(Re)Thinking the Brick [GSD Thesis]

Harvard Graduate School of Design



Martin Bechthold



Matías Imbern



Structural Engineer | Hanif Kara


YEAR 2013



Once an automatic choice as facing material, brick has receded from the mainstream of architectural thinking. In parallel, the explosive growth of digital technology has affected the core of architectural design, offering new possibilities that were inconceivable only a few years ago [1]. In addition, the interaction of digital tools with analog craft manufacturing -a rather unexplored field of study- suggests a wide range of novel opportunities. This research focuses on developing a framework for deploying digital design techniques with the production of bricks under vernacular technology as a medium of achieving geometrical variations and functional complexity in order to invigorate the use of brick as a contemporary material for architectural production.

This investigation seeks to strategically enhance the complexity of selected modules in order to increase functionality and complexity of the overall pattern. The new brick system does not try to replace current bricks but to allow more flexibility to brick construction by adding a limited range of special pieces. According to this purpose, digital practices have the potential to facilitate a seamless continuity between design and making [2]. Starting by executing simple geometric operations onto current bricks, a bottom-up strategy was developed and divided into phases, studying possible combinations, structural performances, and texture variations that affect brick's tactile perception and light conductance capacities. Regarding the design methodology, the use of digital tools constitutes a key part of the process, to test not only the specific geometry of the module but also the assembly patterns and tolerances into an iterative process. The introduction of construction variables into the selection process is crucial in order to extend beyond the purely digital domain and claim control over the fabrication phase. Therefore, the inclusion of material and assembly variables into a design-to-fabrication workflow becomes essential [3].

The assembly sequence proposed by the system gradually ranges from module to component, then to architectural entity, and finally to architectural space. As in common brick construction, architectural spaces can be the result of the proliferation of a single module. Nevertheless, this material system also enables and enhances the construction of complex spaces by dividing the ‘problem’ into minor components that can be easily assembled.

In the context of this investigation, complex form is assumed as an enabler of new functional capacities for masonry construction. Materiality is also understood as a determinant factor that immanently affects architectural performance, and the digital approach described in this research cannot be dissociated from the tectonic expressivity of this structural material. As for the range of application of the newly developed warped bricks, although the design process was initiated under vernacular conditions, the fabrication could be easily implemented in industrial production environments as is typical in developed countries, thereby expanding the contribution of the investigation. Finally, the true ambition of the resulting system is to embrace a collective knowledge in order to put brick back into the architectural agenda as a contemporary material.



[1] Picon, Antoine. Digital Culture in Architecture: An Introduction for the Design Professions. Basel : Birkhauser, 2010.

[2] Iwamoto, Lisa. Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, c2009.

[3] Gramazio, Fabio, and Matthias Kohler. Digital Materiality in Architecture. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008.