Texas Architect Sept/Oct 2006: Design Awards
Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other editorial content largely written by AIA members in Texas. That collective participation was the basis of Texas Architect’s recognition by the national AIA with a 2010 Institute Honor for Collaborative Achievement.
texas architect 26 9 / 10 2 0 0 6 With a tradition of brick manufacture and brick construction dating back to pre-statehood days of the early nineteenth century, texas provides a unique laboratory for examining persistence and change in the clay brick industry. two reasons for this are the state’s sheer physical breadth and its enormous demographic growth from 1900 to the present. As in other regions of the U.S. and in Europe, the flourishing mass markets in texas during the twentieth century necessarily transformed brick manufacture from an industry composed of many small- scale, labor-intensive, family-owned busi- nesses employing manual production to one dominated by a few large-scale, capital-inten- sive, corporate-run organizations operating mechanized technology. the increased demand for bricks to supply the state’s expanding construction market could only be met by opening more plants, and by building larger operations equipped with more and more efficient machinery. inevitably, the emerging mass market led to the marginaliza- tion of handmade brick production. Paradoxically, a persisting demand for the aesthetic quality of handmade bricks collided the process results in a controlled mix of dry and wet sand that imparts to each mechanically molded brick the rough texture, markings, and irregularities of shape and texture associ- ated with hand-molded brick. Bricks made in this fashion are marketed as “machine-made, sand-molded,” “wood-mold look-alike,” “soft mud-molded,” “Old Colonial-face bricks,” and so on. Another reason why texas is a unique laboratory for examining changes in brick manufacturing, marketing, and use is the state’s historical relationship with and proximity to Mexico. in the lower border region, urbaniza- tion on both sides of the Rio Grande during the nineteenth century stimulated brick manu- facturing and construction. After 1900, with the industrial development and urbanization of the Rio Grande Valley, regional brickmaking flourished. Although some bricks were exported from Mexico during the early decades of the twentieth century, much of the texas market was supplied by plants operating at many sites in three counties (Cameron, hidalgo, and Starr) of the Rio Grande Valley. Especially noteworthy is the case of Guenther Weiske’s Valley Brick & tile Company that grew from a small artisanal brick plant he established in 1913 on a ranch named “El Gavilán” near the Rio Grande. Weiske, a German immigrant, sub- sequently relocated his plant to a 60-acre site in Madero close to Mission, and then acquired another plant on a 160-acre site in Rio Grande City. Weiske’s Valley Brick & tile Company (VBtC) produced tens of millions of hand- molded and extruded (soft and stiff mud) bricks under the banner of “What the Valley Makes, Makes the Valley.” Closed in 1972 and 1980 respectively, these abandoned plant sites today stand as vivid reminders of deindustrialization and for what was the principal non-agricultural industry in the Rio Grande Valley. there are complex reasons for the shutdown of the Madero and Rio Grande City plants, both owned and operated by Weiske from 1943 until 1965 when Rudy Nordmeyer assumed ownership of the Rio Grande City plant (Rio Clay Products). Both plants had extensive on-site clay deposits and a local supply of labor, as well as manage- ment committed to technological innovation. Bricks, Aesthetics, and the Market industry by scott cook a l l p h o t o s by s c o t t c o o k with and impacted the mass-market indus- trialization process, resulting in the parallel development of two mechanized brickmaking technologies identified as “soft mud” and “stiff mud” to differentiate between the higher clay and lower water composition of stiffer mate- rial compared to softer material. “Soft mud” processes are designed to simulate handmade bricks, whereas “stiff mud” processes are designed to mass produce bricks that are highly uniform in size, shape, and texture in the most technologically advanced, efficient, and least costly way possible. in short, bricks produced by these two processes are similar in quality but have different objectively expressable aesthetic attributes, and their use and appeal architectur- ally is largely subjective. innovative mechanized processes have facilitated producing bricks with many of the markings and linear irregularities of artisanal bricks at high levels of output. the key to this mechanized simulation process lies in the proper mix of clays with higher sand content and lower sand content. typically, empty molds are sanded before loaded with clay, then the exposed surfaces of the clay in the molds are sanded. a worker molds brick at Ladrillera reynosa in this photo taken in 1999. the same labor-intensive process contin- ues today at small, family-owned plants around reynosa.