Deconstructing the Brick


19 January 2017

Brickfield, a new exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, is a snapshot of clay’s journey from the raw to the refined. Developed by Turner Prize-winning art, architecture, and design collective Assemble, the two-room installation evinces the volatile origins of bricks – core building elements that are generally thought of in terms of their structural integrity.

The first room of the exhibition explores the material in its unrefined state: piles of ground shale are found here, alongside half-done factory residue and walls painted with slip. In the second room, visitors are greeted with evidence of the transformation. The table in the centre of the installation is scattered with 50 or so intricate handmade wares produced in the Granby Workshop (a Liverpool-based workshop founded by Assemble that, in collaboration with local craftspeople, designs and sells items for the home) with help from students of Liverpool John Moore University, and fired bricks line the walls. Projected in this space is also a short film showing an inside look of Ibstock Brick Factory.

Ibstock Factory is nestled deep within the West Lancashire countryside in a town called Skelmersdale. Assemble member Fran Edgerley explains the appeal: “It was important for us to find the most locally operating clay pit to Liverpool, where Granby Workshop is based. Cronton clay pit and Ibstock worked for that reason”. In Brickfield, Assemble wanted to highlight how this overlooked structural component is not as permanent as is generally thought: at its source, it is in fact highly malleable. Central to portraying this was focusing upon the process of creating bricks.

Documented in the film without commentary, this process begins with shale, a fine and fragile sedimentary rock that can easily be split into brittle plates. The shale is ground in a machine called the “jaw crusher”. Next, the pulverised material is mixed together with water and passed through a de-airing chamber, after which it is compacted into a desired shape. Etruria Marl, the particularly strong clay that produces the red rustic bricks on display in Brickfield are unique to Ibstock and comes from a local clay pit in Cronton. “The factory is all about precision and control of this infinitely changing and temperamental material,” says Edgerley. “In the workshop, we have taken a different approach. We are really interested in a process that invites chance and unpredictability so that every outcome is different.”

The resultant workshop wares displayed in the second room of the exhibition highlight the various stages of this exploration, and will be added to in time: “When we get to more refined products we will be swapping them with the things on the table. The work is ongoing at the workshop,” explains Edgerley.

This process is in line with the principle of “learning through making”, a long-running theme in Assemble’s practice. It’s fitting, then, that Brickfield is part of Whitechapel Children’s Commission, an annual initiative that encourages children to explore artworks and making on their own terms. “The way we work is often about experimentation and play with materials as a way of learning and engaging with the world,” says Edgerley. “There is an interesting parallel with kindergarten in terms of sets of rules and the basic principles we use.”

Brickfield revisits the intersection between art and architecture that Assemble treads so well. It echoes points made in their 2015 RIBA project Brutalist Playground, where concrete was swapped with reconstituted foam. The material change transformed something hard and ungiving into a functioning playground. “Through a more detailed understanding of how things are put together, we can start to imagine alternatives and how buildings can be remade,” says Edgerley. “Brick and clay can be so incredibly versatile and fluid; it's the perfect material to think about ways in which cities can be re-appropriated and re-imagined.”