"I like to think of bricks as brushstrokes or pixels:" An Interview With Will Quam
Length: 5.5 minutes (1,107 words)
Bricks are everywhere. In Chicago, especially, they hold a place of significance: they have been used in everything from grand buildings to humble two-flats. The city even has its own brick style, Chicago Common. These bricks can be found everywhere in the city and are now wildly in demand across the country for rehab and other construction projects.
Will Quam is a brick enthusiast and runs the Instagram account and website Brick of Chicago, which documents brickwork in every style across the city. Below, he speaks about his interest in bricks, why they are interesting, and what makes Chicago a unique architectural city.
Tell me about your background. Are you from Chicago originally? Have you always had an interest in brick and architecture?
I am originally from St. Paul, Minnesota! I've lived in Chicago for almost 6 years, 3 of which I've been photographing brick. I'm a theatre teacher and director by trade, I work with Writer's Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Mudlark Theatre, and I help run The Passage Theatre. I've always really liked architecture. My great-grandfather was an architecture journalist, but he was a West Coast glass-and-steel modernist, so there's a little bit of a family history but not too much I can claim. My interest was always casual, and I certainly never paid any attention to brick. For most of my life, if you had asked me what color a brick is I would have said "red" with great confidence. Now I know that's completely untrue. Bricks can be and are all different colors of the rainbow.
What is it about brick that you find to be the most interesting?
How varied it is. I like to think of bricks as brushstrokes or pixels. Each brick is a unique and beautiful part of a more beautiful whole. Because they're made of clay, burned in a kiln, and exposed to the elements each one has its own variations (big or small) in color, texture, and weathering. How cool is that?? Also, you call a brick a different name based on how it's oriented and how it's laid. So there's a secret language written into the brick around you!
What is one thing everyone should know about brick in Chicago?
It's everywhere! Chicago has a few repetitive building forms (two flat, courtyard apartments, workers cottage, etc), and often it's the brick that make each unique. Different colors and textures, or little things like changing the orientation or positioning of the brick.
What are some of the most defining types of brick or brickwork found in Chicago? What makes it unique to the city?
After the 1871 and 1874 fires, it was illegal to build with wood, so the city turned to bricks. Chicago is specidically home to the Chicago Common Brick. Chicago Commons were made from the clay in Chicago and cook county. The clay is full of lime and aggregates and various levels of iron, which means the bricks burned to a range of colors, mostly yellow, red, and pink. All that lime and aggregate means the bricks are rough and kinda messy, and each is very unique. Before the great fire, there were only 6 brick makers in Chicago. By 1910, 10% of all brick in the US was made in Chicago, making it one of the great brick centers of America alongside St. Louis and Philadelphia. Chicago Commons haven't been made since 1981, but you can still find Chicago Commons on the sides and backs of nearly every apartment building, and many types of building.
What are some of your favorite buildings that showcase Chicago's brick architecture?
Carl Schurz High School in Irving Park, St. Paul Catholic Church in Pilsen, WeWork (former Vette & Zuncker Packing Co.) and the Limitless Coffee/Ramen San storefronts across the street in Fulton Market, Jeanne Gang's Brick Weave House, St. Stanislaus Kostka, the entire neighborhood of Brighton Park, the former Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanatorium in North Park, the Hotel Florence in Pullman, the Allerton Hotel on Michigan Ave, the Washington Park Electrical Substation in Washington Park and Hibbard elementary in Albany Park. It's so hard to pick!
What are some interesting things people should keep an eye out for when looking at different buildings around the city?
You can use a building's brick to help date the building!
If the face of the building (because, remember, the back and sides are likely Chicago Commons) is made up of smooth brick that's all the same color (like smooth red bricks), it's likely from the late 1800s. At that time, the fashion was to have every brick match, and the bricks were often brought in from St. Louis which made beautiful smooth red bricks. Sometimes these buildings will also feature pieces of unglazed terra cotta and shaped bricks (bricks with designs stamped onto them)
If the building has bricks with some more variation in color and texture it's likely from the early 1900s. By then, the fashion began to move toward each brick having a little more character, but walls were still mostly the same color family. You start to see more geometric brick patterning on buildings at this point too.
If the building is made of wildly multicolored and multitextured bricks and many different brick patterns (the Revere Park Fieldhouse is a great example) the building is from the 1920s or 30s. It was the 20s and we were gonna have money forever and they really built like it. You'll also see huge glazed terra cotta pieces on many of these buildings.
If the building is made up of HUGE bricks (like bricks that are nearly a foot long and a few inches tall) then the buildings was probably built in the last 20 years. Those bricks are called Utility Blocks and they're about as big as a brick can get and still fit in the mason's hand. They're much cheaper to build with because you need fewer of them. They're also much less appealing, because they're usually all exactly the same size, texture, and color. This is a byproduct of how efficient and controlled brickmaking has become. Remember how I said bricks are like pixels? Building with utility block is like taking half the pixels out of your monitor and making them all the same color.
I want to encourage people to look closer at the world around them. Everything around us has been made and designed for specific reasons, some good, some bad. If you choose one thing and dive deep into it, you'll discover a whole world with it's own legacy, terminology, and impact. Things like cataloging the patterns in security envelopes or looking at Chicago's legacy of segregation through the street grid system. Ask questions, dig deeper, make connections, and get excited.