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The brick

Nominated by Kieran Long.

The brick is the most versatile and functional invention in the history of construction.

The origins of the technology are disputed, but it seems likely that the first baked clay bricks were made somewhere around 9,000 years ago.

The genius of the brick is that it is a standardised product that can be made in both small and large factories. Each one can be lifted by a worker with one hand – no heavy machinery is required and a worker can work on his or her own. With the right mortar they have great structural stability and flexibility, as well as thermal mass and durability.

The humble brick is supremely functional but also popular with architects, engineers and builders. From major civil engineering feats to the finest basilicas, from Le Corbusier’s greatest houses to the most outrageous postmodern confections, brick has served an aesthetic purpose.

When we want to do something to dominate a city, we make Munich’s Frauenkirche from millions of them. When we want something to disappear, we make it out of beige bricks in a British suburb.

Brick can be structural, or used as a facing material. It can be glazed to make bright lightwells, hard-fired for strength, carved for decoration or rendered over if they’re cheap versions. Bricks can be handmade and inscribed with the craft of the manufacturer, or made perfectly consistent.

Brick is the stuff that built nations.

Kieran Long is the editor of The Architect’s Journal