According to historians, brickmaking in New Zealand stretches back more than 200 years to 1819, when a Māori craftsman, who had learned the art in Sydney, fired 8000 handmade bricks at the Kerikeri mission. In the early to mid-19th century brickyards grew up around the country including Auckland, where New Lynn became the suburban hub of the craft. After the 1930s, brick-veneer cladding, a technique that involved tying bricks to a timber frame, ensured buildings were both fire-proof and safe from earthquakes. The solidity and permanence of brick is a given, but architecturally, there are incredible opportunities to push the boundaries of expression.
At RTA Studio, our work in the medium has usually been driven by context. At Whanganui Collegiate, the school’s new administration building keys into the existing historical fabric but in a contemporary way with a large, folded brick wall a vertical entryway that has both drama and stature.
A modern interpretation of brickwork is also integral to the commercial project currently underway at 50 Pollen Street. It is part of the urban regeneration of an entire block on Ponsonby Road, which, we are pleased to say, we’ve had quite a hand in. In the past seven years, we’ve reimagined just about every building in this prime location, from the refurbishment of the Karen Walker and Mecca stores to the seismic upgrade of several heritage-listed shops, and the Mackelvie Street development which aligns with the Victorian fabric of the suburb.
Right next door to our own offices – and yes, we worked on those too – 50 Pollen Street is a mixed-use premises with retail on the ground level, an office above, and food and beverage destinations on the upper floors (which include a couple of rooftop tenancies). Using red bricks as cladding, was a nod to the Edwardian facades that grace this north-south ridgeline and a chance to be expressive with the format. Bricks are sourced from Canterbury Clay, a family-operated business where customised runs are made to order, which means that RTA Studio can play with colour, texture and shape to achieve a uniquely modulated façade. Curved bricks and ones tapered to 30 degrees are all part of the tapestry.
There is a certain luxury in working with a heavy mass product but by using tumbled colours to give a mottled appeal, laying in an offset pattern for positive texture, or working with perforation to allow light to glow through, myriad pixelated effects can be achieved. In our residential work, clients are also starting to explore and experiment with this underappreciated, locally made material. Mies van der Rohe said, “Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together.” While this may be the land of the lightweight, elegant shed, there’s also room for castles made of clay.