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Comparison with other brick constructions

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

Earth, whether baked or not, is found as a building material almost everywhere on earth and under all climates. A tour of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in Iraq, the banks of the Nile in Egypt, The Indus in India or China’s Huang river, reveals the abundant use of earth as a building material since the dawn of civilisation.

Mudbrick is associated with what are believed to be the first ’urban’ developments in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC.

Brick, unlike other construction methods, seems to have favoured the division of labour, a certain hierarchy in construction, and mass production, thus allowing building projects on a grand scale to be undertaken. Among the sites on the world heritage list that were built in mudbrick we find the ancient town of Aleppo, in modern day Syria, the fortified city of Baku in Azerbaijan, the town of Khiva in Uzbekistan, an example of the transition between non-fired and fired brick, the towns of Sana’a and Shibam in the Yemen, also known as ’the Manhattan of the desert,’ the Ksar of Aït-Ben-Hadou in Morocco, the Peublo de Taos in the U.S.A, Quito in Ecuador, Cuzco in Peru, Coro in Venezuela, Ouro Petro in Brazil...

These sites are the outcome of civilisations that cannot be compared to Albi and bear witness to the use of mudbrick while Albi’s is built of fired brick. Although the use of mudbrick can be traced back as far as the 5th millennium BC in Mesopotamia its use is much more recent in China and Europe. The fired brick used in northern Europe is very dark in colour, sometimes almost purple whereas further south it is more orange coloured.

The warm colouring of fired brick is found in abundance in Italian towns such as Sienna, Pienza or Urbino. However, in Albi the colour varies with the light and is complemented by the green waters of the river Tarn giving the ensemble an incomparable aesthetic impact. The reign of brick in Albi is unchallenged, seen in simple houses as well as major monuments. The whole range of fired brick building techniques can be found at Albi including timber frame houses with the bricks left visible, plastered timber frame houses, houses built entirely in brick and others combining brick and stone. Albi’s originality is seen above all in the presence of a dominant ensemble of Epsicopal buildings built entirely in brick.

The versatility of fired brick has seen it used for other grand constructions such as the 65 metre tall Jam Minaret in Afghanistan, and the Gothic Cathedral of Roskilde in Denmark, both found on the world heritage list.

However, the similarities go no further, Albi being at once among the largest Catholic buildings and the largest Cathedral in the world built entirely of brick. It is being the most complete expression of an original Gothic architecture whose austerity distinguishes it from the mainstream of European Gothic architecture.

The standard sizes of bricks vary from one country to another but in general it is the maximum size that can be held in the hand that determines the width, around 11.5cm. Roman masons, for example, employed bricks the width of which was two-thirds of the length.

In the same way, Albi’s masonry, probably a part of the resurgence of Rome’s culture of building, is distinguished by the use of a particular style of brick called the ’brique foraine.’ The dimensions of the brique foraine were characteristic: it was wide and flat, 37cm long, 22cm wide and around 5.5cm deep.

The material presents particular advantages in terms of resistance. Compared to stone, it avoided problems of delicate stone-cutting and the need for qualified specialists to build the walls. Thus in the period when the Cathedrals of northern France, at Reims or Amiens, were being built using standardised architectural elements, pre-cut in the quarry, at Albi, ’brique foraine’ a structurally standardised material, was being used.

’Brique foraine’ is a common factor linking many sites spread along the Tarn and Garonne rivers but among them all it is Albi that stands out. The Epsicopal city of Albi, in its extraordinary monuments, takes a simple and widespread building material to the greatest heights of architectural and aesthetic expression.

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