There are many beautiful bricks around Cranbrook’s campus. From the Roman brick details at Cranbrook School, the buckskin “Cranbrook brick” at the Academy and Institute of Science, or the beautiful green and gold bricks of Kingswood, Eliel Saarinen was a master of the ancient building material.
The richness of this legacy made architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien extremely diligent in specifying materials for their own addition to campus, the Williams Natatorium. Completed in 1999 and sited within the heavily wooded area adjacent to the Saarinen-designed Keppel Gymnasium, the 26,000-square-foot swimming facility features very few details that are not custom made. This includes the bricks.
The architects wanted glazed bricks (a material famously used by Eero Saarinen at the General Motors Technical Center), but they couldn’t find any product available on the market that meet their needs. Project architect Martin Finio told Construction Association of Michigan Magazine (Fall 2000) that:
Typical glazing tends to resemble a painted surface. The glaze becomes the object of interest. The brick behind it could be anything. What we were interested in was trying to find a way of glazing brick in such a way that you can feel the body of the brick through it.
The architects turned to Endicott Clay of Fairbury, Nebraska to help craft custom glazed brick, with a base of ironspot brick the company already produced. In ironspot bricks, manganese in the clay creates dark spots when fired. The goal for Cranbrook was to have these spots remain visible behind the glaze.
After receiving dozens of sample test glazed bricks that weren’t what the architects wanted, Martin Finio, Billie Tsien, and project manager Gary Scheuren traveled to Nebraska to learn more about the process and to work on getting the Natatorium bricks just right. When they arrived, Tsien saw a stack of samples Endicott Clay had deemed failures, rejected, and never sent to the architects in New York. Within the trash pile was the exact finish the architects wanted. Endicott Clay simply reverse engineered the once-rejected bricks and made enough mottled blue and green glazed bricks for the building.
Beyond the colors’ ties to water and earth (appropriate for a pool in the woods), the specific shade of blue and green have special Cranbrook associations. The blue is the famed “Grotell blue” of Cranbrook’s longtime Head of Ceramics, Maija Grotell, while the green relates to the lovely shades of aqua used by Pipsan Saarinen Swanson inside Kingswood and that building’s great patinated copper roof.
Alongside the glazed bricks, the architects specified manganese ironspot Norman bricks in deep purple. Norman bricks are longer than standard bricks and enhance the horizontality of the building. Using a tradition made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright and also used by Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook, the horizontal mortar is raked and the vertical mortar is flush, casting the horizontal joints in shadow and increasing the sense of compression across the façade.
Other materials used on the exterior of the Natatorium include cast in place concrete (sandblasted to give it a warmer feel and richer texture), warm toned ground-faced concrete block (custom made in Grand Blanc), Honduran mahogany, Mexican river rock, and Pietra Cardosa Italian slate.
—Kevin Adkisson, Curatorial Associate, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research