Mike Taylor of Hopkins Architects casts his mind back – way back – to when brick was used for the world’s greatest buildings …

In his Ten Books on Architecture, written between 40BC and 32BC, Vitruvius makes little reference to fired clay as a building material. However the skills of the potter had already been used to architectural advantage in the circular columns of the basilica at Pompeii in 120BC. Around the shores of the Mediterranean where stone was costly and laborious to shape, fired clay became the essential building material that offered a versatile and robust alternative.

Think of Trajan’s market or any other monumental Roman brick building and the image is one of enduring solidity. The flexibility of the material allowed complex and curved shapes on plan; the mastery of structure allowed huge vaults to be formed, and with these the possibility of enclosed public space on a grand scale that still inspires today. It is clear that brick has been integral to the development of western architecture throughout its history.

Through the Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo, I was fortunate enough to work in Urbino and Siena, and was fascinated by how both cities were formed by generations working with brick. Although individual buildings demonstrate richness of detail and form, the most striking feature is the completeness of the urban ensemble. The Campo in Siena for instance, is an amphitheatre-like space whose herringbone brick paving provides variety and texture at close quarters but also succeeds on an urban level by connecting the surrounding buildings into a unified whole.

In the 1970s when De Carlo built the university in Urbino, the clay excavated for foundations was used to form the bricks that became, together with insitu concrete, the material of the new collegiate buildings. This continued the Italian hill town tradition by creating a feeling that the buildings are rooted to their place.

In the UK, our brick construction heritage is more recent but no less inspiring. Brunel’s 1838 rail bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead is, even by modern engineering standards, a supremely elegant working structure that is still the widest spanning brick arch in the UK. This inventiveness in brick was a crucial factor in the industrial revolution as is manifested by structures such as mills, chimneys, and even sewers.

But this distinguished tradition is now under serious threat because brick is commonly divorced form the structure of the building. Arches, vaults and solid walls have been replaced with the ubiquitous cavity wall and brick cladding. English and Flemish bonds have been swapped for stretcher courses with their inevitable expansion joints, soldier courses and cavity wall ties. The dignity brickwork had as a structural material has gradually been lost, as the material has been increasingly used as a form of cladding.

But at Hopkins Architects, we endeavor to use brick in a modern, structural manner. The starting point in each case has been brick’s appropriateness to a particular place. We ask how far can it span? How much load can it take? How can it do more work for us in the construction of the building? How can we use its thermal mass to benefit the internal environment?

The results have varied according to the individual context. At the Mound Stand at Lords Cricket Ground, the existing brick arcade was extended to support the stadium above. At Glyndebourne Opera House, where the original kilns were reopened to make matching bricks, a solid cylindrical brick drum formed an excellent acoustic barrier for the auditorium. And the Forum in Norwich comprises a three-storey-high, horseshoe-shaped brick wall that defines the central atrium.

What all this proves is that potential of brick has been established for more than 2000 years. For its appeal to continue, we should not just be treating it as a cladding. By rediscovering its load-carrying potential, we can go some way to restoring its dignity and hopefully, leave a legacy that we can all be proud of.

Mike Taylor is a director of Hopkins Architects