My favorite building material may be brick, but like many builders, I don't often have a chance to use it in a way that highlights its inherent qualities and potential. I need to work on that.

Architect Louis Kahn's appreciation, endorsement, and application of brick are known worldwide. As a student 25 years ago, I came to appreciate Kahn and his love of brick through a professor who had apprenticed under him. I learned that, as with so many materials and methods of construction, the history of brick is a history of humankind.

History speaks through the bricks of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
National Building Museum (top); Paul Irwin (bottom) History speaks through the bricks of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Nine thousand years of people firing clay into hand-sized units has left a rich, tangible historical record visible the world over. Today, we call bricks stretchers, headers, rowlocks, soldiers, sailors, and shiners depending on how they're laid. There are walking soldiers and drunken sailors. There are standard, modular, oversized, and Roman-sized bricks. Combined with good design and the skills of good masons, great buildings result.

A RICH, HISTORICAL RECORD The old Pension Building — now, appropriately, the National Building Museum — in Washington, D.C., is a fine example. My wife, Molly, and I frequently take our children there. Bricks are everywhere in the building — and everywhere purposefully and positively used. Even the massive atrium columns are made of brick, though they're covered with a faux-painted plaster veneer. Outside, inside, on the floors, and in the steps, bricks were carefully laid and have ever-so-gracefully aged.

On our most recent visit to the museum, it was the interior steps that struck me the most. My children love playing on them. A strange, natural, universal attraction compels them to walk, sit, crawl, run, and jump on the steps, which are built with a deeper-than-normal tread depth and shallow riser height.

I couldn't help but weigh the image of my children's small feet against that of the warm, worn brick steps hollowed and hallowed by the feet of so many — and so many young — soldiers.

It's said that the steps were designed to make it easier for the Civil War's wounded and crippled men to ascend. Wide and shallow, the staircases could carry a horse and its rider up and into the building. If so, it's a wonderful, early example of accessible design.

So it is that brick has a way of recording our history and heritage that few, if any, materials can similarly do. Well-worn steps carry us through our lives.

In a long-ago interview, Kahn said he was searching for a poetic way of saying: Know your material; don't push it to do something it doesn't do well. When I next look at a soldier course, I hope to reconsider that bricks can do so many things well. Certainly, I'll look for an opportunity to use brick in a more inspired, creative, and arguably more responsible manner than I have in the past.

—Paul Irwin, owner of Pattern Builders, serves clients in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact him at