AE#9: Undulating Brick Walls

A brick is a modular masonry unit, something that wouldn't appear to "want to be" composed into undulating surfaces. Of course this doesn't stop architects from trying, from using limitations as inspiration and opportunities for doing something new. The idea of creating curves from orthogonal materials is not new. Modern examples of undulating brick walls include such mid-century designs as Eero Saarinen's 1955 MIT Chapel, where fairly regular ins-and-outs create an embracing space for worship.

[MIT Chapel by Eero Saarinen | image source]

Similar forms were created by Uruguay's Eladio Dieste, an engineer who exploited a technique of reinforcing brick walls, an innovation that could be considered his own. The Church of Christ the Worker is a stunning examples of how Dieste engineering prowess led to sensually appealing forms, undulating in plan but also leaning in section, following the roof also undulating overhead. The image below shows how he revealed the thickness of these walls, showing how the bricks supported themselves in relatively thin sections, unlike the thick load-bearing masonry walls of the Monadnock Building and the like.

[Church of Christ the Worker by Eladio Dieste | image source]

Thanks to engineers like Dieste, and advances in computer drafting and manufacturing, architects are trying similar forms, but less regular and repetitious. An unbuilt 1999 project in Green Bay, Wisconsin by Office dA -- a firm that thrives on the unconventional composition of materials -- is a good example of this trend. Gaps in a rectangular shell give the impression of carvings in a brick mass. Up close the "truth" is revealed, that the wall is but a wrapper that is manipulated for effect.

[Witte Arts Building by Office dA | image source]

Erick van Egeraat's design for an art gallery in Cork, Ireland is a masonry execution of "blob" architecture, achieved via a thin-joint mortar system, in which bricks are glued together on a backing, more akin to precast systems than the conventional on-site stacking of bricks. Egeraat uses this technique as a sort of flourish in the Crawford Art Gallery's facade, a one-off design not dependent on structure like the earlier examples above. The subsequent implementation of undulating brick walls is more in keeping with Dieste's techniques than Egeraat's.

[Cork Gallery of Art by Erick van Egeraat | image source]

ROTO Architecture's design for a building at Prairie View A&M University in Texas recalls Dieste's expression of the wall's thickness, as well as SITE's series of 1970's Best Product showrooms which treated the brick facade like a thin veneer shed by the big box behind it. Prairie View's brick facade peels away to allow access to, and light to enter, the interior. This playful maneuver activates a long elevation otherwise punctuated by small, apparently random windows.

[Architecture and Art Building by ROTO Architects | image source]

Last is 290 Mulberry, a condo building now under construction in New York City. Designed by SHoP Architects, the facades are covered in a patterned brick that appears at once undulating and folded. The vertical joints in the rendering below make me believe that the construction is more akin to the precast Crawford Art Gallery than the other examples here. In design it recalls the mid-century designs of Saarinen and Dieste, where repetition is key; it is evident here, but in a more complex and decorative form. It creates a pattern, a texture that unfortunately recalls architecture's past, not its future.

[290 Mulberry by SHoP Architects | image source]


  1. As a student at the Tulane School of Architecture I had the privilege of hearing Monica Ponce de Leon of Office dA speak about her work with break and the interesting forms and spaces they were able to make through simple offsets and solid void conditions. This has stuck with me, and since then I have looked forward to the day that I would be able to play with such a stoic modular construction unit and imbue it with my own personal concepts of space and place.

  2. to add, eth zurich and their d-fab lab has investigating in using a mobile fabrication unit using a kuka 7 axis cnc arm to assemble oscillating brick structures.

    shown in this years venice biennale:

  3. I think the classic of the genre is probably Gaudi's school building at the site of the Sagrada Familia, which undulates more than most.

  4. Timely, interesting and nicely written piece.

  5. "A brick is a modular masonry unit, something that wouldn't appear to "want to be" composed into undulating surfaces. Of course this doesn't stop architects from trying, from using limitations as inspiration and opportunities for doing something new."

    I think that this observation is a bit off, given that what is mostly being manipulated is the space between the modular element...very few of these projects are changing the bricks themselves. Indeed, mortar lends itself to manipulation quite well - even bringing to mind Frank Lloyd Wright's subtle tweaking of the system.

  6. Don't forget the work of Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal. Much of his work has utilized curvilinear forms that have taken advantage of the small-scale modularity of clay brick.

  7. Keep the examples coming. I'm sure there's many more out there...I've barely scratched the surface.

    Casey - Good point. In that quote I was thinking of Kahn's quote about what a brick wants to be...for him it was an arch, in which case the stacking would also call for some flexibility in the mortar. More often than not architects make brick walls follow from the bricks themselves, orthogonal and flat.

  8. german architects also use brick to form interesting surfaces.
    this is a school in stuttgart where i live from "no w here architekten"
    watch out

  9. I have some great pictures of Dieste's work on my blog:

  10. I love the way the curves and glass work together on the Cork Gallery of Art, it's beautiful. You can see what glass can do for a building on this site:

  11. I went to Grande Prairie Regional College- Douglas Cardinal did a huge amount of work with this form

  12. This is great! Ill bookmark it over at our place:

  13. Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona was a true master of brick and its relationship with its context, his works involve studies of local architecture(colombia)

    Here are some pics!:

    Horizon - Luis Angel Arango Library (u can actually take a book and read it there!)

    Geometry and bricks and its use in circulation

    Bogota - Torres del Parque, a study of brick in radial spatial organization



    Detail on ''zipper'' union:

  14. forgot some patios!!!!!!!!! he used the patio as his main spatial organizer

    Extra: Perception

  15. While (yet) unrealized, I have been doing ongoing research in these types of implementations, and playing with the "space between bricks" as brought up before. I only post because it is relevant to John's piece, which was well compounded and provisional of great benchmarks in brick manipulation and deployment.


  16. Some great examples here.

    Isn't this mostly though an extension of how brick was being used on the late art-deco buildings of the 1930s? Here's an example from a school in Paris.

  17. This is truly inspired architecture. I work for McGraw-Hill and their directory of unit masonry products is a valuable resource for someone looking to take on a project of this scope.

  18. Keep up the posts like this, this is incredibly entertaining to watch unfold.

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