London brick: The value & meaning of brick in neoliberal London

Catalogue essay

This essay was written for the London College of Communication Capital City exhibition catalogue, details HERE.

Image © Will Jennings

When Theresa May delivered her Building a Britain Fit for the Future speech in March , proclaiming with little self-awareness that people are “right to be angry” about the lack of homes, her choice of backdrop was calculated. The image of a brick wall was planned to be a symbolic and reassuring aesthetic ploy to project a sense of solidity and honesty to her words, though immediate piss-taking by social media users exploiting its photoshopping possibilities saw that the idea immediately backfired.

Image © Sky News

Richard Sennett writes about the anthropomorphic imbuing of qualities such as honesty and friendliness into the inert brick, investing human sensibilities and meaning into uniform lumps of fired clay. He relates this to Isaac Ware’s 1756 book The Complete Body of Architecture, proposing that the naturalness of organic external materials offers a sense of authenticity and inegrity, perhaps also suggesting personal characteristics of the residents within. By using the ubiquitous material of housing across the classes, whether the televised speech was watched in an urban terrace, a Mayfair mansion or a middle class suburb, May wanted to align herself with its resilient, honest characteristics.

If a global brick audit were ever to be carried out, London would probably emerge as the city with more in its fabric than any other. They are inescapable, and even though the city’s skyscrapers puncture the sky with glass and steel, the humble brick is the most constant and visible of all urban surfaces. As you walk around the capital you may occasionally encounter a chalked “MARK” written over the brick’s face. Artist Mark Wallinger wrote his name on thousands of them for a 2011 film which rapidly slide-showed through them all in an exploration of the “futility of trying to leave one’s mark on London.”

Image © Mark Wallinger

Wallinger’s right. The powers and forces which shape the built form and economic structures of London seem too resilient and too dominant for us to make our mark, let alone shift the trajectory and envisage a new way of shaping the city. We can momentarily personalise a place, as he did, but the system seemingly marches on regardless of our momentary events. The Prime Minister may have raised her concerns about the system, apparently surprised that in a Conservative laissez-faire environment developers get bonuses “not on the number of homes built but on their profits or share price”, but standing in front of that fake brick wall, her chalk words will wash away. The system will remain intact.

Though, it’s worth noting the illusion of that apparent solidity. Black and white photographs of a post-Blitz London remind us that structures we collectively and subtly form over time can be reduced to rubble within moments. As we head towards the Brexit deadline, it’s sobering to think that the reconstructed city which emerged from flattened streets was not only created from a shared European vision but also physically formed with bricks manufactured by European workers.

From the early 1950s waves of Italian immigrants moved to Bedford and surrounding areas to work in the brick-making industry. Brick companies set up offices in southern Italy to entice destitute and unemployed men to move to Britain to aid our rebuilding effort. Offering paid-passage, firms such as the London Brick Company employed thousands of Italians to satisfy the massive demand. Work was hard and often dangerous, wages were low and many fled back to Italy as soon as the four year contracts they were locked into were completed. Local landlords exploited their low-waged situation, sometimes cramming fifty labourers into two-family homes or renting the same bed to alternating day and night shift workers. Locals complained their town was being overrun and local politicians claimed the town had reached saturation point, that the growth in migrant numbers meant there were no houses left for local residents. These workers hand-made the very bricks that rebuilt the country but received little in return. The value in property didn’t filter through to them, but developers were making money from the need for housing, the land and materials it needed.

The brick-making process is now largely automated, a need for human involvement now reduced to the more expensive hand-crafted range of bricks. Though, as Sennett notes, machine-made bricks programmed to simulate a hand-made look have been around since the eighteenth century, questioning the integrity of the honest qualities associated. This is all to the benefit of the profit-driven construction process, propelled by free-market mechanisms and finding the smoothest passage towards maximum financial return. It is a process which has all-too-often shed the need of an architect’s involvement, keeping design in-house from a repeating catalogue of parts and aesthetics which can simply be deployed onto a site without much concern for context, vernacular or a type of housing which considers the existing population in any meaningful way.

As a result, wages in architecture have stagnated or fallen, with a recent Architects’ Journal article suggesting bricklayers now earn 10% more on average than a qualified architect. Only 6% of new homes are designed by architects, the recent RIBA exhibition At Home in Britain states, and the role of the architect can be dispensed with. For the moment, tradespeople who stack the components can’t be, but this will change as a developer-led construction system with the primary aim of extracting profit smooths their processes with as little friction as possible.

Image © Demelza Watts

Artist Demelza Watts laid bare the capital of labour invested in the methodical process of bricklaying in her 2015 project All in a day, Brian. Over eight hours the artist hired her own father, Brian, to construct a wall as performance for an exhibition in which she herself received no fee. The stacked bricks became the artwork, the sculptural form and aesthetic imbuing more value. But with a single brick costing pennies, the expense of the object was less in the material than in manual labour. As an artwork, the value is more in the representation and marketable story than in the making.

The same is the case with London’s new developments, which have now returned brick to their armoury of aesthetics. Amongst developers there appears a consensus of materials and form, coined the New London Vernacular. It is an outcome of 2010’s London Design Guidelines (PDF) which included updated space standards, a better consideration of site context and a new intent that housing “should not be striving for ‘iconic’ architecture, but should focus on great background architecture made of durable materials that weather well.” This has led to some good-quality design and a general improvement in urban fabric since the New Labour years, and paved the way for brick to return to building sites as a dominant material.

But what was employed initially for function to deliver new space standards and contextual designs has rapidly become a decoy aesthetic to present an appearance of honesty and integrity while simply delivering the same unaffordable units targeted at off-shore investors to leave empty. The brick you now see on speculative projects is likely to be just a surface skin, slivers of brick adhered to cladding panels can be seen craned up the side of steel-framed buildings with a couple of workmen waiting to jigsaw them into place. A wrapping with the pretence of labour and solidity but in reality, a different packaging to the same overpriced product.

Image © Jeremy Selwyn for the Evening Standard

Theresa May wasn’t the first and won’t be the last politician to attach the symbolism of the brick to political ideology. In 2014, while still Mayor of London, Boris Johnson delivered a speech to the Conservative Party conference in which he held up and conversed with a brick. “Look at the skyline of London writhing and sprouting with extraordinary growth,” he said to it, “You will not be alone, brick.” before turning to the audience and adding, “This brick will not be alone when it comes to London. I want those homes to be marketed first and sold to people from this country and not sold to oligarchs from the planet Zog.”

As usual, he was wrapping up his intent with absurd performativity, playful language and mistruths. As Mayor, Johnson made a habit of taking planning decisions away from local authorities who questioned low levels of affordable units, using his position to push through schemes which in no way benefited Londoners. Under his watch, the pathway to developers creating property to be sold off-plan and off-shore to buyers who had little intention of ever inhabiting the flats was made smoother and more profitable for the large-scale developers who, along with the property investors, saw in London an opportunity to make vast profit.

Context began to mean less an architectural or meaningful relationship to place and site, and more a function of marketing. Keybridge House in Vauxhall will be 37 floors of high-end apartments clad in “mixed brick tones and textures” to suit its context, an area which until recently didn’t have towers, the developers declaring this to seamlessly blend “the architecture of London’s mansion blocks and Manhattan’s apartment buildings”. The hyper-expensive apartments of the Southbank’s Ludgate and Sampson House, currently under construction by the developers of Neo Bankside, state they are inspired by the local “defined industrial materiality which promotes brick, steel and concrete” (PDF), though this bland statement could equally apply to any part of London. The growing trend to re-brick the city has even led to an ongoing shortage of bricks, the machines simply aren’t churning out the clay blocks quick enough for the developers to clamp them onto the side of a rapidly erected frame.

Image © Will Jennings

The most famous work of art incorporating bricks is undoubtedly Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, an arrangement of 120 regular bricks, two levels of a six by ten grid. Having bought it for £3000, Tate exhibited it in 1976 to the wrath of conservative press and one irate visitor who threw blue dye over the sand-hued blocks. However, the real cause for dismay is that the Tate had only bought a single piece of the Equivalent series, just an eighth of the whole work. A fundamental point of the work was to consider the spatial and structural variations that a single number of identical components — 120 bricks — could take, but with Tate only buying VIII they disregarded the relationship to seven other arrangements and consequently reduced the sculpture to the singularity of mass and material.

This is similarly the problem of architecture and housing in London. Property in Britain has been left to the mass developers and volume builders, there is little variety in type, form and models of tenure or ownership. Developers are now creating and shaping the city; their aesthetics, their design and approach increasingly shape the city for all. The “honest” brick that Sennett outlined is simply a veneer of integrity, concealing a process lacking architectural intelligence and which minimises craft, labour and quality in a drive to provide not what London actually needs, but just a marketable representation using London brick to distant investors.