There’s nothing fancy about a brick.
It’s uniform. It’s a known commodity and aside from colour and texture it really hasn’t changed much since ceramic bricks were first fired in 3000 B.C.
That’s a tragedy, says Argentine architect Matías Imbern, who is also an adjunct professor at the National University in Rosario, northwest of Buenos Aires.
He is evangelizing a new way of looking at bricks, using digital design technology to create bricks that can be built into whimsical shapes while still retaining structural integrity.
In his vision, bricks could be mass produced with varying designs and then mortared together to create sweeping curves or a helix-type structure and columns while still being structurally sound.
He first explored the concept while at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2013. And while his research met with curious interest, since then, it has hit a brick wall, so to speak.
"People in the industry are pretty much scared to apply new changes," he says. "I came back to Argentina and tried too but, while there are brick manufacturers here, I haven’t managed to push the idea forward."
Part of the issue is the entrenched resistance in the masonry and construction sector to try new ideas, a reluctance driven in part by fear of liability, he explains.
"I’m going to keep trying," he says.
He admits the intersection of digital technology and design techniques to produce bricks with geometric variations as opposed to just textural or colour variations is novel and untried on a commercial scale.
However, his work at Harvard under the faculty guidance of a structural engineer proves it’s feasible and several prototypical examples were made and constructed.
He has proposed starting with simple geometric patterns created by using an assortment of base bricks, each with a specific purpose, either straight or with basic left or right curves. They could then be pieced together to create a variety of forms. It’s here where digital technology could break down the most logical and efficient patterns for production and then match them to a diverse range of shapes and forms, Imbern says.
Like traditional bricks, they would retain holes in the centre to allow for post-tensioning reinforcement.
Imbern says his interest in bricks is rooted in Argentine history where the British constructed the two major railways around the mid-1800s and left behind a legacy of intricate and architecturally significant brick buildings as stations and other structures.
"The old English brick buildings were really romantic but today brick in Argentina is done in a horrible way," he states. "In some areas it is so bad that brick has fallen out of fashion. It really is almost forbidden to build with brick now because the modern examples we have are just so horrible."
The bricks Imbern has designed can be produced with low technology, he says, which is similar to traditional bricks that are made anywhere where there is access to raw materials.
"The starting point of the re-design of the bricks is to maintain the rectangular shape and the parallelism of two opposite faces, a property that allows the new pieces to work together with current bricks," he theorized in his paper, (Re)thinking the Brick. "Afterwards, the strategy adopted to generate a new geometrically complex brick is the rotation of one these faces (an operation that also modifies the other four, conceived as lofts between the first two). The result is a new module called a ‘warped brick.’"
These ‘helicoidal’ components could then be engineered into a continuous facade, three-dimensional screen walls, turning supports and weaved canopies. Imbern says there could be more as the technology develops.
The point, he says, is not to replace existing bricks but to offer something in a form that could easily connect with them.
"The new bricks work as a ‘plug-in’, with the objective of achieving complex geometry in domestic-scale projects as a medium to revitalize brick construction," he writes. "The general framework for developing new material systems engages the challenge to bridge between digital design, materiality and the design culture and enhances our understanding of contemporary tectonics, understood as a determinant factor that immanently affects architectural performance."
While his proposal is about the ‘mutation’ of solid clay bricks, he says his research aims to develop an efficient procedure that can be followed using diverse types of bricks or even other construction systems, thereby expanding its contribution.
"Finally, the underlying ambition behind this project is to re-think brick as a contemporary material, paving the way for putting it back on the agenda of avant-garde architecture," he says.