I submitted the abstract below for the 2009 Berkeley essay competition, and out of 100-150 entrants I am now one of 23 semi-finalists who have been invited to develop their abstract into a 2500 word paper. It pleases me to know there is still a place for brick masonry in today's architecture.
More information on this year's competition here:
Learning from Canada's Brick Masonry History
Traditional brickwork in Canada is a lost craft which should be re-established for its inherent sustainable and community based principles. The past use of locally made bricks in various areas of Canada resulted in the development of micro-cultures of material use where brick buildings tell a story of locality through their specific colors and styles while simultaneously being economically, environmentally, and locally sustainable. Canada has a relatively young permanent architectural history, but we can learn from a time before materials were imported.
Canada's colonial beginning denotes a point of transition towards permanent architecture in Canada, whereas indigenous Native and Inuit groups functioned primarily as semi-nomadic cultures. Consequently many Canadian architectural traditions stem from European roots, but are expressed with local materials; the use of local brick creates unique and distinct examples that reflect concurrently the colonial and local histories in Canada. Brick used for construction was typically excavated from nearby clay pits contributing to the local economy and making work for the community. This resulted in the development of highly skilled craftspeople and brick masons who took pride in their work and gained the respect of the community through their intricate techniques and brick detailing - a mutually beneficial relationship that had beautiful aesthetic results. The small towns of southern Ontario are exemplary of this condition where use of polychromatic brickwork in "Italiante" style buildings is prevalent. These buildings include turn of the century farmhouses and main street shops where local yellow and red brick are uniquely detailed to create a vernacular typology.
There is a sustainable quality in the enduring nature of brickwork which is why so many historic examples of brick buildings exist today. The use of local brick allows for ‘maintenance’ repair of these buildings by obtaining more bricks from the clay pit, versus problems with concrete and new/imported materials which cannot be easily and aesthetically repaired, resulting in premature demolition. This also allows bricks to obtain a "patina" over time which exhibits the age of a building and celebrates its history in the community.
People enjoy seeing things be built; an observation of construction sites reveals that people stop to watch. There are additional social benefits to watching a skilled bricklayer or craftsperson construct a building; people can respond to the scale and develop social and emotional ties to the structure, versus large concrete and glass buildings which have few human qualities and induce a sense of alienation.
Due to the inherent value of human workmanship and beauty, carefully crafted brick buildings have typically been passed down or adapted and re-used because of sound construction techniques, ease of reparability, and the desire of the community to maintain buildings which they care about. Canada, and other countries, can benefit from re-establishing this building practice that once thrived and has since been lost in a time where "international" architecture and materials are desired. Combined with new and passive sustainable technologies, the implications are profound.