Wismar's Red Brick Gothic

The brick as building material

Kneaded, pressed, fired: thousands, if not millions of bricks for the largest structures, laid by hand in vaults, arches, portals, gables and friezes.

Brick belongs to mankind's oldest building materials, first appearing with the Harrapan Civilisation of the Indus Valley and the ancient Babylonian Empire. Glazed brickwork was  already established by the 6th century BCE, as the Babylonian Ishtar Gate – dating from 570 BCE and today to be seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin – demonstrates.

It was primarily the Romans who were responsible for the dissemination of brick building construction techniques in Europe. Brick was the ideal building material for the Roman Empire and its prodigious construction projects throughout Europe and the Near East. It should be noted however that the Romans surfaced their brick with marble slabs and plaster.

Brick construction techniques first arrived in Germany in Verden (near Bremen) and Jerichow (west of Berlin) from Northern Italy in the 12th century. The flattened raw clumps of clay - 'greenies' - were still cut from loam, fired in simple pit kilns. Specialized shapes such as capitals for example, had to be cut individually or else chiselled into shape once fired.

By around 1200 the shape and form of brick was becoming larger and more homogenized, with loam or clay pressed into wooden caskets or frames. By placing textured wooden moulds within the caskets, the brick shape could be varied, creating more complex curved forms.

Unlike naturally occurring stone, which the mason embellished individually using his chisel, brick construction worked with 'prefabricated' forms. They would be pieced together to create profiles on cornices and rounded bars, or geometrical ornamental friezes. The manufacture of bricks required advanced production techniques and a high degree of organization.

Suitable loam or clay deposits had to be sourced, the material mixed with sand or water, kneaded well and then left to season. The material would be left to freeze in winter as the cooling process refined it. Finally, huge amounts of firewood had to be procured to fire the bricks. 

For example, in the construction of the seat of the Teutonic Knights - the castle of Malbork (Marienburg) south-east of Gdansk - over two and a half millions bricks were required between 1276 and 1280. Eight kilns were operational in which approx. 40,000 bricks per kiln – fired twice yearly at temperatures of at least 800°C - were produced. The means were therefore available to manufacture the bricks on a mass-production scale.

However, unlike our industrially manufactured bricks, every red clay brick then had its own character - and they are remain a mirror of those times today.

Exhibition: Introduction to «Red Brick Gothic»

3D film presentation