Back To Brick – The First Cities, By Dan Cruickshank, Former Member Of The Architectural Panel of the National Trust, And Former Honorary Fellow of RIBA.

I’ve pursued it around the world. There’s an alchemy about brick – about all building materials made from fired clay – where the elements of earth and water are transformed by fire into a material that can be more durable than stone. Through fire, a soft, ephemeral and ‘base’ material – mud – is transmuted into the hard, the eternal, and the beautiful. Perhaps it is the beauty of bricks that is the starting point of my love affair.

Many materials can be hard – wrought iron, steel, or concrete – but they don’t have the character, or the ancient pedigree, of brick. And as well as hardness, history, beauty and character, brick possesses great subtlety.

A brick’s colour and texture is the result of the mix of clay from which it is made, perhaps with the addition of other materials, and of the manner in which it has been fired – primarily the temperature, length and regularity of the firing process. Also, unlike many other hard building materials, bricks breathe, almost as living beings. Their open cell structure makes them wind-proof but breathable, which means they are the ideal material for homes. They also offer superb insulation – helping interiors remain cool during a hot summer and warm in cold winters. Since they also function as heat reservoirs because of their high heat retention capacity, bricks can actively help warm a room.

The inherent qualities of brick, aesthetic, economic, environmental and structural, seem to have been recognized by mankind at a very distant time. Indeed, as far as it is possible to tell, bricks are the oldest man-made building material. The first cities made by man – such as Uruk in Mesopotamia which was founded around 6,000 years ago, and Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley dating from around 4,600 years ago – utilized brick and other clay products. Both these locations were near deposits of alluvial soil, which were ideal for brick- making, and the lack of timber or stone suitable for building meant that brick technology had to be developed. The bricks used in these cities were typical of early brick construction: both sun-dried and kiln-fired.

The Ziggurat of Eanna at Uruk, approximately 4,200 years old, is a good example of early brick construction, as is the now much-restored ziggurat at nearby Ur (174), that was started about 4,000 years ago. The core of the Uruk ziggurat is made of sun-dried bricks with mats between a number of courses to help level and sustain the structure while the bricks and the mortar in which they were laid became more solid. Over this core was laid a facing of hard kiln-fired bricks. And occasionally at Uruk, earlier and smaller sun-dried brick structures were faced with kiln-fired clay cones, of different colours and laid to form abstract patterns.

When I visited the ziggurat, I observed that the kiln-fired bricks had been mostly robbed long ago – and that the sun-dried bricks survived to a large degree and in generally remarkably good condition, although molten by the rains. This can also be seen in the ruined and mighty Peruvian adobe-built ‘pyramids’ – like Huaca Larga at Tucume (166), dating from around 1000 AD – that are so vast and weathered they look like part of the natural geological landscape.

What amazed me at Uruk is that the kiln-fired bricks were as sound as the day they were made. This put me in mind of what is now regarded as the world’s oldest book, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written about 4,700 years ago. Gilgamesh was a king of Uruk who sought immortality and found it, ultimately, through architecture and the construction of cities wrought in strong kiln-fired bricks. Gilgamesh realized that his name stamped on hard bricks, ‘where the names of famous men are written’, meant that his creations and his memory would last for eternity. The kiln-dried brick was the passport to immortality, a guarantee that your creations – and your name – would live forever.

Dan Cruickshank co-wrote Brick Mini Format which takes an intriguing look at the world’s oldest manmade building material, collating remarkable and beautiful brick buildings from around the world.

In this newly reimagined and easy-to-use size, Brick Mini Format is an insightful and often surprising look at a humble material which has been an architectural staple for centuries.

As well as showcasing fantastic early works of architecture, such as the strange remains of the Ziggurat of Ur (dating from 2100 BC) and the vast Baths of Caracalla in Rome (216 AD), Brick Mini Format features some of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century, such as Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Frank Lloyd Wright – for whom bricks were integral to his vision of an American vernacular. Equally striking and memorable works are featured by innovators working into the twenty first century, including Frank Gehry, Peter Zumthor, Kazuyo Sejima, and many lesser-known newcomers.

Arranged to promote comparison and discussion, the selected projects take the reader on a global tour of intriguing and inspiring structures: an American arts centre sits next to an English castle, a French war memorial is shown alongside a Russian cathedral, and a Uruguayan church next to a school in Burkina Faso.

Illustrated with striking photographs, each project includes an extended caption providing a commentary on the building. An essay by the historian and BBC television presenter Dan Cruickshank sketches the fascinating history of this enduring building material.

Dan Cruickshank is an art historian and BBC television presenter, with a special interest in the history of architecture. Cruickshank studied Art, Design and Architecture and was formerly a Visiting Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Sheffield and a member of the London faculty of the University of Delaware. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Artists, a member of the Executive Committee of the Georgian Group and on the Architectural Panel of the National Trust, and is an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA.