Unlike Johannesburg architect, Thorsten Deckler, who feels that you can pretty much build anything with facebrick, many people over the decades have felt differently about utilitarian brick and concrete. Including English poet, writer and broadcaster, Sir John Betjeman who wrote a 10-stanza poem, entitled Slough which called for the destruction of the English town by the German Luftwaffe.
In the inter-war years, the English town of Slough was used as a dumping ground for redundant war materials and quite abruptly, just before World War 11, became the home of hundreds of ugly new concrete and brick factories. Betjeman was so struck by the desecration caused by industrialisation and what he perceived as the “menace of things to come” that he was prompted to write the poem but later regretted its harshness.
The ‘new’ trading estate appearance of Slough, however, was a foretaste of the Brutalist brick movement, which flourished from the 1950s to 1970s, and which has some severe critics, amongst them Charles, Prince of Wales. His writings and speeches have often been condemning of the movement and in 1987 at a Corporation of London Planning and Communication Committee annual dinner he said: “When they (Luftwaffe) knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace with anything more offensive than rubble”.
Luckily, not everyone shares these Brutalist sentiments! Deckler who, together with his wife Anne Graupner, runs a practice named 26’10 South Architects after the latitude of Johannesburg - this is in part a commitment to this rather fraught but exciting city - is a fan of brick.
And, whilst many of us who grew up in the 70’s still have mixed feelings about suburban facebrick housing, Deckler has less qualms professing to a “somewhat warm and fuzzy feeling for knotty pine and facebrick”.
“I guess I associate these materials with both the happy homes I spent time in as well as a period in which honesty of materials was valued,” he explains. However, he admits that the opposite can also be true: exposed brick deployed in an oppressive environment can lead to a strong aversion for the material.
Asked to name local and international architects that have worked with exposed brick who he admires, Deckler admits to being a fan of the Swedish Brutalist architect, Sigurd Lewerentz (1885 – 1975) and local architect, Jack Clinton. However, he wonders if, “Lewerentz fits the Brutalism bill 100 percent”? In photographs his work might seem forbidding but Deckler, who recently returned from a trip to Sweden where he visited a number of Lewerentz projects, comments that when you “visit his works, they feel humane, even friendly.”
According to Deckler, Lewerentz used brick in a gripping manner which is witnessed in many of his projects from the Eneborg housing project which called for construction in the local dark clay brick to two world renowned Swedish churches, St Peter’s in Klippan and St Mark’s in Bjorkhagen, Sweden. Both churches show his investment in brick as a material and his mastery of the medium. And, both churches are a showcase of his ability to transform the use of clay brick from what many believe to be the mundane into tactile spaces which resonate with atmosphere.
In the St Peter’s structure, Deckler was particularly admiring of Lewerentz’s ability to allude to and evoke the atmosphere of the Roman catacombs where early Christians hid to escape capture.
Here the entire structure is made from brick including the walls, floors and ceilings. He also forbade the workmen to cut any of the bricks or grind off welding burs on the steel work to ensure an unpretentious directness. “One can argue that this is what most builders in South Africa achieve without even trying….but in the case of Lewerentz it’s a premeditated move over which he presided with utmost control and intent,” explains Deckler.
The Brutalist movement was a big fan of brick - utilitarian, stark and rugged, Brutalist brick buildings are typically massive in character if not in size and are renowned for their functionality. Favoured for educational buildings, government projects and public housing, Brutalism can be seen as an expression of moral seriousness amongst architects after the lightness and frivolity of some 1930s and 1940 architecture. “I have some feelings for Brutalism where it was handled less dogmatically and where proportions, human scale and the integration of nature are well considered,” says Deckler recalling many of Lewerentz’s works.
Facebrick, however, was favoured long before the Brutalist movement as is witnessed in the Monadnock Building in Chicago, USA. Built in 1891 and completed in 1893 the Monadnock was the tallest load bearing building ever constructed and is identified by its unornamented vertical mass of purple-brown brick. Deckler, who recently returned from a trip to Chicago was impressed by this 16-story high-rise. “The facebrick material made an incredible impression on me and the building’s deep window reveals and rounded corners gave it a tactile feel that was almost African in nature, reminding me of the earth architecture of Mali,” he commented.
From churches to corporate buildings and suburban homes, around the world facebrick has featured prominently in the last century, the choice of architects looking for honesty, practicality and integrity.
Deckler leaves us with this thought: “This all goes back to the argument that decent architecture, no matter what material and style it is, can be enabling, comforting, inspiring and memorable if it is in control of proportion and scale, and offers intimacy and generosity.”
Corobrik, the brickmaking giant has been supplying the Southern African market for the past 115 years.
“Our bricks are as relevant today as they were a century back, “said Musa Shangase, Corobrik Commercial Director.
Caption. 0705. Brick vaults illuminated by single window in St. Mark’s church. Image. T Deckler.