The industrial revolution brought a question at the heart of design—the relationship of function to form—to a point of crisis. Architectural aesthetics is grounded in a structure’s formal clarity. Classic architectural elements like post and lintel construction telegraph their functions in their shapes; such legible forms are then quite naturally echoed in ornament. Ornament in such cases is simply an articulation, a coming to representational consciousness of the building’s essential structure.
Modern building techniques like steel frame construction and reinforced concrete did away with many of the habitual constraints that made structure legible. The materials are so powerful and so plastic that their functions become obscure, non-intuitive. Thus the question of aesthetic form is brought to a painful crisis point. When all functional limitations are overcome by material virtuosity, why this shape rather than that?
In the post-war era, the international modernist movement dictated a rationalistic minimalism to answer this question. No ornament was suggested by the material itself and none could be justified with cultural or spiritual rationales under the newly secular, egalitarian, and capitalist society; thus, no ornament was called for.
In successive decades, the resulting boring buildings were challenged by an uprising of the human spirit called Brutalism (for béton brut, raw concrete, but etymology seems to be winking here). Concrete became the medium of untrammeled human invention: matter was willed into previously undreamed-of shapes. But when entirely unaccountable to the natural order expressed in traditional building methods and materials, pure human invention produces something timeless only by the rarest strokes of genius.
Tired of the dated jubilance of both modernism and post-modernism, the millennial generation has turned not a new page, but to the immediately preceding era. The pre-war urban industrial district has become the center of gravity for today’s urban culture, as techies and creatives take up residence in rehabbed nineteenth-century warehouses and developers fill in gaps in these desirable neighborhoods with stylized imitations. Among the many shared qualities of the new elite’s digs, one stands out like a gleaming ember: they’re brick.
Is brick intrinsically hipster? The association may be incidental. The Golden Age of American Brick was also the Golden Age of American Urbanism, not as an ideal but as a practice. The districts constructed during this period, with the era’s favored building material, evoke an epoch redolent with hipster values. In the warehouse, railroad depot and repair yard, streetcar powerhouse, fire apparatus bay, and mercantile office of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was expressed the material form of an authentically urban economy, one whose logic was as yet undiluted by the space-annihilating automobile. But I’m inclined to think brick per se has qualities that justify its pride of place in the era of urban revival we may or may not be living in.
The merits of the material itself—fired clay—are manifold. Brick has been used since the earliest extant structures of the human patrimony. Having already been subjected to the purifying fire, it is fire-proof. The material has local character depending on the color of the earth and clay in a particular area. Bricks can be red, orange, brown, yellow, black, or bluish grey, and in a thousand shades depending on the vagaries of the firing process; the application of a glaze further broadens the spectrum of possibilities. And brick is cheap, much cheaper than stone.
Beyond the material, there is its power as a medium. Brick is modular: a single unit that can repeat in as many sequences as you can think of. If asked to sketch a brick wall, most of us would likely draw in a bricklaying pattern known as “stretcher bond”: rows (known as “courses”) of bricks oriented the long way and offset from the courses above and beneath exactly halfway through each brick. (We might call this “Lego bond.”) If pushed to think about it a bit more, however, it wouldn’t take long to realize that the number of possible patterns in which the bricks can be laid is something more like infinite.
Stretchers are bricks laid with their long face showing; headers show the brick’s short face. These two basic orientations give bricks the same fertile sequential potential as binary code, with stretchers as 1’s and headers as 0’s. Thrown in variations in color and even for a simple wall the possibilities are dizzying. Then bring in the third dimension: the possibilities of bricks laid in a hound’s-tooth orientation, offset headers creating texture, corbelling (successive courses set forward or back to create a cornice or dome or simply to widen or taper), the interspersal of open space at a magnitude as small as to create a perforated wall or as large as to create bays and arches.
All this at the unit of a wall. Compose walls into a building…
The point of highlighting the modular quality of brick is not simply to dazzle the reader with magnitudes of possibilities. There is something in modularity that makes the modern heart rejoice, not unrelated to the analogy to binary code. Western culture has swung as a pendulum between rationalism and romanticism from pre-Socratic days (atomist Democritus vs. all-things-flow Heraclitus) down to our own (modern Bauhaus vs. postmodern Venturi Scott Brown). A medium both reducible to atoms and constructable into flowery wholes stands a good chance of giving successive, otherwise warring generations each something to appreciate.
Why do this historical era’s buildings specifically lend themselves to incarnating a renewed urban vision? The great urbanity of the industrial districts is in part due to the adaptability of their form to new uses. The factories and warehouses of this era featured large open floorplates, extensive natural light through large, gridded windows, and the bay unit, a roomy, repetitive unit nicely adaptable to partitioned units or rooms in a redevelopment scheme.
This adaptability is what makes these buildings not just historical curiosities or architectural specimens, but an urban phenomenon. What distinguishes the political community from any other kind of community, Aristotle argues in the opening of his treatise on the polis, is the ultimacy of the good at which it aims:
Every state [πόλη] is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. (Politics, I.1)
As I explained in a journal article for Open Philosophy, “City in Code: The Politics of Urban Modeling in the Age of Big Data“:
Aristotle describes this highest, political good not as if it were a distinct interest that city-dwellers happen to share alongside their particular interests—for instance, a taste for parades and flags, or commissions and committees as we might imagine the “civic” today—but rather as a more ultimate goal capable of justifying those particular interests:
When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state [πόλη] comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. (I.2)
On this account, cities are created for survival, coming into being as individuals seek to meet their basic needs through cooperation, specialization, and exchange. But this very coming together introduces the possibility of a goal beyond survival: that of the good life. This new goal then sustains a mode of life—the political, or urban—that is no longer reducible back into the realm of mere survival, but rather has to do with what makes survival desirable in the first place.
The brick buildings I’ve been discussing incarnate this pattern quite literally: having originated in the bare needs of life, they continue in existence for the sake of a good life. (Indeed, the digital marketing agencies and weekend food delivery box companies occupying these buildings often make a business of The Good Life.) Part of what makes much of our cities inhuman is that the artifacts we furnish them with rarely outlive their purpose serving the bare needs of life, and thus rarely carry us into the dimension of the good life—because they simply don’t continue in existence.
Once an urban artifact has outlived its initial pragmatic purpose, as these old warehouses have done, it raises a new kind of question for its users. It forces them to ask if there is a meaning to human culture that is not reducible to immediate aims. Thus brick takes its place among other favored materials of the millennial generation: leather, wood, wool, iron. All are media with clear origins in nature, elevated by human craft into purposeful, beautiful, and lasting artifacts—and, thus, ideal media to incarnate the paradoxes of the good life in a disenchanted age.
Madeline Johnson is from Minneapolis. She holds a master of Urban Planning degree from McGill University. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.