One of the artists featured in The Apprenticeship was architectural designer Clare Elizabeth Kennedy. Clare has an interest in the origins of building materials with a particular focus on earth construction and brick making.
For something that may not be around too long or may even find its way back into the building of our modern world of industrialisation, the humble brick has a fascinating story and an intriguing future. Will we even need bricks at all? And if so, what kind?
Read on to know more about what may become of basic yet very essential ‘building block…’
What is it about bricks that interest you? From the expanse of architectural design, you chose the microcosm of the brick… why?
I am interested in the origins of construction materials. My work centres on the idea that the raw materials for construction should come from close to the building site and ideally be built by the local people. This ‘closed loop’ method of production is how we operated historically and it is gaining renewed popularity—particularly in the fashion and food industries. More people are choosing to live in self-sufficient communities sharing skills and resources. I was frustrated in my architectural practice because we simply source and specify synthetic building materials off the Internet. Everything is shipped to the site, and buildings are all starting to look the same. I can’t understand it and so I’m choosing to explore the polar opposite.
The diversity of dirt is fascinating to me. Fired brick, mud brick, plasters, paints, mud floors, tiles—they all come from one humble, easy to use resource available to almost all people. Vitrifying clay—that is firing dirt to create waterproof bricks and tiles gives this basic, attainable material the capacity to create robust shelter. A brick becomes a record of a place and its people. The dirt that is used, the additives and finishes, the mould and its makers, the firing process and the final use all combine to tell a story unique to the location.
When you work on projects, do you build traditional kilns on site, like those in India and Africa or do you take the clay back to a factory to have the brick made?
At the moment, while in Australia, I’ve been using kilns at a local factory here in Brisbane. I source the clay and form the bricks by hand in my workshop (see fivemileradius.org) and then transport them to the factory to be fired. My ambition is to work with universities creating mobile workshops and installing traditional kilns in a variety of Australian landscapes creating site-specific structures that address the needs of the local community, using a variety of earth construction techniques. Rainforest build, desert build, coastal build—that sort of thing. Sand, lime, ochres, clays, rocks. We’ll use what’s available and what’s necessary to create shelter.
How do you deal with the challenges of the irregularities in the handmade?
I work with the irregularities. I design outwards from the material‘s initial condition. Where possible I will always try to let the material best express itself. What did Louis Kahn say? “Honour the brick and glorify the brick instead of short-changing it.” Clay is capricious. It shrinks, warps, cracks and twists, but sometimes this presents opportunity rather than constraint. Perfect imperfection. To me an irregularity used well will always be rewarding and beautiful.
What are your plans for India later this year and what do you propose to study or understand in terms of the contemporary practices of artisanal brick making?
Very exciting. I’m assisting on a two-week workshop in Bangalore set up by the wonderful Architectural Association of London. We’re spending the time with a group of international students exploring local brick production and working with small and large scale factories to design and build small structures around the city. I can’t wait to see what emerges.
After the workshop finishes, I’m heading south into Kerala to again study the work of the late architect Laurie Baker whose site-based ethos and extraordinary brickwork have truly inspired me.
I’m also going to keep working on a story I began last year centred on the changing brick industry in India. The industry is in decline due to soil shortages, and in Kerala, for instance, beautiful unused brick factories are littered around the lush landscape. It’s a story worth telling.
This is an excerpt of the article DIY Apprenticeship that first appeared in Garland Issue 3 and is republished with permission. This interview is a short prelude to a far more detailed article on the fading practices of artisanal brick making that will feature in Garland’ s December issue based on India. India is one of the few countries to still be practising the traditional forms and methods of brick making and firing.