Building a better brick

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Joshua Rothman
March 13, 2011

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Bricks are among the world’s oldest building materials — the first were used as long ago as 7,500 B.C. That doesn’t mean, though, that they won’t be integral to the buildings of the future. Brickstainable, a design competition sponsored by a consortium of brick-making firms, has for the second year in a row invited architects and designers to re-imagine the humble brick. The goal is to create the brick of tomorrow.

The engineers who’ve won this year’s technical design award have drawn on biology to rethink the brick. Jason Vollen and Kelly Winn of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute created hollow, honeycomb shaped bricks that use small ridges on the outside to create “self-shading”: The ridges ensure that, throughout the day, different parts of the brick absorb the sun’s heat, while others cool. The air pockets inside the bricks can be sealed off, so that they serve as reservoirs of warm or cool air — but they can also be left open, creating a beautiful open-brick wall with a latticework effect. These same features are found in cactuses and termite mounds.

An especially beautiful proposal by Rizal Muslimin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came in as a runner-up: BeadBricks are flat, triangular bricks that can be combined in three dimensions (rather than the usual two). Manufactured through a special process that makes them both thin and strong, the BeadBricks create structurally sound but “porous” walls and, depending on the way they’re painted, incredibly intricate patterns of color and shadow: The resulting beehive-like surfaces, dappled with areas of color, recall the latticework you might see in a mosque. The BeadBricks, as the Brickstainable jury notes, let local craftsman show their skills.

The art conspiracy In September 2008, the British artist Damien Hirst sold a collection of his own artwork at Sotheby’s; the two-day sale, entitled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” netted a staggering $201 million, helping to make him one of the world’s wealthiest artists. (His net worth today is estimated at nearly $380 million.) Sales like this raise an inevitable, slightly uncomfortable question: How did art — especially contemporary art — become such big business?

In his new book, “Art of the Deal,” Noah Horowitz, an art historian and professor at the Sotheby’s Art Institute, argues that the art market is now a complex, globalized, money-making machine for the well-connected, in which investors, buyers, dealers, and auction houses often work together to drive up prices. It works like this: Investors in New York, say, see an opportunity in contemporary Chinese art. They form an investment consortium, which hires a buyer to find artwork in China. After the collection is put together, the investors work to get the art exhibited in museums around the world. Then, Horowitz writes, “the body of work, now a museum-quality ‘collection,’ ” is sold in turn to another dealer or auction house, and eventually at auction to other art buyers.

All the players work together to transform little-known artworks into valuable assets. Even the museums are caught up in the process, though often unknowingly — because many buyers are anonymous, it’s hard to know if your museum is part of a larger plan. All this is possible because the art market brings two contradictory elements together: on the one hand, huge sums of money; on the other, objects that have no intrinsic, easy to determine monetary value. And the situation is only intensified by the fact that most older art is already owned by museums. As a result, much of this financial wizardry is brought to bear on contemporary art, which is of less certain long-term value.

If you think this sounds a lot like the subprime mortgage crisis, you’re not alone — Horowitz devotes several pages of his conclusion to retelling the story of Lehman Brothers. What does the new economic climate mean for the art market? It’s hard to say, of course, but one thing is certain: As things are right now, Horowitz writes, the system is eroding the idea that art “is more than just an empty stepping stone to social, political, and economic enrichment.” The art market depends, ultimately, on trust, both in the idea of art and in the basically artistic motives of the world’s art institutions. The more art dealers resemble speculators, and museum galleries showrooms, the more that trust is undermined.

And the winner for Most Decadent Reign by a Roman Emperor is… Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, the classicist Mary Beard re-introduces the world to the teenage Roman Emperor Elagabalus — the only emperor for whom the word “decadent” seems actually insufficient. Elagabalus, who ruled between 218 and 222 A.D., is said to have murdered his dinner guests by suffocating them under a mountain of rose petals, to have fed his dogs only goose livers, and to have been married four times before the age of 18 (his wives included a Vestal Virgin, and his husband was a boy charioteer). Elagabalus’s problem, Beard writes, is that the stories about him are so over-the-top that, today, he is mostly ignored by historians.

He was, strangely, in vogue during the Victorian era; a painting of his murderous rose-petal banquet by Lawrence Alma-Tadema was exhibited in 1888 and bought by a member of Parliament, who displayed it in his drawing room. Since then, though, according to Beard, “hard-headed modern historians” have grown increasingly skeptical. Their sheer implausibility notwithstanding, many of the best stories come from “a strange semi-fictional ‘biography’ of Elagabalus” in a series of emperor’s lives, called the Augustan History, that classicists don’t take very seriously. Beard reviews a new book about the emperor — “The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction?” by Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado. Even this new book, it turns out, actually began as a novel. It ends with an appendix listing 840 propositions about Elagabalus (“286. [Elagabalus] castrated himself to join the cult of Cybele”). Of these, Arrizabalaga y Prado concludes that 744 are “unverifiable.”

To Beard, this kind of skepticism seems a little misguided, essentially because it’s no fun: Why write history if the goal is to reduce, rather than expand, the number of stories in circulation? The lurid stories are more valuable than any historically accurate void could ever be. In the end, Elagabalus’s legacy might just be a sense of the true distance between the present and the classical past — a distance that, like a game of telephone, can be measured out not only in terms of distortion and exaggeration, but in terms of imagination, too.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.