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September 06, 2007

Architecture and Happiness: More Brick

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back here I wrote a posting about a small brick path that gave me some intense architecture-appreciation pleasure. A few of the many possible lessons I'd be happy to draw from this: The space between objects is just as important as the objects themselves; we endow objects -- central focus points -- with far too much importance; there's a lot of value to be found in modest, overlooked nooks and crannies; scale and ambition aren't everything ...

In any case, ever since writing that posting my mind and my eyes have been dwelling on the topic of bricks and happiness. My snapshot finger soon caught on and followed along.

Let me start -- for the sake of comparing-and-constrasting as well as for the fun of being cranky -- with some brickiness that I most emphatically don't like. A great big upside-down smiley -- a frownie? -- to this impersonal, glossy, bleak wall, for instance:


It's no life-enriching experience to pass by that particular wall, that's for sure. It has about as much sensual-intellectual appeal as a cafeteria's floor.

As for my usual reflex to blame everything on modernism ... Well, here's an example of brickwork from circa 1960, the height of the NYC version of High Modernism, when architects, designers, developers, and planners were peddling hygiene, clean lines, flat surfaces, right angles, and light, light, ever more light:


Yes, yellow bricks -- and wasn't that a great innovation?

Verdict: All the personality of a drawing made in MacPaint circa 1984, minus the sometimes likable goofiness.


While we think of bricks as heavy objects full of personality laid in courses by handworkers called bricklayers, the fact is that these days most bricks for large projects are mass-produced to a striking degree of uniformity, are assembled into walls off-site, and are then applied to the outsides of buildings in huge blocks. It's a process rather like gluing a sheet of postage stamps onto the side of a cardboard box.


And you can tell that's the case, can't you? These bricks are neutral. They don't seem thick or weighty; they certainly don't beg to be touched. They don't say "solid matter," let alone "made by the hand of man." They say something like "a designer thought this would be an appropriate surface treatment." What's with the red mortar anyway? Who thought that was a good idea? And why hasn't he been drummed out of the design field yet?

Now, feast your eyes on some old-style beauties.


Warmth, heft, irregularity crossed with regularity ... They're like a display in a bakery store. Let's zoom in.


Would it be unfair to compare the modern brickwork far above to Wonder Bread and the trad brickwork to a high-quality baguette? To shift comparisons ... For me, experiencing this wall is like looking at a painting by someone like Bonnard -- it's all personality and touch -- while looking at the modern walls above is like leafing through a rather dull trade magazine. In the trad wall, you sense the hand, the mind, the eye, and the touch of workers. It's very human and approachable. It isn't a mere effect, and it isn't a surface treatment either. It's the thing itself.

Small musing: Does it seem to anyone else, as it sometimes does to me, that everything in the modern world is becoming a subset of graphic design? Is this a development to be desired?

(By the way, stare at those bricks and that mortar ... The stains, the wobbles, the colors ... Sink further in ... Clouds, galaxies ... It's all there, no? If you're into letting your mind be tickled into a state of cosmic free-associating, who needs Morris Louis, Mark Rothko, and Helen Frankenthaler when there are brick walls like this one to get lost in?)

No wonder then that traditional brick walls look so unassumingly good when patterns of light and shadow fall across them.


That's nature and culture not at war but at one -- man not turning everything into a parking lot and then providing some "entertainment" to relieve the bleakness he has created, but operating within and as part of larger, deeper processes, contributing to and enhancing life rather than dominating what we've been given and plowing it under for the sake of someone's "vision."

There was a bit of time not long ago (mid-'90s, maybe?) when designers and architects woke up to the fact that such a thing as "hopeless monotony" is a possibility and that "decoration" might not be illegal. Where brick walls went, suddenly zebra stripes and clown-suits were everywhere. Here's one example.


Credit for trying, I suppose. But the effect is surfacey-shallow, abstract, and disorienting -- about as restful-stimulating and deep as a piece of Op art. It's what people in the magazine business call a "fast read" -- something that your eyes bolt to, digest in seconds, then move on from.

Here's a more traditional way of using bricks and patterns.


Hey, speaking of compare-and-contrast, why not set modern brick right up against traditional brick?



The eye, the mind, and the imagination sink into the traditional brick in the way they might sink into a painting, a meal, or a poem -- perhaps even a love affair. It's a rich esthetic adventure. With the modern brick ... Well, let's be generous and grant that it's a fast read.



Here's a striking passage from an interesting New York magazine article about the way that urban dwellers are now healthier than suburban and rural people are. (One of the reasons for the urban advantage is that urban people walk more.)

A 2002 study by the National Institutes of Health found that people living in buildings built before 1973 were significantly more likely to walk one-mile distances than those living in areas with newer architecture -- because their environments were less architecturally ugly.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to numerous visitors who passed along a link to this hilarious anti-architecture rant by Annie Choi.

UPDATE 3: Deconstructionist starchitect Peter Eisenman tells the New York Observer, "I would never live in anything I design." Question for the day: Would you buy a meal prepared by a cook who would never eat his own food?

posted by Michael at September 6, 2007


Here's a URL which will lead you to some especially beautiful photos of bricks at Sissinghurst Castle:

I really ought to be working...

Posted by: alias clio on September 6, 2007 12:24 PM

Is it coincidence or mental telepathy? In the post queue is an article on University of Washington architecture with lots of pix showing (among other things) that architects had to tie new & old buildings visually by using the same/similar colored bricks. Stay tuned next week ...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 6, 2007 12:53 PM

I people of all races, religions, nationalities respond viscerally the same to these stimuli? Because I certainly get the same happiness vibe off the same bricks and brick patterns as you do. But we're both white and college-educated and over-40 and grew up in "suburban" type places and in Protestant churches and in America. I'm just wondering, would changing any of those things change which patterns offer "comfort" or "beauty"? I it possible that the designers or purchasers of your examples, which we don't respond to, feel super-happiness in those designs?

I mean, tastes so vary otherwise. You love Peggy Lee---I've always thought she really couldn't sing very well. Not everyone thinks the same faces or bodies are "beautiful". (Like, I will never 'get' Anna Nicole Smith, and yet some guys do. You don't 'get' Russell Crowe---but I do). Is it possible that it isn't simply pretension which causes some modernist architects to choose that style---is it possible they actually respond to it more? (I mean, maybe some people really like Toni Morrison).

Posted by: annette on September 6, 2007 1:06 PM

Per this well-researched article historical bricks are not necesserily red and/or purple.

See also the point about "all-white" classical Palladian ideal: if you like columns and friezes and classical architecture, shouldn't you pine for light-toned bricks, to be consistent on principle? Otherwise, your preferences appear to be quite subjective and random.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 6, 2007 1:08 PM

Yes Annette. There is a universal appeal to things that fit an expected pattern and yet are infinately individual. Christropher Alexander calls this "the quality without a name."

He offers a memorable example: Looking at a stand of maple trees, you can recognize each leaf as a maple leaf, yet each one is distinct from the others and together, blowing in the breeze, they constitute something profoundly beautiful.

If all the leaves were identical, the same view would be unsettling, threatening, not right in some hard to describe way.

Some might say that it's the difference between what is man-made and what is divinely made.

Posted by: Murphy on September 6, 2007 1:16 PM

I like the yellow bricks.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 6, 2007 1:40 PM

Clio -- That's a real wonderland, tks. Have you been? I should really explore the English genius for gardens more than I have...

Donald -- Sounds juicy, looking forward to it.

Annette -- It's one of the key questions, isn't it? I have some probably not-worth-paying-attention hunches. 1) There's a lot that's culturally relative and personal and "subjective." 2) "Subjective" experience has its own kind of "objectivity" -- in other words, the fact that we like the more textured bricks is very real to us. 3) There are in fact some large generalizations that can be made about taste and preference across culture. 4) They have to be made cautiously, because taste-dictators are always trying to impose tastes on the rest of us in the name of universality, and we shouldn't feed that tendency. 5) Nonetheless there are some large and general ratios, patterns, and regularities that are worth noticing and exploring, and that we'd all be better off respecting. Murphy does a great job of summarizing some of Christopher Alexander's points -- Alexander's one of the handful of people hwo makes Large Statements about these things that I find trustworthy and brain-opening. Have you read him? I'd love to hear how you respond. Beyond that, there's always the mystery of "Why do so many people put up with efficiency-addled corporate crap," whether food, bricks, movies, music ... Some people even seem to choose it freely. Are they doing so because they don't know any better, or because they've been brainwashed? Are they being mistreated by the creators of such crap -- cheated of their full humanity? Or are they finding real sustenance there? Some of today's computer-raised kids, for instance, really seem to prefer a videogame universe to the real thing. And people do seem to adapt to what they're born into. I dunno, really. I find that much real food, real art (whether popular or high), etc simply delivers a lot more to me than corporate soulless crap does, and that it does so partly by making room for the imagination (mine) to participate. There's room there for my soul to take root, even for love to flourish. The hyper-regular brickwork ... It can be attention-grabby and efficient. But my soul bounces right off it. You?

Tat -- That's a good link, tks. I'm hoping to contrast trad vs. modern brickwork, not colors. Adobe bricks, for instance, can get very tan or even offwhite in color, and god knows adobe bricks can be awfully soulful. The high modernist white and yellow bricks of circa 1960, though ... A sad era, still too much with us.

Murphy -- Nicely said!

Patriarch -- That's just weird. Did you go to art school or something?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2007 2:41 PM

Nature always has ordered chaos that we can not dominate. Modern is such a control freak as to remove that. Modern screams insecurity and overcompensating to me. "See! See! We can make it more perfect than nature. We so rule!"
But absolute perfect is impossible and we get an uncanny valley in moder architecture.

Posted by: TW on September 6, 2007 2:48 PM

Patriarch: Maybe the yellow brick reminds you of playing dodgeball?

Michael: A fine read, but if you want to get published you should write like this. I think he is saying the same thing you are. Note: I think he is saying the same thing....

I suspect "hapticity" is a good word to whip out at chichi parties.

Posted by: Brian on September 6, 2007 3:14 PM

"That's just weird. Did you go to art school or something?"

Ha. No, can you believe it? I actually like that modernist crap on my very own! WTF is wrong with me!?

Posted by: the patriarch on September 6, 2007 3:17 PM

Most houses in Europe are brick.

Posted by: omar on September 6, 2007 3:55 PM

re: update: "numerous visitors", er?
About color of bricks:
MB:...yellow bricks -- and wasn't that a great innovation?
Me [via the linked article]: yellow bricks were not modernists' innovation. Actually, they are indicative of an OLDER building than the red bricks. Half of Northern eEurope is yellow-bricked, places like Holland and Poland.

You're mixing different things again, Michael. Want to engage in dichotomies, then compare hand-made with mass-produced. Unevenly pigmented (or burned, as is often the case, f.ex. with purplish bricks) - to color-controlled. Textured - with smooth. Various kinds of mortar - traditional (components,colors, availability, etc) vs. modern (same categoris).

What you do, as in case of street architecture, you compare apple (any apple) to grapefruit grown in 19th century country-estate greenhouse.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 6, 2007 4:12 PM

TW -- "Modern screams insecurity and overcompensating to me." That's nicely put!

Brian -- Eek, that's a beauty. Takes you back to the lecture hall, doesn't it?

Patriarch -- There's probably a pill for it.

Omar -- Brick and stone give residential areas a much different feel than American-style "balloon framing" does, don't you find?

Tat -- "Numerous visitors, among whom Tat was the first."

Yellow brick can be lovely if it has some sense of texture, feel, irregularity. But modernist massproduced yellow brick circa 1960 in NYC was part of a movement that was pretty hideous. All those boxy big white-brick apartment buildings? The ones that are these days almost all having their first few stories re-done to make 'em look like a little something? The yellow bricks in the building I photographed have nothing to do with Amsterdam circa 1600 and everything to do with the white-apartment mania of the 1950s and '60s.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2007 4:36 PM

The white 1960's buildings: couldn't agreed more. Was thinking the same thing on a bus this morning, passing one on 23rd street. What a blind monster.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 6, 2007 4:42 PM

"Blind monster" is really good.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2007 4:57 PM

...and then, nearly adjacent to it, was almost-complete sheer-wall Starck's Gramercy condo.

All eyes and no eyebrows.

Sorta go together...

Posted by: Tat on September 6, 2007 5:11 PM

What do you think of some of the more aggressive Victorian brickwork? Somehow it doesn't seem clownish to me, just an improbable combination of hardworking and jaunty.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 6, 2007 7:40 PM

I'm almost sick to death of bricks.

Here at the Rochester Institute of Technology I am surrounded by them—every single building is made of the same kind, same color brick.

I remember hearing somewhere that RIT even has some special recipe for their bricks.

Because of this, the RIT campus has been officially and proudly and sincerely nicknamed "Brick City."

I've been meaning to take some snaps and submit them over at Eyesore of the Month for a while now.(

Posted by: Jonathan Schnapp on September 6, 2007 9:16 PM

Dear Michael;

I have been meaning to write an article on how brick walls can be used to teach the principles of good design, but never got around to it. Here are some quick points that complement your fine posting.

1. The scaling hierarchy must include both brick and the width of the grout/mortar as consecutive scales; that is, the latter should be substantial and thick, up to 1/3 of the brick's width. Modernist bonded bricks with wafer-thin grout destroy the hierarchical scaling effect.

2. Alternation is a basic design principle (see Christopher Alexander's "The Nature of Order"). Great walls alternate their bricks horizontally: full size/half size, and arrange them so the pattern alternates vertically as well.

3. Symmetry breaking. Using slight differences of color and shape prevents a translational symmetry such as possessed by identical units. The wall then becomes ONE unit on the larger scale, since every component is distinct. Informationally, we see the entire wall as a coherent whole, instead of merely repeating a single identical brick. Put in computer terms, one can compress a modernist brick wall into just a few bytes of information: whereas an old brick wall requires a large file for representation. Not as large as a completely RANDOM design; the broken symmetry is what makes it connect to the human perceptual system.

4. Louis Sullivan had a trick of introducing randomness in his brick walls, probably to achieve this informational coherence. Pity he never described in detail exactly what he did, but one can see it in his late banks.

I hope these points are helpful. In conclusion, we respond to the older brick walls because they embody these and other mathematical properties, and such properties (and thus responses) are universal with all human beings.

Best wishes

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on September 6, 2007 10:45 PM

Just to drive everyone down to a lower level - while looking at your post I couldn't help but hear in my mind the refrain from that Ohio Players song - "She's a BRICK HOUSE"

Posted by: Reid Farmer on September 7, 2007 6:36 PM

Feast your eyes on this puke-colored brick building...

UPenn's Skirkanich Hall
Pic 1

Pic 2

Some great quotes...
"The building fits in on the campus, since it does not copy the architecture of surrounding buildings, but it is also not something totally different, like a glass box."
-Philip Ryan, the project architect for Skirkanich from Tod Williams/Billie Tsien

"If Benjamin Franklin were still alive, Skirkanich Hall would be his favorite building on campus, Engineering Dean Eduardo Glandt predicted."

“Philadelphia’s best building in years"
-Philadelphia Inquirer, Inga Saffron

"The husband/wife architect team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien has utilized the concept of “natural lighting,” made famous by Penn student Louis Kahn, in a new way."

"Miracle on 33rd Street" said University President Amy Gutmann

- - - - - - -

Skirkanich Hall - What to See

Skirkanich: One not-so-fab lab

World Architecture News - Skirkanich Hall

Posted by: BK on September 7, 2007 9:37 PM

Murphy— if you ever get a chance, drive in Oregon in between I-5 and the coastline. These areas were heavily clearcut, and replanted in an era when the idea of "trash forests" (monoculture trees) had not yet been developed. The result is hillside after hillside of the same variety of pine that are all the same age, and the effect is disturbingly as though somebody went over those hillsides with a Photoshop clone tool. In fact, If I saw a picture like that out of context, I would be inclined to believe it was faked.

Posted by: B. Durbin on September 8, 2007 2:02 PM

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