Lives in Brick: Bodies, Justice, Power / by Katherine Brickell

Carting bricks in a Cambodian brick kiln (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom. Copyright©2018 Royal Holloway, University of London)

Carting bricks in a Cambodian brick kiln (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom. Copyright©2018 Royal Holloway, University of London)

In only a matter of weeks, the Blood Brick team will welcome workshop delegates to dwell on brick; described in Brick: A World History as ‘the simplest and the most versatile of materials, the most ubiquitous and the least regarded, all too familiar yet strangely neglected’. While this and the limited existence of other similar books are dedicated to the historical tracing and visual capturing of the spectacular and most beautiful – from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, to the Great Wall of China – the workshop will focus on more everyday and mundane engagements with this popular building material.

Our starting contention is that although bricks could be considered ordinary, they tell complex stories about bodies, (in)justice, and power. Bricks matter; their making and consumption having political, material and affective force as a vibrant form of infrastructure which mediates and organises life.

We have put together an exciting programme, including Professor Ian Cook leading a LEGO workshop.


PANEL ONE The Social Lives of Bricks

Timothy Edensor

‘Melbourne's Bricks: The Aftermath of a Suburban Industry’

Australia has long been the world's largest per capita consumer of bricks. For instance, Melbourne''s rapid 19th century growth  was fuelled by brick manufacture as bricks gradually came to replace stone as the preferred building material. The first brick clay pits were located in the inner suburbs, and by the 1860s there were more than 40 brickworks  in the suburb of Brunswick. Yet as production was scaled down  in the 1930s, a plethora of disused clay pits were subsequently used for rubbish and garbage disposal. Once filled in they ensured that the area has an extraordinary  concentration of small parks. For the unstable land could not be built on - and when this occurred, houses  slithered into the earth. In focusing upon the aftermath of this urban brick production, I will focus on this munificent legacy as well as the revaluing of the old bricks . What were formerly mundane building materials have now been re-labelled heritage objects, used to add allure to new buildings with the most valuable being those that are especially imperfect and idiosyncratic.

Tim Edensor teaches Cultural Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University and is currently a visiting scholar at Melbourne University. He is the author of Tourists at the Taj (Routledge, 1998), National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life (Berg, 2002) and Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (Berg, 2005), From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination and Gloom (Minnesota, 2017) as well as the editor of Geographies of Rhythm (2010) and co-editor of From the Lighthouse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Light (2018). Tim has written extensively on national identity, tourism, ruins, mobilities and landscapes of illumination and darkness. He is currently working on a project about urban materiality: Living with Stone in Melbourne.

Maria Panta

‘Bricks of Resilience’ bi-communal project in Southern and Northern Cyprus’

‘Bricks of Resilience’ aims to gather local knowledge of sun-baked (Adobe) brick making in Cyprus, both North and South, by engaging with communities both sides of the Green Line through adobe brick making. This project considers the locally made adobe brick as a tool to think about the potential for resilience and adaptation in Cyprus and enhance resilience on the ground. It builds upon the findings of a doctoral research project titled, “Approaches to the resilience and the potential for adaptation through community-driven construction projects in the global South” (2018), as well as handson involvement with locally produced adobe brick in rural Cyprus. Moreover, the project emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with our local resources as well as our fellow humans; it brings together the two communities through common heritage, namely the locally made sun-baked adobe brick. Finally, it demonstrates that the improvement of local building techniques and the transfer of skills contribute to the resilience of local communities in this context. In Cyprus, the adobe brick has been used extensively since the Neolithic era up until 1960s, which demonstrates the sustainability of the adobe buildings and ingenuity of both the local building techniques used by our ancestors as well as their construction process. However, in the past 60-80 years the growing globalization, modernization and urbanization on the island has had an impact on local housing and building patterns as well as the use of building materials including adobe construction. At the same time the industrialization of the construction industry has contributed to the gradual disconnection from the local cultures and resources, and has caused traditional buildingcraft skills and techniques related to earthen materials to become obsolete. Adobe has become denigrated as a product of the past and earth buildings have often been neglected and left to deteriorate. As a result, an extensive heritage of earth buildings was largely lost. Although academic research on the mechanical properties of adobe has been undertaken or is in progress in Cyprus, there is an imminent need for ethnographic 2 (qualitative) investigation of the use of adobe in order to explore the value, meaning and understanding of local culture and heritage through the sun-baked adobe brick in the context of Cyprus, as well as to holistically examine the factors, which may contribute to its promotion and widespread use, and how it may be adapted to our current needs.

Dr. Maria Panta, Canterbury School of Architecture, UCA, UK


David Kennett

‘The Cry of the Children of the Brickyards is Unheard from the Indus to Beyond the Yangtze’

In 1871, George Smith (1831-1895) published The Cry of the Children of the Brickyards in England, with several subsequent editions. The children working in the brickmaking industry in Victorian England were barefoot, were poorly dressed, carried heavy loads, were exposed to dangerous machinery and excessive heat (see illustration in Daily Graphic, 1871). The exploitation of children, as in other contemporary industries employing child labour, was legendary.

Working conditions in Victorian England are not dissimilar to those in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, to which is to be added the burdens of bonded labour and indentured servitude in India and adjacent countries in the sub-continent working in giant factories in remote rural areas. Examples exist of whole families working off debt. Children, both male and female, can be sold by parents to pay off agricultural debts and thus spend the whole brickmaking season away from their parents in poor conditions: long working hours, inadequate housing (often only a tarpaulin over sticks or a tree), limited food cooked using the heat of the kiln, poor pay if any, unshod feet, skimpy clothing, severe physical punishments including mutilation for trying to escape, and for women and girls sexual harassment and rape.

China has similar problems, not least unpaid wages or the cynical practice of paying the wages in bricks (how will the brickyard workers market them?) as well as long hours and inadequate housing.

Contrast Bolivia, where child brickyard workers have good quality boots, proper clothing, the opportunity for elementary schooling, training in brickmaking skills, and trade union rights.

David H. Kennett retired as Subject Leader for Sociology and Social Policy for Foundation Programmes at Stratford-upon-Avon College in 2010. His students included many from China seeking to widen their education before applying for and entering a British university.

David has been Editor of British Brick Society Information, the journal of the British Brick Society, since 1990, where he has published articles on conditions in the brickmaking and building industries in various parts of Asia as well as on many other topics relating to bricks and brick buildings. From 1969 to 1986, he was editor of Bedfordshire Archaeological Journal, now Bedfordshire Archaeology.

David has given presentations at both the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo MI, USA, and the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds UK. David holds degrees in Archaeology from Prifysgol Cymru, in Construction Management and Economics from Bristol Polytechnic, and in Techology and Society from the University of Salford.


PANEL TWO Building with Bricks

Felicity Cannell

‘Bricks, a Matter of Fact: exploring the dependence on the clay brick for new residential housing in England’

Amid calls, in parts of England, for some 250,000 new homes to be built per year there is little discussion over what these homes should be made of.  The clay brick is the default building material for most house builders in England, if not for the actual structure then certainly for the exterior façade.  The argument is that developers are building what homebuyers want, yet the design-and-build of mass housebuilding projects has changed very little over the past forty years in terms of structure, suggesting that innovation and change is concentrated within the four walls, while, without, the brick maintains a powerful position, unquestioned and unopposed.  The brick is a strong, versatile fire-proof artefact.  It is a resource-hungry building material, from cradle to grave, porous, cold in winter and hot in summer.  It breaks with the flick of a trowel.  Its multiple ‘magical’ material properties are dependent on the story line.  One narrative centres on culturally-specific meanings of home.  A sense of place, particularly in the suburbs, is sought through faint echoes of historic housing, the route to home ownership is heavily dependent on lending criteria of ‘traditional’ masonry construction, and spaces of construction are dominated by masculine identities embodied in the ‘wheelbarrow and muck’ methods of building with brick.  These themes, sense of place, home and gender are explored through the materiality of the brick, the singular thing-power and meanings of a mundane artefact which physically forms the backdrop of our daily lives.

Felicity is a PhD student at Sheffield University - currently writing up - and very excited about this workshop. She has spent 5 years researching brick in England.


Mel Nowicki, Ella Harris and Katherine Brickell

‘Destigmatising ‘housing for the homeless’: Affective infrastructures of brick-clad modular housing in Dublin.’

For many once homeless families now living in Dublin’s ‘Rapid Build’ housing, the term ‘modular’ had evoked imagery of emergency accommodation bearing no or little resemblance to traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ housing. Some residents had concerns regarding the structural soundness and quality of the buildings, with such fears often connected to historical connotations of post-war prefabricated (‘prefab’) housing in Ireland. Drawing on Berlant’s 2011 work, we argue that the brick-cladding of their new modular homes is a mundane yet affective infrastructure that held an unanticipated significance in re-constructing a secure and positive sense of home after feelings of stigma, shame, and social marginalisation. The findings arise from interviews and focus group research undertaken between October-December 2017 with 21 residents from two Rapid Build housing estates and 12 key informants who had a professional stake in their design and development.

Dr Mel Nowicki is a Lecturer in Urban Geography at Oxford Brookes University. Mel's research focuses on urban housing exclusion and critical geographies of home. Current research explores the use of modular building technologies in social housing provision in Lewisham and Dublin, a project she is working on with colleagues Professor Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway) and Dr Ella Harris (Goldsmith's). Mel's previous research includes an exploration of the impact of UK Coalition Government (2010–2015) housing policies on low-income Londoners, and the role of high-density housing in combating London’s housing crisis. 

Dr Ella Harris is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. Prior to this, she worked as a Research Assistant in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is an Urban and Cultural Geographer whose work explores pop-up culture, urban spatiotemporality and the affective geographies of precarity, as well as the methodological values of interactive documentary.   

Katherine Brickell is Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on three foremost human rights issues, violence against women, forced eviction, and most recently, modern slavery.


PANEL THREE The Materiality of Bricks

Márton Berki

‘The ‘social’ within our walls: Stamped bricks as socio-material entanglements’

It is now a commonplace to say that cultural geography has been definitely re-materialised over the past couple of years. As a result of this materialist (re-)turn, an exceptionally broad variety of things and matters have been taken into consideration. In spite of this rich and widespread (and indeed, still rapidly expanding) work, however, no attention has been paid to one of our most mundane, most everyday material objects ― brick. The largest number and variety of so-called ‘stamped bricks’ (or, in other words, ‘inscribed bricks’) can be found on the territory of the former Kingdom of Hungary ― to date, approximately 35.000 different kinds of such bricks are known. On the example of this dazzling multifariousness, I aim to show how the whole spectrum of the ‘social’ is represented in an utterly material form, on bricks ― including ideology, politics, religion and spirituality, naturecultures, class, even sexuality. What is more, in that form, they literally surround us in our homes, workplaces, institutions, as well as the places of leisure, sociability, consumption or worship ― throughout our entire mundane journeys from the walls of our hospitals to those of our cemeteries. When properly used, however, these stamped bricks shyly hide their ‘messages’, as they are mortared to other (mostly unmarked) bricks. They are only revealed if their respective buildings collapse, or some of their parts are being repaired ― consequently the bricks, thus deterritorialised (Deleuze–Guattari 1987), start to tell their stories. Therefore, as paradoxical as it is, with the passing of time we will get to know more and more about these complex socio-material entanglements, especially if they are reterritorialised in stamped brick museums, local collections, exhibitions of industrial history, genealogy and heraldry, or in the form of contributions to a re-materialised cultural geography.

Márton Berki is senior lecturer in the Department of Social and Economic Geography, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary.

Frano Violich


BRICK: THICK/THIN aims to challenge perceived notions of brick and explore a material paradox that the discipline of architecture has constructed around the idea of brick and its status as a contemporary building material.  Today the notion of thickness has been replaced by a desire for the opposite, transparency and “thinness”.  Architects and engineers speak of “fighting a war on bending”, trying to find the thinnest, lightest, and most efficient means to deliver space anywhere in the world using computation tools for design, engineering, fabrication, and occasionally for assembly, where structure is looked at in only one way—by using “finite element analysis.”   Alternatively, there is a school of thought emerging from architects who work with limited means without the same computational tools, resources, and skilled workforce as their counterparts; and yet the work is as formally and spatially ambitious all the while responding to global challenges of affordability, climate change, and social relevance.  This latter strategy accepts the notion of “thickness”, knowledge through making, and is rooted in brick’s 6,000‐year history, where thickness, weight, and their resultant inefficiencies were a natural by‐product of form and surface, and where the tenets of masonry structure—the arch, vault, corbel, buttress, and the “architectural poché”—emerged.   What is argued here is that these divergent paths of “efficiency and efficacy” are creating a critical convergence where the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude toward materials deal with what Bruno Latour calls matters of concern and not matters of fact.  Are not matters of fact the culture of engineering that has led precisely to finite element analysis? How does one critique matters of fact if not to reframe the argument around the conditions that created them in the first place? What role can this ubiquitous material play in an increasingly global and digitized world of material production? Rather than accept an either/or condition, the discussion will explore and offer alternatives toward a more hybridic, both/and strategy.  

Juan Frano Violich, FAIA Principal, Kennedy & Violich Architecture Visiting Critic, Harvard Graduate School of Design