Brick as a symbol of life
Posted on October 7, 2016
Rome was born a city of bricks. Before Augustus would leave her draped in marble, the great forms, arches, vaults and arcades were all made in the rich colored brick of the local soil. Made by combining clay mixed with water, sand, straw and finely ground Pozzolana they were then pressed by hand into wooden molds and left to first dry in the sun. Later they would be hard fired by baking them in ovens. Brick can be both the simple expression of the forms it creates and the forces it transfers, but can also be laid with the creativity of a master craftsman and artisan where it reaches to greater aesthetic heights.
The brick could become more than just a simple planar surface, it can have dimension, texture, rhythm…
… or it can combine these characteristics to achieve a more refined, cohesive whole, where pattern, texture, articulation of surface and form come together to create something elegant from the simplest of materials.
Vestiges of this knowledge of materials would spread into cultures influenced by roman forms – and a particular blending of cultures and construction techniques would carry this forward to the new world. From cities like Toledo or Cordoba in southern Spain, the skills developed by artisans who were shaping the edifices of these places, both grand and sublime, would be carried forth into the colonial building practices of the “New World”.
Like much of the intertwining of religion and culture in the conquest of Mexico, the art of building would be mixed as well. The existing Pre-hispanic cultures had rich and varied building traditions, including building in brick from the earliest of times. The great Olmec-Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, in the state of Tabasco, holds more than 300 distinct structures including pyramids, all made of fired brick using techniques very similar to those used by the Romans.
This simple material has captured the imagination of many in the field of architecture. Not unlike modern master Louis Kahn’s musing conversations with the brick, another lesser known master of this medium, Carlos Mijares Bracho, was creating work that was both reflective of his local culture while bold and adventurous in character.
Mijares considered the brick to be a “symbol of life” – a condensation of the primordial elements of earth, water fire and wind – “that cooked object” by “simple, prefabricated with soil and water” to which he has creatively added “new uses” through thoughtful reinvention. Much of his work is characterized by his remarkable use of brick.
Mijares admitted – “ I have a special affection and respect for the brick. We’ve had a love affair for many years. Even before I was married, my wife knew about it.”
“I am deeply attracted to its origin, i.e. earth, water, fire, that it’s done. It is a material belonging to place; almost always in places where I have worked a partition of quality occurs, as in Michoacan. It is a material land that is also known to craftsmen, so they are expressed in it. On the other hand it is economical, especially when there are nearby producers, and amazing versatility. The same can one do blind walls openwork lattice windows, roofs, floors; can you do what you want. It is a material that dates back millennia, making one knows more about how it behaves over time. The materials age, and as they age with dignity, as the brick-, that adds a value”.
In a series of churches in Michoacan, Mijares is best recognized for his unique and original use of “xamixcalli” or baked Mexican brick. The open air church of in Cuidad Hidalgo plays on the colonial theme of the proposed five nave church as envisioned by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in Patzcuaro in the 16th century. The form is defined by a series of crossing arches, each like a radiating buttress growing in size, defining an altar below the crossing keeps this feel of an intimate chapel, while allowing for a larger open space to hold a larger congregation, so that “either full or empty, it would seem neither empty of crowded.”
As his work developed, some of his work became more somber in tone while refining the expressions of brick forms like in a funeral chapel in a cemetery in Jungapeo. The simple and restrained exterior form, gives way to the exuberant play of light on the radiating, stepping pendentive interior forms.
In a structure intended as a play space in Bogotá, Colombia, the brick forms mischievously capture the intent and his sketches are indicative of both concept and exploration of a language of detail. “Why does one sketch?… because language is not enough.”
Mexico City holds Mijares’ master work in the Christ Church, and Episcopal Church in Lomas de Chapultapec. Emblematic of his work in exposed brick, his architecture here takes on a whole new level of interpretation and refinement. On approach, while contemporary in it form it takes on the presence and silhouette of the 16th century architecture of the conquest – protective, austere and fortress-like, with walls turning its focus inward like the early Mexican convents. On closer inspection, the language of the brick becomes more apparent – in the woven patterns of brick on simple walls, in the articulation of small window openings, the stepping of corners, the stepping of volumes creating a pyramid like roof – all playing at the local traditions of the church as well as pre-Hispanic influences.
The interior projects just the opposite, with its interlacing of arches, spinning of conical pendentives opening to skylights that fill the room with light. It is almost an experience of transparency despite the materials he is working with. Light spills though, providing a warm embrace, dappling across the humble brick, exaggerating the leaps of arches and giving a cathedral-like quality, a sense of reaching towards the heavens.
As a means of expressing the poetry of his beliefs, Mijares explored the structural possibilities of brick, leading him to discover new techniques in an old material and allowing these places to be marked of their time while being inspired by the past.
Mexican artist Vicente Rojo admired in Mijares “the grandiosity that can be achieved with such a simple and everyday item with such common use” as a brick. He also noted the special value that Mijares had as a creator who was not “in the dominant line” – “There has always been a deep interest, profoundly personal, regarding his work, which approaches the limits of what could be considered modern architecture. Interestingly, despite being at the periphery, I think it’s achieved a modernity that could be considered sublime, unrealistic and little-used as the word may seem.”