25°30'17.02"N  55°34'39.10"E

Decorative CMU

These useful building components have many names. They’re cinder block in Canada, the US and NZ, hollow block in The Philippines and the UAE, and besser block in Australia. In the UK, NZ and Australia, breezeblock refers to breeze which is another name for ash/cinder and not, I finally learn, to any associated cooling airflow. Other names include CMU (concrete masonry unit) although these tend to do more the heavy lifting, and decorative concrete block which may or not be used with perjorative intent. I’m going to combine these last two virtues into the new and unashamedly proud Decorative CMU

midmodmich has beaten me to identify them and admire them.

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There, and on similar sites, you’ll get an idea of the variety of effects that can be generated from one simple idea, an inexpensive material, and a simple process of fabrication.

Decorative CMU can be made by hand with a simple mold, but Chinese companies supply a wide range of plastic and metal molds, as well as a variety of sizes of machinery to automate the process.

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Wherever you are in the world you’ll have seen decorative CMU. Some patterns will be more complex than others but all will belong to a building element that provides

  1. a physical barrier that may have a security or light structural function,
  2. modulated light and, at the same time, a degree of visual privacy, and
  3. airflow.

These three characteristics are appreciated in varying proportions around the world but find particular favour in the hot and humid countries where airflow is valued most. In temperate locations, decorative CMU are more likely to be more valued for their decorativeness. moderndesign.org and other mid-century design sites show how important decorative CMU were in defining the popular architecture of an era. Often featured on those sites is the Palm Springs Parker Meridian Hotel, built in 1959 as California’s first Holiday Inn.

palm_springs_mid_century_modern

A low-cost, easily manufactured way of providing security, airflow, diffuse light and a reduction in concrete/weight were not what the world of architecture ever needed. Decorative concrete blocks have very rarely been proposed as architecture. There was 130 E64th street by Edward Durell Stone circa 1960.

130 E64th

Edward Durell Stone’s 1960 2 Columbus Circle featured decorative CMU but those were custom designed and fabricated.

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Both the Stone buildings have had a tough time in New York. The house was widely reviled, its screen wall removed for reasons of historical propriety and then replaced for reasons of historical propriety. His 2 Columbus Circle suffered a worse fate. Demolition, like death, at least allows closure.

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At least his 1959 US Embassy in Delhi fared better, perhaps because the people there ‘got it’. Elsewhere, it was forgotten. I never even knew about this building until a minute ago. It’s not bad.

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Almost immediately damned by its classnessless, the decorative concrete block was declassé and not something to be seen in polite architecture. In recent history there’s been this house in Vietnam.

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Australia has Eva-Marie Prineas’ Lane Cove extension, continuing the Australian tradition of decorative CMU for garden fences, front porch screen walls and rear ‘outdoor living’ areas.

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This hotel outdoor area in Melbourne attempts to play it safe using regular CMUs in contrived denial of decorative intent. (Either that or my Uncle Jack built it.)

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Despite their banishment from architecture, decorative CMU went on to have many undocumented adventures around the world. I had to go 40 minutes’ out of Dubai to 25°30’17.02″N  55°34’39.10″E) to find these UAE examples of a pure and handsome vernacular making good use of decorative CMU in three different ways:
(1) around the perimeter of a roof terrace,

(2) adding secure openings to the top of an enclosed outdoor area and,

(3) possibly as a precursor to that, adding some height to a fence.

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This isn’t so much an example of architecture contributing to vernacular building, but an example of vernacular builders appreciating the value of something the world of architecture tired of and dumped. Usually the transfer is in the other direction with something from the world of vernacular architecture appropriated for the sake of its appearance. Here’s a house currently doing the rounds in Australia. Open brickwork is now a ‘clever screening technique‘.

clever screening

Hmm. Before that was the 2012 Grafton ArchitectsWaterloo Lane Mews.

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Prior to the London Olympics there was the Primary Substation building by NORD architects.

Substation-3

There was also the 2012 ABC building by WISE Architecture in Seoul. You get my drift.

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The first time this usage of brick appeared in conscious architecture was Ignzatio Gardella‘s 1934-8 Dispensario Antitubercolare in Alessandria.

It’s said to be a variant of a local vernacular technique and I believe that, for here are two unpretentious Alessandria farmhouses.

Here’s a third. It’s 18th century and currently on the market.

This brickwork is not trying to be decorative. It provides security and 50% airflow without compromising structural integrity and is probably the lightest brick wall you’ll ever see. It’s also a pattern that effectively utilizes brick’s shear strength. I’ve never seen this example of vernacular brilliance updated, perhaps because the Greek cross pattern appears too decorative for modern us who think the only purpose of a screen wall is to beautify a facade.

Not obstructing airlow was important with the NORD substation, the Vietnamese house, the vernacular Emirati houses and the tuberculosis dispensary. Let’s not forget Laurie Baker who did amazing structural brick walls that facilitated airflow and modulated light.

baker-brick.jpg

Not only have we shunned decorative CMU in favour of decorative brickwork, we’ve also banished the word decorative from our vocabulary, preferring to call decorative brick screens perforated facadeshttp://dariocanciani.blogspot.ae/2015/11/facciata-in-mattoni.html will show you some of the more extreme perforations. This is Silk Wall by Archi-Union Architecs, in Shanghai.

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MIT are also on the case, but the outrageous offseting of conventional masonry units has its limits.

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Injecting value-adding variation to the modular advantages of masonry units is where parametric bioidiocy excels.

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These have all all the advantages of modularity – except its sameness. Our contemporary disdain for uniformity and our craving for novelty are not new. The Georgian terraced house was one of the most successful and useful housing products of all time but the Victorians thought the streetscapes mind-numbingly dull. If the Victorians had had Haddonstone™, they wouldn’t have have bothered with polychromatic masonry or, when money got tighter, polychromatic brickwork.

It’s amusing to see Haddonstone variously described as cast stone, cast limestone and reconstructed limestone, partially accurate though they may be. Our objection to the c-word aside, we’re no different from the Victorians. We still lack the ability to comprehend any virtue not visible. We tired of decorative CMU and grew to despise the tedious monotony of brick.

Foreign Office Architects were one of the first to solve these first world problems with their Spanish Pavilion for Expo 2005 in Nagoya. They made it hip with colour and a non-repetitive repetitiveness, and referenced everything on the planet that was architectural and Spanish. I remember one or the then other saying it even referenced the decorative CMU that line the Costa del Sol and maybe it did, apart from one-offness, the customized parametric geometry, the coloured and glazed ceramic material and the glass infills

This next example is also probably better described as decorative modular glazing units.

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Both follow the example set by Frank Lloyd Wright trying to take decorative CMU upmarket via the custom-design route. Here’s his 1961 Ablin House.

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It didn’t work. Decorative CMU as mid-century architectural phenomenon coincided with the International Style and peaked around the time of Googie.

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People were hungering for a new relationship with ornament, something meaningful.

security

The hunger never went away. Remember how not too long ago everybody was excited about that new miracle of laser cutting? For about three seconds, laser-cut screens were the new shape, the new beauty,

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the new image.

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The love quickly faded. decorativescreensdirect do a nice line in affordable laser-cut decorative screens to use in exactly the same way we would once have used decorative CMUs.

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Architects are feckless philanderers when it comes to new building technologies. We shouldn’t expect 3D-printed bio-imagined screens to be around for any longer than decorative CMU or laser-cut whatever.

depolluting-facade-1

It’s every architect’s dream to find the perfect eye candy that’s low-maintenance, cheap and classy at the same time. Never trust an architect eager to jump into bed with new technologies.

• • •

[20 May, 2016] I had a feeling I was barely scratching the surface. Thanks to everyone who enhanced this post, post-posting, by sending me further examples of architecture featuring decorative CMU. The links below are from the respective comments.

Jonathan alerted me to Iwan Iwanoff, an architect who made much of the decorative possibilities of regular CMU in Perth, Australia.

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Iago alerted me to the work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew introduced in this Architectural Review article. [Click wisely as AR will give you only chance per month to access the article]

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yorksranter sent these links to two Flickr groups that celebrate the versatility and ubiquity of these underrated building components that are still very much part of the global built environment.

https://www.flickr.com/groups/891254@N23/ has about 1,900 photos. https://www.flickr.com/groups/795044@N23/ has about 1,100 photos.

 

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “Decorative CMU

  1. Richard Armstrong

    I just wanted to say how much I love this blog. I am in the process of wrapping up an 8 year career in the Royal Canadian Navy in order to study architecture. I am actually going the architectural technologist route for precisely the reasons you mention in this blog. It confirms one of my personal beliefs: That not everyone is, or should be an artist; that the term craftsman or artisan should command the same respect. After 8 years of service to my country it seems inconceivable that an architect would not place the needs and priorities of the user first. You’re building a home!

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks Richard for your kind feedback and sharing those thoughts. Making buildings for people is a wonderful thing to be involved in and I wish you all the best. With eight years of being in and around ships, you probably have a very good awareness of how people move around in spaces. It’s just coincidence that the current post is about life on the sea but if you have any input on the subject of nautical balustrades then please let me know. Keep in touch anyway. Graham.

      Reply
      1. Richard Armstrong

        As a general rule the safety rails are either temporary or extensions of the main hull with scuppers to allow the egress of water. Otherwise the waves will tear them right off. That would explain the style with steel cable etc. since they are designed to be removed easily

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Dear Yorks, Some of those are amazing! I knew I had barely scratched the surface when I wrote that post but I’m glad I did something to raise awareness of these building components that continue to be useful all around the world. Thanks for sharing. Graham.

      Reply
  2. iago lópez

    A very interesting post, as usual. I have recently found out about the work of Maxwell Fry and Drew through thier classic book from the 50s (“Tropical Architecture”) and I am very impressed by thier work, both as pioneers of truly sustainable design and as very gifted architects who came up with very interesting solutions (including their own designs for CMUs):
    http://www.architectural-review.com/archive/tropical-modernism-fry-and-drews-african-experiment/8665223.fullarticle
    Best regards and congrats for the blog!

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks Jonathan – that’s an excellent link with some amazing stuff I never knew about. I’ve never seen concrete block used decoratively like that before. I also admit I never knew about Iwan Iwanoff. Next time I’m over I’m going to have to do a tour.

      Reply
  3. Duo Dickinson

    There is real power in the breadth and scope of reality: it trumps constructed prescription every time: open minds and creative impulses make better music than the Suzuki Method as applied to design: of following the Narrow path in a plowed furrow of safe compliance…

    Reply
  4. Karen McKay

    Is the next leap, the glass bricks – that have the same privacy and pattern effect, but no flow-through ventilation properties? Besser blocks rule!

    >

    Reply

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