‘I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.’ So Augustus is supposed to have said. What would an emperor of London say today? ‘I found the capital a city of bricks and left her a city of rubble’? London bricks are falling down. Across the capital, brick facades are coming off in chunks. Like the Cadbury chocolate Flake, this is the crumbliest, flakiest brickwork.
I was all for the new brick city. I’m a brickwork bore. Away with glass, away with steel! Build back better, build back brick. When I saw brick buildings going up in new developments I cheered. I will bang on to anyone who will listen (most don’t) about fitness of materials, our vernacular heritage and the handsome nobility of London stock brick. I never expected that the brick wouldn’t stick.
For some of these brick buildings are only one brick thick. Photos posted by brick-twitchers online show great gummy gaps in the brickwork teeth. Call them fake-news facades. You recall the vogue for ‘exposed brick’ interiors? Peel off the wallpaper and make a feature of the red brick beneath? There wasn’t a Starbucks in the world without its warehouse-wall. Now comes the opposite: the exposed brick exterior. Only, under the brick there’s nothing but concrete and core. This is fur-coat-no-knickers architecture. Prosperous surface, tawdry foundations.
Sham facades are nothing new. I live on the top floor of a stucco terrace knocked up in the building boom of the 1840s. After a wet winter and putting off works through three lockdowns, our stucco portico is in a sorry state. You know the scene in The Phantom of the Opera when the Phantom’s smooth white mask is torn off and the skin underneath is revealed to be puckered and pock-marked and scarred? Well, that.
But at least there’s an honesty about stucco. I knew when I bought the flat that every seven years or so we’d have to scaffold and mould and repaint. I’ve always assumed that Mr and Mrs Veneering, the ‘bran-new’, ‘spick and span’ couple in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, would have lived in a stucco terrace. I’ll say this, though, for Victorian property speculators. The stucco may be shabby, but the building, carved up and carved up again into flats, is solid as a rock. Solid, you might even say, as brick.
I’ve nothing against a wedding-cake facade. One of the prettiest buildings in England is the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. I once got a numb bum sitting on the step of the buttery passage to sketch the library front. If you want to really look at a building, try to draw it. The Pepys Library is all facade. Really, it is a pasteboard backdrop, a serene proscenium. Students don’t go in and out, they enter stage left or stage right. ‘Exit, pursued by a librarian.’ I’ve always imagined cables coming out of the chimneys, ready to lift the flat frontage up into the flies. Here is facadism for facadism’s sake.
What feels dishonest is the building that masquerades as brick, the building that promises — liar, liar, bricks on fire – to be strong and stable, safe as houses. It’s as if your platinum wedding ring were really pewter, your solid silver merely plate. I remember reading a very boring book at university which went on about ‘architectonic probity’. I think I now know what it meant: that materials shouldn’t pretend. That a building ought to stand on its own structural feet and that we ought to have confidence that the building will go on standing up.
What is particularly dismal about this nasty breed of shellac brickwork is that it is most likely to be found on the sort of new-build blocks marketed at first-time buyers. Take your pick, prospective young homeowners: will you have the building with the deadly cladding or the building with the Pritt-sticked bricks? Flammable or friable? ‘Build, build, build,’ said Boris Johnson in his ‘new deal’ speech last year. Is it too much to hope for that the houses we build, build, build might actually be houses in which people would want to live, live, live?
It’s weird. All over London, attractive Regency and art deco facades are preserved, kept on an artificial life-support of struts as the building behind is demolished (see The Gentle Author’s illustrated treatise The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism). Meanwhile, new buildings are put up with crap facades of counterfeit bricks. You can even buy rolls of a sort of ‘brick lino’ to decorate pedestrian arcades or underground garages. For that authentic brickwork look.
I worry now about the Three Little Pigs in the architect’s fable. We know that the house made of straw and the house made of wood don’t stand a chance against the Big Bad Wolf. Would you bet on the house made of brick?