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News > Context Fall 2023 > Opinion: A New Conversation with a Brick

Opinion: A New Conversation with a Brick

The brick’s varying textures and subtle variations of hue immediately tie us to a sense of the earth itself. The red color reminds us of the firing process needed to harden the bricks. The scale of the brick is comforting, knowing that each unit can fit in our hand as we imagine the mason carefully placing the bricks in a wide array of subtle and delightful geometric patterns. We feel the strength of the brick walls, knowing they have stood for centuries and will persist long into the future.  


Louis Khan* famously anthropomorphized the brick, giving it the agency to shape its own reality. He asked:  

‘What do you want, Brick?’ 
And Brick says to you, ‘I like an Arch.’ 

It was a profound “conversation” that has captivated architects for generations. It cut to the core of what it means to be an architect, using materials to shape form and give meaning. 


But times change. 

Here we are in 2023 and indeed, the world is quite different now. Like Mr. Kahn, I ask you to consider the perspective of the brick. I ask: 

‘What do you need, Brick?’ 

And Brick says to you, ‘I need to be  

The difference between wants and needs is profound, and yet we must account for both in our thinking. I will expand on the brick’s answer in four ways, with the purpose of better understanding what it means to be an architect in the 21st century. I hope the message will serve as a gentle and consistent reminder that our work as architects is governed by fundamental values and deep design principles. 


The first part of our new answer to the question:  

“What does a brick need to be?”  
is connected to People.  

The brick needs to be made in factories where people make a living wage and have paid sick days. The brick needs to be installed by builders who offer training programs for anyone who wants to learn the trade of masonry and the opportunity to succeed or fail on their own terms. The brick needs to be drawn in architecture firms where a commitment has been made to pursue justice and belonging in the workplace. All of this begins internally, in the hearts and minds of each of us. In short, 

The brick needs to be  
socially sustainable. 


The second part of the answer relates to the Planet. The brick needs to be responsibly sourced and produced in factories that account for their carbon emissions. The brick needs be installed by expert builders who make every effort to reduce their carbon footprint. The brick needs to be part of a building that was co-created with as many stakeholders as possible. The brick needs to be drawn in the wall sections of architecture firms that have stopped waiting for their clients to ask for sustainability, but instead, find ways to fight climate change on their own terms and by their own metrics. In short,  

The brick needs to be  
environmentally sustainable. 


The third part of the answer revolves around Place. The brick needs to be a part of a process aimed at authentic Placemaking. The difference between designing a building and making a place is as subtle as it is powerful. The brick needs to be part of something that is not just visually beautiful but also a part of an orchestrated effort to connect to the place in ways that engage all our senses. We can do this by learning from the original people of the region and by understanding the land in all its profound dimensions. In short,  

The brick needs to be  
culturally sustainable. 


The last part of the answer to the question “What does a brick need to be?” speaks to the concept of Prosperity. The difference between “profit” and “prosperity” is like the difference between night and day. We can all agree that architecture firms must remain profitable to keep the doors open and function as a business. But let’s imagine a thriving, prosperous design firm where talented young architects grow and develop by connecting more directly to the people in the communities they serve. Imagine how young architects will thrive in a firm’s ethos where environmental sustainability is core to the mission and the decision making of the firm regardless of client motivations. And imagine a firm where we intentionally redouble efforts to advocate for the highest quality design of spaces and places possible within the budget parameters. In short,  

The brick needs to be  
economically sustainable. 


These are the core values of what the brick needs to be. Together, the key words of People, Planet, Place and Prosperity form the mental map of the sustainable future we all seek. It is a roadmap to achieving our credo as architects to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our society. Instead of saying: ‘Sustainability is just a part of good design,’ let’s think and say: ‘Good design is a critical part of a transformative approach to creating a sustainable future.’ When we accomplish this, the people will thank you, our planet will thank you, our places will be richer and more delightful, and we will bring prosperity not only to our current generation, but to the future generations that we serve.   

Rob Fleming is the 2023 President of the Philadelphia AIA. He is Director of Sustainability at FCA and the Director of Online Innovation at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an architect, author, educator, and a passionate advocate for a sustainable future.  

*One of the finest and most revered Architects of the 20th century, Kahn had a deeply problematic personal life that overlapped his professional practice. The conversation with a brick was transcribed from the 2003 documentary “My Architect: A Son’s Journey” by Nathaniel Kahn, which also addresses the complexities of Kahn’s family relationships. 


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