African Brickmaking : Part 4 – Epilouge






Process of Growth

 Nothing holds process like clay. It is a receptacle of information. Go outside and find a brick building. No two bricks are ever the same. There are, however, similar marks imbedded within the surface of each brick which speak to the process the brick endured during its manufacturing. The forming machine leaves a mark , the kiln. Many times the shadow of a brick is burned onto the face of its neighbor, or a brick sitting in the hotter zones deepens to a dark purple. Those marks and shades of color speak to a modern process of brick Making. And the more one knows about the process the more one can “read” these bricks and understand the something about where the clay was mined, what sort of kiln was used to fire it, how mechanized the process was to form the brick. And as the process becomes more and more mechanized during each phase of the process, the variations in the brick become more and more subtle, and the bricks themselves become more even and uniform. Some would argue (myself among them) that the character of the brick as a building material has suffered as a result of this uniformity. Manufacturers are now stamping bricks with irregularities, or coloring them to achieve the effect that would have occurred naturally by the temperature variations in the old kilns.

Brick from Morogoro

In truth, the process of making bricks in Tanzania, is closer the the process of making pottery than almost any type of brick making practiced currently in the United States. For this reason I chose to use this process, as much as I could, to illustrate the ideas and concepts of my research. The act of making is an act of transference. Ideas manifest in the physical world, they move from gray matter to matter. But too often the thought process ends before the act of making begins. And so the act of making is divorced from the act of thinking, we do not think with our hands. The consequence is a uniformity in the transference of ideas similar to the uniformity in modern bricks.





There is a famous story involving Alvar Aalto’s visit to America while designing the Baker House Dormatories, on the campus of MIT. Given his own thoughts and writings about “the human factor” it is clear that by that time in his career, he was identifying himself more with the humanistic and organic principles inherent in Wright’s work than in the work of his European Functionalist contemporaries. Although it can certainly be argued that the brick is in some sense the grandfather of standardization in architecture, and this standardization was one of the tenets of Functionalist Modernism,  the bricks being manufactured in Europe at the time still retained from brick to brick a unique character, be it texture, color, hardness, or form. This character was determined largely by a less mechanized forming and firing process. In essence the more human contact during the process of making, the greater the deviation from brick to brick. This more cellular approach to standardization was preferred by Aalto and when first searching for building materials for use in the project he was dismayed by the efficiency and uniformity of the bricks coming out of the American brick factories. The humanness seemed to have been filtered out, and as such the beauty. He finally settled on brick from a floundering out of date brick factory, on the verge of going out of business. These bricks were made by hand and fired in pyramidal kilns fueled with oak, essentially the exact same method used to fire bricks in present day Tanzania.


The bricks being made in Morogoro are even further back on the evolutionary scale than those used in Baker House. And while that process lacks in efficiency, the bricks themselves are individually and physically infused with their contact with the brickmakers. The whole process of the making is embedded on the surface, each stage leaves an indicator behind, a tell tale sign that may be read like a map or a diagram.

The roughest side indicates where the brick was first placed on the ground, and in being placed there records that condition, the impression of grass and rice husks, the texture of the ground, the moisture. From there is it possible to discern which side the brick was turned next and where the brick was placed in the kiln, to what temperature it was fired, with what fuel source. The more one understands the process the more one can translate the language of the brick.

This is true of the city as well. A city is generated through process, though the methods and materials used to create it. The bricks produced with the current method of production would have a slightly different signature than bricks created in the methane fired kilns of the factory. This subtle shift will mark these buildings in time; will create a ring in the growth in the city not unlike the rings created by the formal and informal communities. As the city grows, and more brick making factories are constructed at the periphery. It becomes a document which moves through the city, tracking the growth in both space and time.

A relief model of Keebwa Village embedded in clay


The abandoned factory buildings I visited on the outskirts of Morogoro are a document as well, but they have never moved on. Once the brick makers moved out in the fields, the buildings remained empty, slowly decaying into uselessness. The hope for these factories is that they will keep there identity, retain their history, but move on and adapt as well, have a sympathetic relationship with the city.

So what will they become?

The concept of pre-programming an adaptive reuse for a building is a tricky one. This factory is comprised of two parts, a dairy and a brick making factory. Only one of these, the dairy, seems likely to function in perpetuity. If anything, the urbanization of the surrounding area could only benefit the need and usefulness of a dairy. The location of the site, sitting at the apex of a peninsula and surrounded by the alluvial plain ensures farming and pasture to support the function. A brick making factory is  a vital resource during the growth of the city, but once thoroughly urbanized it is more prudent for the brick making to occur where the growth is occurring. I have spent a lot of time speculating on the question of designing for the adaptive reuse and feel that to prescribe a program 15 to 20 years in advance of its manifestation is presumptuous. The city will have changed tremendously in the interim, not unlike the mud and waddle houses half way between Dar and Morogoro. It will be the same city, but not.

A program for the adaptive reuse will emerge from the changed context, reflecting the changed neighborhood. The way to influence this program is by designing a building which will have a positive effect on the community, which will be familiar and open, which will influence the type of community it creates beyond what is does through brick and mortar.

The video below is the making of a study model for a playground. In this model I was exploring the idea of adaptive use, the shifting and melding of programs, a playground embedded within practical devices that could serve the community as a whole, invite people into the space- an area for community washing with a slide, a potable water tank with hand holds for climbing, a “building” playground for children to play with discarded bricks, mancala game boards embedded in the courtyard tile, and a wall embedded with computers, with access to the larger world.

The inner courtyard of the project will be developed for this purpose, an open community space, adjacent to both the functioning of the dairy and brick making, but not in the way of either. This roof is the first phase of the program, an undulating landscape, a row of wavy hills to peer down on the life of cows.

The model is also a study of process and method, the building of an idea- the rearrangement, the reevaluation. Think of the child mentioned in the introduction, with a ball of clay. The clay and the imagination are connected through the hand- and all work together to create, trading with each other, form for skill for knowledge. This relationship is the first half of almost any creative endeavor…

….and the second, of course, is to play!