Architectural view: A tribute to bricks and Haggerston's 'houses of commons'
- Credit: Gordon Shrigley
Brick can lay claim to be the most widely used building material.
The oldest known bricks have been found in Syria and Turkey and were made over nine thousand years ago from sundried clay.
Bricks tend to be roughly rectangular in form and small enough to be lifted by one or two hands.
Since we invented bricks, we have experimented with ways to make them harder and more durable, by adding horse hair and animal dung to mud bricks, to firing clay bricks in kilns.
The igloo, which is made from compacted snow bricks by the Artic Inuit culture, shows us that bricks do not necessarily have to be made from mud or clay though, to be useful.
In more recent times, the most widely used brick in 20th Century Britain was the Fletton, which was invented by the North London architect and developer John Cathles Hill around 1890 and made just outside Peterborough.
The popularity of the Fletton was principally because they could be made very quickly and cheaply, and soon became known as ‘commons’ due to their ubiquity.
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The speed of manufacture of the Fletton was the result of the newly invented Phorpres process, that mechanically compressed the clay from 4 sides simultaneously, creating a dense raw brick, which was then hardened in a kiln. Plus, the affordability of the Fletton was due to the type of clay used too, Lower Oxford clay, that contains a percentage of carbon. The carbon internally heats the brick from the inside when fired, reducing the amount of coal to power the kilns, resulting in substantial savings.
The pinkish toned Fletton brick is certainly however not beautiful, especially when compared to the tonal splendour of the world of bricks. The Fletton does nevertheless have ‘kiss’ marks on the stretcher face of the brick, caused by stacking the bricks on top of each other within the kiln, which gives each Fletton a unique, if somewhat accidental decorative pattern.
Flettons have been used mainly for buildings that are simply required to house an activity and not to please the eye, such as the more spartan forms of social housing, factories and barracks.
Within Hackney, the flat roofed Fletton industrial building used to be a common sight, but due to the speed of development, they are quickly disappearing.
A good example of a Fletton building still in its original condition is 13 Stean Street, which currently houses offices, a cycle mechanics and a bakery.
13 Stean Street is a no-nonsense three-storey light industrial corner building, constructed from exposed pre-cast concrete lintols, single glazed Crittal steel windows, engineering brick cills and English bond Fletton bricks over a concrete frame.
The brick used at 13 Stean Street is the later ‘Rustic’ Fletton, invented in 1923 as a facing brick, that has a coarse herringbone pattern on the stretcher and head of the brick, which however intentionally decorative, still retains the gauche ruddy character of the original Fletton.
13 Stean Street and the many buildings like it, stand today as silent monuments to the calloused hands, broken backs and toil of factory life, and also to the pride our forebears achieved through the graft and culture of manufacturing things.
Fletton buildings were made then from commons for common activity by commoners, and perhaps such buildings have won the right to be named as the true Houses of Commons.