Arches, Lentils and the Death of Masonry

This is page 1 of a 4 part article

When I think of arches I think of stone and brick, and when I think of brick it takes me back a few years

The summer of 1981 I spent helping a crew of bricklayers. They were as crude a bunch as I ever worked with, and enjoyed shocking the new kid with their stories. They were blue collar through and through, but they were professional and passionate about one thing. They could lay brick, block and stone and they enjoyed their work.

My job was to keep them supplied with brick and mortar and they kept me hopping. The bricks tore at your hand. They abraded your skin. I have seen masons who would wear gloves. Not this crew. They wanted to feel the bricks. To do the job properly required touch as well as sight. Even those of the lowly support crew such as myself were expected to abide by this ethic. By midsummer I no longer had any fingerprints.

This was in Virginia, where brick is still a dominant siding option. The crew worked for John Long (see, himself a former brick layer, who was in the process of creating a construction empire. My time with that crew was short. I did not continue in the construction trade. My destiny was tied with the petroleum industry, or so I thought, but I did come away with a deep respect for the masonry trades.

Before the advent of steel girders, masonry was a craft and an art in great demand. Great buildings required great masonry, which required great masons. It was a craft learned through a long apprenticeship, tightly regulated by guilds, and its practitioners were among the middle class elite. At its best it defied gravity. Look at the great cathedrals. They do not stand, they float. Tons of solid rock floating above the streets of Paris.

They say that Merlin used magic to move the monoliths of Stonehenge from Ireland to their present site. There must have been some of their Merlin magic in their trowels to create these great cathedrals. Perhaps that is why the secret society of the Masons took the art of masonry as its starting point in creating its esoteric mythology. There is magic and power in mastering the trowel and all it can do.

In an age of steel it is easy to look down on the lowly brick. In a time of computers we can ignore the lessons of the sketching floor. Yet when I look at those ancient cathedrals and compare them to our skyscrapers I wonder if we might have lost something along the way.

The American Architect Louis Kahn has this to say on the subject:

“To express is to drive. And when you want to give something presence, you have to consult nature. And that is where Design comes in.

And if you think of Brick, for instance,and you say to Brick,"What do you want Brick?"

And Brick says to you"I like an Arch."

And if you say to Brick"Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lentil over you. What do you think of that?"

"Brick?"Brick says:"... I like an Arch"”

So, the masons were simply really good at listening to their bricks. They didn’t argue with the brick (or stone). They simply took its advice.

Louis Kahn thought he heard a brick give advice. Yet when I see a well-made arch I don't think the bricks are talking. I think I hear them sing.

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