How brick became London’s coolest building material

William Hall, author of 'Brick', explains how it became such a distinctive symbol of our city – and why it's more popular than ever

‘Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together’ – so said Ludvig Mies van der Rohe, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. But bricks have been around a lot longer than architecture. Examples exist in Iraq that are over 4,000 years old. Bricks are, after all, just baked earth.

Bricks are sized to be held in one hand, while the other applies mortar. It’s one of the reasons that brick buildings are knowable in a way that concrete or steel buildings are not: you can hold a brick to weigh its heft, so that when you see a brick wall, you have some understanding of its composition.

‘By the late 17th century, English brickwork was the best in the world’

London is a world centre for brick. There are bricks in the Roman wall built in the late 2nd century, and by the late 17th century, English brickwork was arguably the best in the world. In the 19th century, London’s population exploded from 1 million to 6 million, which demanded a massive increase in the production of building materials, and bricks were key. Typically, London clay subsoil was excavated, moulded and fired into bricks on site, saving the time and expense of transportation.

Grosvenor Estate, Westminster, London

But brick is environmentally complicated. Firing clay releases large quantities of carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels. But a finished brick is technically very efficient. They are excellent insulators, but also retain heat – put your hand against a wall that has been in the sun for an afternoon. Brick buildings can also be dismantled and the bricks reclaimed. Some modern mortars are designed specifically to ease this process.

Despite its necessary regularity, architects have found lots of ways to reimagine the brick. In the late 19th century, while London was expanding along newly built underground and rail tracks, the Arts and Crafts movement began using ‘clinker’ bricks. These are black, burned and twisted bricks that have been (initially accidentally, later deliberately) distorted during firing. They represented the organic or handmade qualities beloved of the movement. They can still be seen in the garden walls of suburban London.

‘Read between the lines and you sense architects are being nudged towards brick’

Brick seems likely to remain an important component of building in London. The Mayor’s London Housing Design Guide doesn’t mention any material specifically, but read between the lines and you sense architects are being nudged towards brick: ‘Focus on… durable materials that weather well’, ‘respect the existing character and urban grain of a place’, and so on.

Look around London today and you’ll see that architects are up for the challenge of representing brick as a modern material. Take O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at LSE. This soaring faceted facade incorporates over 100 unique corner bricks, creating a building that is both familiar and thrilling. It feels like a useful staging post for the use of brick into the 21st century.

Brick by William Hall (Phaidon, 2019) is out now, £14.95

London’s best brick buildings

King’s Cross Station, 1852, Lewis Cubitt

This solid and simple structure expresses the railway sheds beyond and evokes the dependable majesty of Victorian engineering.

Arnos Grove Underground Station, 1932, Charles Holden

In the 1930s, Holden chose brick to build Underground stations along the Piccadilly Line that served as models across the network. Somehow they link the Victorian terraces of Metro-land, to a then-exciting future of travelling in tubes.

Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at LSE, 2014, O’Donnell + Tuomey

Representing the future of bricks in London, this tautly crumpled facade – positioned in a tangle of medieval streets – was borne of respect for sight lines and right-to-light laws.