecture collaborative.

For decades, brick has seemed to be confined to the endless exurban landscapes of the mass housebuilders, the much derided Noddy boxes, shoe boxes and poor pastiches of Victorian solidity. In the centre of the city it was replaced by glass, steel and spuriously colourful panels, an architecture as paper-thin in appearance and as lacking in texture as it was in ideas. But now, I hope it is safe to say, brick is back.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent

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