You say to a brick: ‘What do you want, brick?’ and brick says to you: ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to brick: ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel over you, over an opening.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.’
Louis Kahn said this during an architectural discourse on his now-famed IIM Ahmedabad building. Anyone who has walked the corridors of this institute cannot remain untouched by the pattern language of brick. A recent visit to Ahmedabad brought alive the magic of this material, whose mundane orthogonals exist in modest silence alongside the din of steel, glass and laminates.
Ahmedabad and Chandigarh are the setting for some brick landmarks. The former is a mecca for students of modernism, where architects like Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, B V Doshi, Achyut Kanvinde and A D Raje all explored the poetics of brick; and in the latter, brick builds the image of the city itself.
Unfortunately, brick today is used primarily for filler walls, concealed under cement plaster. Unlike steel and glass, at Rs 3 per piece the cost of brick has doubled only since the last decade. Thus it is the material for the masses, branded ‘common’ in a world that competes for the ‘exclusive’. Laurie Baker’s experiments with brick in Kerala proved that its modularity lends itself to a thesis in typologies, from jalis to curves to arches and even modern sharp edges, all under the label of ‘low cost’ regional architecture.
As India watches with pride the inauguration of the new airport terminus at New Delhi, resplendent in steel and glass, an ode to India’s arrival in the world of economic dominance, a message is sent to the rest of the world that we now speak the same language, so what if the vocabulary is acquired.
We may be too eager to renounce what we have. It is not about building with brick because it is traditional, it is about not building with it because it is low-cost and ‘vernacular’! Brick lends itself to infinite possibilities. It is ‘green’, as the energy it uses is locally abundant: human labour. Brick is easily transported and easy to build with. Yet, with a few exceptions, we rarely see this material in its exposed glory on a new building.
Do we lack the conviction to take this common man’s material and revive it? To reinvent it through innovation, keeping its soul but changing its shape, consistency and even perception. Architects like Renzo Piano and Rafael Moneo have done so in France and Spain, Mario Botta in San Francisco and Italy — for museums, corporate offices and housing. Piano changed his brick size to large blocks of perforated clay for insulated walls, Moneo used brick to span space at unprecedented heights, Botta used it to scale his buildings through modular geometrics, giving them artistic surfaces.
In India, where its domestic use exceeds that in any other nation, new brick buildings are few. It took architect Aniket Bhagwat to showcase brick as an antithesis to reflective glass facades in his architectural jewel set in Gurgaon, the Devi Art Gallery. Why can’t Indian architecture move beyond importation and imitation, to innovation? It is not that we lack intelligence or ability. It may be a lack of will, a lethargy or cautiousness that keeps us to the beaten track.
So, while brick awaits its place in the limelight, it remains a victim of politics, where its lowly status puts it several rungs beneath the new-age polymers and glass that shape our cities today. It is time to ask who makes it so. Who decides what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’? Finally, who amongst us has Kahn’s courage to fall in love with brick and see it for what it really is, to imagine what it can be, and to empower it to be whatever it chooses to be?
(Suparna Bhalla is a Delhi-based architect)