Bricks and Mortals by Tom Wilkinson

Bricks and Mortals by Tom Wilkinson

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In Bricks and Mortals, Tom Wilkinson undertakes the massive task of examining the relationships between buildings and the people who live, work and play in them. The book is divided into ten chapters named after certain buildings, but the chapters expand to talk about architecture as a whole and its relationship with, for example, power or health. I found this book more interesting than I thought I would but I wish that there had been more detail. I felt that the author’s massive topic allowed him to bring up interesting ideas, but I wanted to see these taken further.

For me, this book started off slow, and then really picked up when the author was talking about more contemporary and sociological subjects. This is perhaps to be expected; how can you talk about sociological aspects of ancient Roman buildings when there isn’t an awful lot of surviving literature from that time? And what has survived from that time probably would have been written by an affluent man. The first chapter talked about the Tower of Babel and took the reader from Babel to the middle ages to the French Revolution to the 20th Century to terrorism and the twin towers. All of this in a short twenty-page chapter left my head spinning. I felt that this chapter especially could have been a much more detailed and thorough book in itself: The Tower of Babel and its resonance throughout history. This was a running theme in the book for me; Wilkinson wrote of interesting things but I wanted more. An anecdote about Gertrude Bell, the early twentieth century anthropologist, found me running to Wikipedia; as did a lot of the buildings. I wanted something deeper.

That said, there had been a lot of research done and later chapters feel more organic. I found his chapters on health and colonialism very interesting: Wilkinson has a lot to say and wants to write in an accessible way about buildings and their effects on people’s lives. I wouldn’t have wanted to read this book without the more human aspects of the text. But knowing, for example, that Victorian houses were designed to forge a strong sense of community: the long terraces and kitchen windows facing each other so that people had to be aware of their neighbours, was something that stayed with me with this book.

Since finishing this book I have thought a lot about the ideas it presented. I think that it is well-worth a read for people who think it sounds even slightly interesting. That said, the final paragraph struck me as rather naïve. The notion that architecture will one day be ‘for the people’ rather than for the ‘developers, speculators, landlords and corrupt bureaucrats who profit from it’ is a nice idea but it doesn’t ring true with the rest of the book which, in showing history’s relationship between both bricks and mortals, undermines that very sentence. Bricks and Mortals is a hopeful and humane book, and is worth reading.