A Short History of Masonry
The Story of a Love Affair by Fred Bassetti, Architect
Looking at thousands of years of masonry construction in 30 minutes is like doing Hamlet in 30 seconds: "What ho, Horatio? Murder most foul. To be or not to be. Get thee to a nunnery. The time is out of joint. Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. (Why do you suppose Shakespeare used so many clichés?) You may think that this Hamlet business is too far fetched but it really isn't. There is poetry in masonry and, as Shakespeare also said: "There
are books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything." "Good in everything" is at the heart of it: cut into a wall of brick or stone or block and you find it is solid, real, not just a veneer three quarters of an inch thick with another layer of something else behind that before you get to the genuine article. Masonry is the thing itself that makes the building stand up.
This is really about a love affair that goes on year after year, for architecture, building design, and some of its most noble materials, stone and brick. Other construction materials are great too, wood, steel, concrete. They have honored places in building but each has serious flaws. Wood burns, can't be kept looking well out-of-doors, rots if it gets wet. Steel is marvelously strong but, dammit, it rusts and if there is a fire it buckles like crazy, so needs to be insulated with its own covering, each concealing the metal's own beauty. Concrete, properly reinforced, is also great structurally, but you have to almost make two buildings because of the formwork. Then the concrete takes on the look of the forms because it has no particular look of its own. Masonry of course has inherent limitations, especially lack of strength in tension. So, unless it's reinforced with steel, it serves best in compression, as its nature suggests. This is its historical use and this is the story that's so fascinating.
Masonry construction began with a profound idea that was slow to develop but that changed our Earth, determined the character of nearly all our cities. It's an idea so deep, so full of promise yet that its energy still surges, after thousands of years. It's the idea of modules, of units, of blocks and bricks and what can be done with them. Small blocky units mean flexibility, you can build almost anything with them. Nature takes cells and makes everything from bacteria to bananas, glass to gorillas, huckleberries to humans. We take small pieces of stone or burnt clay or concrete and span almost the same range, from fireplace hearth to the Great Wall of China, from a two foot long arch over a window to the vaults and flying buttresses at Chartres, not to mention the greatest masonry structures of all, the Pyramids.
Lost in the dim past a pre-human man or woman first set two stones alongside of or on top of each other to make a wall. It actually did happen, one first time, a work of unrecorded genius. Or perhaps the distinction of first mason belongs to the one, maybe thousands of years later who, with a flash of structural insight, straddled the first two stones with a third, first lengthwise, then crosswise, to tie them together. Running bond was born, unit masonry began.
This was a discovery so unlikely that, as the wall went up the idle bystanders must have grunted "what's this all about, who needs a rock wall anyway? What's the matter with sticks?" Just as the one who first built a crude bridge may have been ridiculed by those who said "Fantastic!" Who ever heard of crossing the creek without getting your feet wet?" But the first wall was built and didn't fall down and couldn't burn down and they got better and better at it until the great wall of China was built to keep the Mongols out and, a thousand years later, bring the tourists in. There were lots of milestones (note the word) in masonry technology along the way, mud brick, cut or shaped stone, superb fitted stone as in the almost eternal Inca walls, burned clay bricks, then arches, vaults, domes. It's a glorious history.
But the greatest and perhaps simplest advance may have been the one least noted - the mortar bed. The Incas would have done twice as much if they had thought of mortar to accommodate rough faces between stones instead of doing their laborious fitting of one to another. They would have learned that mortar does several things: it spreads the load so there are no stress concentrations to cause cracking, acts as a lubricant making it easier to slide one block against another, ties the parts together and also seals the joints so that water, air and bugs can't get through. Yet, it was no simple matter. The first mason to use mortar successfully had to not only understand the advantages it gave the wall but to figure out the amount of stiffness or slump it had to have, the amount of sand, lime, gypsum and water it needed, and the method of applying it to bed and vertical joint. He also had to develop the tools to mix and carry the mortar and then apply it properly to bed the stones.
What they did, over time, was to develop a system, not just a material. It's what the Wright Brothers did in the incredibly short period of four years when they not only conceived and built the first airplane, tested its parts in a wind tunnel that they invented and made, built the frame and the engine, but also taught themselves to fly when no one else in the world knew how.
So, along with incremental advances such as structural clay tiles, concrete block, cement mortar and the many ingenious reinforcing methods developed to add tensile strength to masonry, the technology became mature.
As I look at it the most inspiring achievements in terms of design have been where unit masonry has been used in its traditional role of compressive material for walls, building monuments. It is really beyond belief, if you think about it, that all the incredible buildings of the past depend upon compression to hold them up: the great wall, the Pyramids and the Greek temples are obvious but think of Roman and Renaissance arches, vaults and domes and the even more complex and intricate Gothic cathedrals.
Here the stones speak - they are eloquent, old and new. We don't need glass to make a mirror on the world: stone, brick, and block do equally well in reflecting their makers from Babylon, Egypt and Greece to our own time. They tell us who built with them and when, how the builders looked at the world, where they lived, what their society was like. Some built for their gods, others, the Pharaohs, for themselves alone, others still, the Romans, built circuses to please the crowds. How do we build? In my home town, Seattle, I like to lean against an orange-brown brick wall that I know originated in Hebron, South Dakota, where the clay is so fine that their common brick is as smooth and dense as terra-cotta, almost glazed. It captures the sun's warmth to release it later in the day and warm these old bones. The red and brown mingle tells me about that miracle of transformation when gray clay met orange-yellow fire to transmute into a sunset riot of color.
So let's look at this quick history of unit masonry as an architect does, and when you go back home challenge your local designers to use this remarkable material with as much imagination and regard for beauty and permanence as these examples suggest.
And now I have a confession to make. This discussion began as a rational look at masonry, but it has really turned into something I feel in the belly, a fondness for earthy chunks put together by hand. I love its guts, its power and texture, the color and warmth, the sheer mass and weight and capacity for work, holding things up, its ability to serve without rest, the simplicity and integrity of masonry. It is of the earth earthy, as the late architect O'Neil Ford said so well, and, having been put into place by human hand with all the variety, interest and charm that the vagaries of handwork lead to, it will never lose its appeal to the human heart. This counts most.
Thank you very much. Fred Bassetti, architect
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