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The Bricks of Chandigarh

While reinforced concrete was widely used for Le Corbusier’s Capitol buildings – the studied and theorized ‘beton brut’, – on the streets of Chandigarh, a red clay brick sets the architectural texture and tone for the city.  The utility material of the city, brick is used for property walls, bus shelters, and infills of concrete frames as well as for finishes and facades – setting the modular pattern and rhythm of the everyday Chandigarh.  A reading of these bricks (both figurative and literal) provides insight into the simple realities of construction and the built environment.

Simple yet versatile, the Chandigarh brick has embedded within its physical dimensions a fundamental relationships to the intersection of the human condition and the act of building.  It is not too heavy for one arm to lift (roughly 5 lbs) and when correctly balanced, multiple bricks can be carried at once; it fits within a human hand with its relative proportions (9 in x 4.5 in x 3 in) allowing for easy stacking and assembly.  It can be manufactured by hand almost anywhere – dug, mixed, pressed and fired – with its variation in color reflecting the deep red clay of the Indian soil.  Its density allows it to act as a thermal mass, providing protection from the hot summer sun.  Its compressive strength allows for single and double wall-height construction, serving as bearing walls for houses reaching up three stories high.  The single brick, and it’s color, texture, shape and weight, recalls the physical contact of humans with their built world, and the understanding that everything which stands, must be built by men and women.

In addition to these embedded relationships and logics, is the actual displayed text on the un-built Chandigarh bricks.  Legible text is prominent in stacks of bricks, seen all around the city – a three to five character brand, each showing a variety of letters, numbers and symbols.  These codes are pressed into the top of the green bricks before firing.  This mark of the brick maker (known as the ‘frog’) allows for quality control and material tracking, and also creates additional structural interlock between the brick and mortar.  As the material of potential architecture, lying in wait, the brick remains inscribed with an identity, a specific place of origin.  But the brick, once laid flat in wall construction, presents a blank front and side.  The text is hidden, now embedded in the mortar of an anonymous brick wall.

Once stacked/assembled/built into walls and facades, the individual Chandigarh brick, with its fundamentally human relationship and defining text, gives up it’s individuality and begins to act as piece of something larger – taking on new life as architectural, structural and urban elements.  This transition of the brick, both in service and scale, mirrors the construction of Chandigarh – and indeed of all cities.  The Chandigarh bricks demonstrate how the labor of now-anonymous individuals from a past time has collectively and incrementally created the built world that we inhabit today – a persistent reality.

Tyler S. Sprague is a doctoral Candidate in the College of Built Environments.  His background in structural engineering informs his investigations into both architectural history and the contemporary built environment.  His dissertation examines the work of Matthew Nowicki – designer of the first tension-hung roof (Dorton Arena) and the first architect of Chandigarh.

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