Building design: the power of bricks and mortar

Through stone, timber, concrete and steel, architecture has told the story of mankind throughout the centuries. Introducing a special report on building design, Vision looks at the history and future of global architecture 

Architecture began, said the great 20th-century German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “when two bricks were put together well”. Mies also defined architecture as “the will of the epoch translated into space”. I like these two quotes. They are terse, precise and true.

Pretty much anyone can put a pair of bricks together with a dollop of mortar. Today, all too many new homes around the world are rushed up this way. The primary motive in contemporary house building is speed and profit, with little or no regard to craft, longevity or beauty. Most new homes are products to be built cheaply and sold dearly; very rarely are they ‘architecture’.

As we seek to generate strong economies, wealth and health, so the will of today’s epoch should be expressed in buildings that are as ecologically aware as they are special

Yet when someone places bricks together with care, skill and beauty in mind, then a simple brick wall can be a very special thing indeed. In fact, the very first buildings we can safely describe as ‘architecture’ were made of layer after layer of simple sun-baked bricks. These were the ziggurats, or stepped temples of Sumeria, in what is southern Iraq today.

Ancient temples

Equally, those ancient temples were the “will of the epoch translated into space”. They represented the rise in status of the overtly male Bronze Age sky gods who swept away the earthier female deities of older religious beliefs. They also served as beacons for the world’s first cities, a new form of human settlement, a new way of life.

Ever since, architecture has served the aspirations, beliefs and dreams of societies around the world. Whether the daunting pyramids of Ancient Egypt, the serene classical temples of the Athens of Pericles, the daring cathedrals of medieval Europe, the exuberant temples of Hindu India, breathtaking Ottoman mosques or the soaring skyscrapers of 20th-century Manhattan, architects have expressed “the will of the epoch”.

Architecture is never exactly matter of fact; it is far more than building. Architecture is the story of different societies written in brick, stone, timber, concrete and steel, while no matter how modest or ambitious the project – a simple timber cabin, a monumental new museum – the architect’s role is to raise the spirit, to make the most functional building special.

Traditional values

The challenge for architects in the 21st century as globalisation sweeps away traditional ways of life together with the look, values and cultures of old towns and even entire cities, is to help give shape to a new generation of buildings of real value. Where medieval European architects were charged with the design of cathedrals, monasteries, civic halls and castles, today’s architects must turn their talents to the design of ever more ambitious skyscrapers and shopping malls, data and distribution centres, museums and galleries, along with schools, hospitals, airport terminals, bridges and railway stations.

Given that so many of today’s everyday global buildings – shopping malls, distribution centres, chain hotels and high-rise blocks of ‘luxury’ flats – demand little more than a maximum amount of highly serviced and flexible space set beneath one big roof, the creative challenge for architects is tough. After all, it would be perfectly possible to house most human activity in functional concrete boxes with no hint of artistry, imagination or soul. However, many of us want our surroundings to be special. Human beings need more than pure functionalism: as with food, dress and manners as with urban design, buildings and architecture.

Inventiveness and imagination are the keys to intelligent design today. Given that, as a proportion of our national incomes, we spend far less on architecture today than we did in previous centuries – buying cars, consumer goods, holidays and gizmos instead – today’s architects must think very creatively indeed to find ways of making everyday buildings special. Aided by computer programs allowing them to experiment with shapes and forms, the best architects are also making a virtue of the need to conserve energy, to make buildings truly sustainable. Some, even in advanced economies, are returning to traditional materials – mud, paper, lambswool and straw – alongside the most technologically advanced building materials, from titanium to polymers.

Architectural challenges

Others are learning – slowly – to work more closely with nature, to ensure new buildings, no matter how ambitious, are full of more than human life. Gardens planted inside skyscrapers, roofs over distribution centres and supermarkets as well as museums and self-consciously eco-friendly homes, and places for birds, bats and insects to nest are all matters of concern to architects – their clients, too – as we face up to the challenges of protecting and nurturing a fragile global ecology. These considerations are some of the most important imperatives of our age; as we seek to generate strong economies, wealth and health, so the will of today’s epoch should be expressed in buildings that are as ecologically aware as they are special.