William Morris

The Influence of Building Materials on Architecture *

I am afraid after all that, though the subject is a very important one, yet there are so many of you present who must know all about it, that you will find what I have to say is little better than commonplace. Still, you know there are occasions and times when commonplaces have to be so to say hammered home, and even those who profess the noble art of architecture want a certain sort of moral support in that line; they know perfectly well what they ought to do, but very often they find themselves in such an awkward position that they cannot do it, owing no doubt to the stupidity of their clients, who after all are not so stupid as they might be, one may think, since they employ them. Nevertheless, their clients generally are not educated persons on the subject of architecture.

Now the subject of Material is clearly the foundation of architecture, and perhaps one would not go very far wrong if one defined architecture as the art of building suitably with suitable material. There are certainly many other things which are considered architectural, and yet not nearly so intimately and essentially a part of architecture, as a consideration of material. Also, it seems to me, there is one important thing to be considered with reference to material in architecture at the present time, when all people are seeking about for some sort of style. We know of course, and there is no use denying the fact, that we are in a period when style is a desideratum which everybody is seeking for, and which very few people find; and it seems to me that nothing is more likely to lead to a really living style than the consideration, first of all, as a sine qua non, of the suitable use of material. In fact, I do not see how we are to have anything but perpetual imitation, eclectic imitation of this, that, and the other style in the past, unless we begin with considering what material lies about us, and how we are to use it, and the way to build it up in such a form as will really put us in the position of being architects, alive and practising to-day, and not merely architects handing over to a builder and to builder's men all the difficulties of the profession, and only keeping for ourselves that part of it which can be learnt in a mechanical and rule-of-thumb way.

Now I suppose, in considering the materials of a building, one ought to begin by considering the walls. I am not going to trouble myself very much about those materials which afford opportunities for the exercise of particular finesse in the way of architecture, but rather I shall refer to the more homely and everyday materials. I suppose one may fairly divide materials for the building of a wall into three sections; first stone, then timber, and lastly brick. In doing so, and in giving them that order, I distinctly myself mean to indicate the relative position of nobility between those three materials. Stone is definitely the most noble material, the most satisfactory material; wood is the next, and brick is a makeshift material.

Those of you who are architects I am quite sure know the difficulties that you find yourselves involved in when you have to build a stone building. You will find probably that your London builder is not by any means the best man to go to. The fact of the matter is, London builders have really ceased to understand the ground principles on which stone should be used. Now I think the consideration of stone buildings has this extreme importance about it, that when you fairly begin to consider how best to deal with stone as a material, you have begun then first to free yourself from the bonds of mere academic architecture. The academical architect, it seems to me, assumes as a matter of course that all buildings are built with ashlar on the face of them, and not only so, but that all stone buildings through and through are built with ashlar. That is the impression an academical building always gives me, that it is built of great cubes of stone as big as you can possibly get them; and very naturally, because it seems to be something like a canon in academical architecture that if you want a building bigger than the average buildings, you must increase every one of its members in order to get to that great size, and the net result is, that the whole of the members of that academic building are all one size, and as a rule they all look about the size of a Wesleyan Methodist meeting-house; that is, you lose all scale. It seems to me that the use of stone in a proper and considerate manner does in the first place lead to your being able to get a definite size and scale to a building. The building no longer looks, as so many renaissance buildings do, as if it might just as well be built of brick and plastered over with compo. You can see, in fact, the actual bones and structure. But it is something more than that; you can see in point of fact the life of it by studying the actual walls. This organic life of a building is so interesting, so beautiful even, that it is a distinct and definite pleasure to see a large blank wall without any ordinary architectural features, if it is really properly built and properly placed together. In point of fact this seems to me almost the beginning of architecture, that you can raise a wall which impresses you at once by its usefulness; its size, if it is big; its delicacy, if it is small; and in short by its actual life; that is the beginning of building altogether.

Now to go a little further into detail. The kind of building you want in different places is very different. There is a great deal of very beautiful building to be seen all about the country which is, in point of fact, built merely as a barn or a cart-shed is built; and I think it would be a great pity if we lost all that. We cannot build the whole of our buildings throughout the whole country in careful close-jointed ashlar, and I think it would be a great pity if we could; but the difference between the town and country, especially a big city, strikes me rather strongly in that respect. How many buildings one sees, big dignified buildings, gentlemen's country houses, standing in the middle of a park, or something of that kind, that are most inexpressibly dreary - to a great extent because they are not built in the ordinary fashion of the country-side in which they are raised, quite apart from any matter of architectural design. But in passing through the country one sees many examples of thoroughly good ordinary country buildings, built of the mere country materials, very often of the mere stones out of the fields; and it is a very great pleasure to see the skill with which these buildings are constructed. They are very often not pointed at all, but you cannot help noticing the skill with which the mason has picked out his longs and his shorts, and put the thing together with really something, you may say, like rhythm and measurement (his traditional skill that was), and with the best possible results. I cannot help thinking that on the whole London and the big towns are not places were stone building is usually desirable. There is only one stone, it seems to me, that looks tolerably well in London, and that is good Portland stone; and that looks well partly owing to the curious way in which the exposed parts of it get whistled by the wind, and the mouldings and hollows and all the rest of it get blackened, the very smoke even doing something probably for Portland stone in London. But you have plenty of examples of the disastrous effects of building with a great many stones that have been used in London. One unfortunate result of architectural research in the past: people were taught, when the Gothic revival first came in, that in old days in London they used to build with that rough stone out of Kent, rubble walls and stone dressings; so that there are heaps of Gothic churches of that date about the town, and it is almost a regular kind of sacramental word in the newspapers that criticize such matters: "built of Kentish rag-stone with Bath stone dressings," and the result is very dismal on all hands. There is this wretched rag-stone, which was used at a time when there was no smoke in London, at a time when the inhabitants of London petitioned Edward the First against the introduction of pit-coal into London because it dirtied the houses; whereas nowadays no one seems inclined to petition against the introduction of smoke: that there it is; it blackens the rough rag-stone, and the sulphuric acid in the atmosphere utterly destroys the oolite limestone of Bath.

Now as for stone building, clearly in London one wants a smooth stone building, and if one cannot get a smooth stone building it seems to me that the next best thing is to have a building of good bricks; but I suppose the very words that I have mentioned, good bricks, are enough to raise up visions of all sorts of trouble and bother which architects here have in trying to get these good bricks; and I must say that in building with good bricks in London (if only you can get good bricks), I should like to see places built of good bricks, and entirely built of brick, with no attempt to add anything else to them. I think, as a rule, that is really all one wants in big towns. One has seen examples of exactly the contrary sort of work. Take for example the big municipal buildings in Manchester, built partly of brick and partly with freestone dressings, and so on. The freestone dressings are now getting a horrible dirty drab black, worse than a mere black, and the whole result is that whatever architecture there may be in the building is pretty much destroyed and obliterated by the dirt. If the building had been built entirely of brick it would have preserved its character; it would have got all darker together, and would have preserved its own outlines right away to the end, and, although you might have regretted the dustiness and dreariness of its blackening, yet still you would have had the real outline of the building, not confused with all this growing and obviously unavoidable dirt that is actually collected about it.

As to bricks, it is quite clear that we ought to make rather more efforts than are made to get the bricks better adapted to their work. I spoke just now about Broseley tiles. Just call to your memory the ordinary villages in the Midland counties of England, which I suppose were once pretty places. They are no longer pretty places at all. There are two reasons why they are ugly now; because the buildings, whatever they once were, have almost entirely given place to buildings built of the Midland county bricks, which are great big, stumpy, lumpy blocks of clay, a very bad colour as a rule; "excellent material" I believe builders would call them; and they are all roofed with these Staffordshire tiles, the worst peculiarity of which is that they never weather to a decent colour; a few months after they are put up they get a vile dirty sort of black colour, even in the country (it is not merely the smoke) and as that black colour they stick to the end of the chapter.

Well, I cannot go very much further than that, as far as the stone goes. To build country fashion in the country if possible would certainly be my advice, and in the town to do what you best can; to look the thing fairly and squarely in the face, and see what you can do to prevent your fine architecture from being made sheer nonsense.

The other material that I mentioned, the one that came second in my list of good materials, wood, is I suppose (I am speaking now of walls) a thing which cannot often be used nowadays. It seems to me to be mainly because you can no longer use wood as a material for a wall as frankly as it used to be used in medieval times, when good oak was almost a drug on the market. To build wooden houses with the framing of small dimensions seems to me one of the poorest things one can possibly do. You want, in point of fact, in order to build a satisfactory wooden house, to be able to indulge in the greatest possible generosity of material, to have no sparing whatever, or else your wooden house will look like nothing but a feeble attempt to imitate the results of the architecture of the past. So that, after all, in spite of my great liking for wood, for I think there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful wooden house, I am afraid we must at present put the use of wood clean out of the question. We cannot build a house with wooden walls at present; the main material that walls must be built of nowadays is brick, and, therefore, again, I urge all architects to do the utmost they possibly can to get their bricks as well made and as well shaped as they can, that is to say, as long as possible and as narrow as possible, and to build them with wide joints of the very best mortar.

Now there is, by the way, another kindred material to brick, and that is the cast brick they call terra-cotta. I cannot abide it, I must say. I do not think I need treat it any further, and I will tell you why. It is used for nothing else except ornament, and I am rather inclined to think that of all things not wanted at the present day, and especially in London outside a house, the thing that is least wanted is ornament. That is to say, as long as there is a huge congeries of houses, as in London, the greater part of which are lamentably and hideously ugly, I think one ought to pitch one's note rather low, and try, if one can manage it, to get the houses and buildings to look solid and reasonable, and to impress people with their obvious adaptation to their uses; where they can be made big to make them big, and not to bother about ornament. Such ornament as there is, to keep it for the inside, where at all events it can be treated with delicacy, and you do not feel that you have something which after all, whatever value there is in it as ornament, will presently disappear, and you simply get something which is of no particular use, except for collecting dirt. You know perfectly well how that cast stuff is generally used; I noticed some as I came along just now, and I said to myself: After all, these things are not a bit like cast work, or moulded work at all; they look like a bad imitation of carved work. It has a fatal ease in the matter of ornamentation, which makes the material, it seems to me, decidedly bad for its purpose. I think it is very much better if you want to have brick ornament on a building to get cut and rubbed brick. From the point of view of ordinary practical and everyday use at the present time, I think it is hardly worth while in this country to talk about marble as a material; certainly not for the outside of a building. As a method of ornamenting wall surfaces on the inside marble is the most difficult material to use which it is possible to conceive. I do not know how it is, but unless it is used with the utmost skill, a skill which must, to be successful, be the result of many centuries of tradition - unless it is so used, the marble even in the inside does decidedly vulgarize the building, however beautiful it may be in itself.

Now we come to another point, which is the material of roofs; and this is, in a way, almost more important than the material of the walls of a building. First of all I have one thing to say, which is this. I am not tyrannically disposed, or given to inciting the Government in its attempt to deal with the morals and feelings of its subjects; but I should be really rather glad, although I should not like to have a hand in it, if some Government were to forbid entirely the use of Welsh slates. If the Welsh slate quarries could be shut up by Act of Parliament, or by whatever may be stronger than an Act of Parliament, I think I myself should have a very good sleep, and a happy getting up in the morning afterwards. In point of fact, I think all architects ought to make up their minds to one thing, that the use of these Welsh slates does distinctly stamp a building as being merely the exhibition of the very depth of poverty. If you are so poor that you cannot help using Welsh slates, then use them, but in that case say to your client: I cannot under these circumstances degrade myself by attempting to make this building ornamental. It is not the work of an architect at all, it is simply a trumpery makeshift which is to be removed as soon as you have a little money; consequently I refuse to put any ornament on it; I will not have so much as a moulding of any kind. Here you have a shed (a very ugly shed, you ought to add); you know after all it is perfectly possible for a shed to be put up with no ornament at all which shall be a vary beautiful thing, but I am afraid it is impossible to have architecture with these thin slates. Of course it is perfectly true that there are some beautiful buildings covered with these thin slates, but then I think one always looks at that as a mere blemish to be removed. One can conceive that the building, which is now roofed with slate, once was not roofed with slate, and one supposes it away, or else one would be so disgusted at the sight of it that one could hardly bear to look at the building at all. So that, I think, is the first thing to be thought of by all architects. How shall we possibly be able to manage not to roof our building, however little there is to be spent upon it, with these miserable thin slates? Just consider the effect in places you have seen that comes of the use of a material that is better than ordinary slate. I have before my mind's eye now some of those big squares in Edinburgh for example. They are a very uninteresting set of buildings there, by no means exhilarating, yet the fact that they are most of them covered with something better than ordinary thin slate decidedly gives them a kind of pleasantness, and even a kind of dignity that they would not otherwise possess. You look out of your window in the morning from a portion of the city high up over the roofs; you look down upon them, and instead of giving you a pain in the stomach they really give you a certain kind of pleasure. There are a lot of these things all tumbled together, and they have a certain kind of interest in them, and the covering of them is after all tolerable. Of course it is possible, even in Wales, to roof things with something better than the ordinary slates that are used; because you may notice that in the little bits of cottages and farmhouses where there is no attempt at any sort of architecture, although the colour of the slates is not pleasant, yet they do not look quite so bad as they otherwise would, simply because the slates are a good thickness, and because they are chipped at the edges; being, I suppose, the waste of the quarries, and as a result they look pretty well.

I have often spoken to architects about this, and I find even architects who ought to know the merits of them are rather shy of using them. They give very excellent reasons, no doubt; the first, that if you have these heavy stone slates you must have your timbers on the roof heavy. Very well, I should say in answer to that, If the roofs are not heavy enough to carry stone slates properly, they are not heavy enough to be roofs at all. You want that scantling of timber to make the roof really lasting, and this would enable it to carry stone slates perfectly easily. The other reasons, I suppose, for their not using them are constructional reasons, which perhaps resolve themselves into this; that it wants considerable care in selecting the slates, and that the quarrymen who sell the slates are naturally more anxious for the slates to be sold than the roof to endure; and as a consequence it often turns out that they shove off on people bad wares. I cannot help thinking that with greater pains a great deal might be done in those countrysides where stone slate may be used. Take for example the city of Oxford, which is such a lamentable example of all kinds of architectural errors and mistakes, and I might almost say crimes. There, some time ago, when they were roofing the new buildings which I am very sorry to say they built there, like Exeter College Chapel, they roofed them with stone slates. The stone slates, they found, year by year began to decay, and all went to the natural limestone dust. The result was they stripped the roofs and stuck green Westmoreland slates on. A very good thing is a green Westmoreland slate, it is said; and so it is in London on a red brick building, but on a grey stone building in Oxford it looks absolutely horrible. That is a very good example of the influence of material on architecture. Roof-coverings that do perfectly well in a certain style and in a certain place are most objectionable in another kind of style and in another place; and it seems to me perfectly clear that if all the colleges in Oxford had formed a committee to arrange about the roof-covering materials of their colleges, they might very easily have got almost into their pockets certain quarries in the neighbourhood or the neighbouring counties, and the result would have been that they might have got a continuous steady supply of the very best stone slates, which would have covered their buildings for hundreds of years, because the thing once started would have gone on. But they were so careless that they did not trouble themselves about it. It was also rather cheaper to roof the buildings with Westmoreland slates than with stone slates. University College, for example, saved the college the enormous sum of thirty pounds, I believe, in roofing the whole with the thin slates instead of the good ones. I must not dwell too long upon it, but I do earnestly direct your attention as architects to that matter of the roofing material, and especially where possible to get the people to raise some kind of demand for these stone slates. In our own immediate country we used to get slates from a village called Poulton, between Fairford and Cirencester. The Poulton slates were remarkably good at one time, but they are now gone off, and all you can get now from Poulton is a sort of coagulated mud which is clearly not to be trusted as a roofing material, although it is nothing like as bad to look at as blue slates, or slates of that kind; and it is rather a hard slate, but it is not thoroughly satisfactory. I have not the slightest doubt that if two or three of the people about there, like the big landowner in my neighbourhood, who is a great patron of the arts and so on, would make an effort and demand these stone slates of a good bed, they would get them; because it would be worth people's while to open the quarries, and at a slight additional expense they might get them from countrysides which are not very remote; but what one sees going on there always is the perpetual worsening, especially in the roofing material of the buildings. It is rather remarkable that they still go on building stone walls for cart-sheds and all sorts of farm buildings, which, as far as the walls are concerned, are not so very bad, especially when they do not want them to be grand, and do not point them in a hideous manner; but the roofing is almost certain nowadays to be either thin blue slate or else that zinc-looking stuff. On the whole, I rather prefer that to blue slate, because you feel you can take it all off in a lump, and shove in on one side.

As to the use of thatch, I wish you could use it more often than you do. It is used so little that there are now very few thatchers to be got. In fact it is the commonest thing, if you ask a person to do something, to cast lead for example, to hear: "I do not know how to do it; I cannot do it; my grandfather used to be able to do it." That is not at all an uncommon thing, and that is the road things are going. In point of fact, what has happened there is what happens in other ways, that the town has practically entirely invaded the country, and the countryside is now treated as a kind of back-yard of the counting-house. That is the fact of the matter, and everything is going down-hill as far as the exterior appearance is concerned. There is an agitation on foot just now about getting better houses for the agricultural labourers; but people will have to take great care that instead of getting better houses they do not get worse, which they are very likely to do at the rate they are going now. Some of you must have gone into those villages in Northamptonshire where there are some splendid examples of the old churches, and where the building material is very good; there is, for instance, that stone with an irony cast in it. In those villages you will see that a thing has happened which makes them the most miserable places you can see in the whole country. All the back gardens and yards have been built over with nasty little brick houses with blue slate roofs for the shoe-making trades, and so on. I cannot think that this improves the lodging of the country people, for the building is of the vilest possible description.

To sum up about this roofing material: it seems to me, you have really first of all lead for a good roof-covering; then you have stone slates; you have thatch, and you may have, with some trouble, a good country-made tile. This is an extremely difficult thing to get, mind you, because unfortunately the Broseley tiles are so largely used as an "excellent building material," that the country potters have got worse and worse, and the tiles they provide you with will hardly keep out the wet. That again in another thing that wants a sort of combination of people who have to do with building to insist, as far as they can, on having this material turned out as good as it possibly can be turned out, and to be always worrying and thinking about these things. Well, the tile of course is again a very serious affair, because over a large part of the country tiles, if you could get them good, are the most convenient roof-covering you can have. When they are good they are very pretty in their own countryside, but I must say I have seen them on what I should call a grey stone countryside, and there I think the tiles even when good are a kind of blight on the landscape. The beautiful greyness of the stone slate, the lovely tone of these old stone houses are better, especially for the home-like landscape you see in that part of the country, than anything that could take its place; it would be a misfortune if you had to use tiles rather than the old stone roofs. But in other parts of the country, tiles would do very well, especially if you have good tiles that weather properly, like some of the old tiles in Kent and Sussex.

But there is one last material, which I suppose there might be a difficulty about getting a man to accept, but which would be a very good material to use for roof-covering if it can be used in default of other things; and that is oak shingles, which get in a very few years to look much the same colour as the stone slates, and the roof and the walls go grey together.

The good materials are then, first lead, if you must or may use it, then stone slates, then tiles, then thatch, and lastly, when you can use it, shingles. The bad materials, which nobody ought to use on pain of not being considered an architect at all, are thin slates and Broseley tiles. I can hardly consider that on an architect's building the use of these materials is a mere blemish; I look upon it rather as a destruction of the whole building as a work of art.

It seems to me that I have given you pretty well all I had to say on the subject of those rough and homely materials that go to make up our houses. I repeat again, I think it is the most important side of architecture altogether, the choice of material and the use of material. There is another thing to be said about it, that it must lead those people who are really seriously interested in it to interest themselves in the methods of using those materials. That has to do especially with matters like masonry. How does it happen, for example, that a restored building (excuse my mentioning that word) which is very carefully done as to the mouldings and all the rest of it, and is really an absolutely faultless imitation of an Edwardian building, does not look in the faintest degree like an Edwardian building? Many people would say: Because it has got to get old and grey; now it is all new. But I beg to say that is all nonsense; the Edwardian building when brand new did not look like this imitation of the present day. There is no doubt about that, and the reason why it did not look like it is that the whole surface, every moulding, every inch of rubble wall, and what not, was done in a totally different manner; that is to say, the old workmen who did it used to a great extent different tools, and certainly used the tools in a different way. Now if by any possibility the architects could get back the masons and workmen, and what I distinctly call the old scientific method of building walls and surfaces, the really reasonable and scientific method, architecture would to a great extent me on its legs again, and we need not trouble ourselves much about the battle of the styles, if buildings were built in that living manner from beginning to end; out of that the style would arise. We all know of course that you cannot begin by inventing anew, but by attending distinctly to the necessities of the time, and starting at some period, and you must start - you cannot help yourselves - at some period long ago when the art really had roots in it and was not all in the air. Starting with that and attending to the absolute needs of the people who want houses built, and connected with that, with the real solid and genuine use of the material, you would at least get a style which, whatever one may say of it, although it may not build such beautiful buildings as the old buildings, because the whole history of the world has so much changed, would nevertheless produce buildings which would not be ridiculous to the ages which come after us. I am afraid many of those we are building now will be looked upon as mere ingenious toys reflecting a great deal of credit perhaps on the intellect of those who designed them, but very little credit on their good sense and their solidity. You will say that the man was very clever, but he had terrible difficulties to overcome, and he did in a way overcome them after all. But what he has produced, at the very best, is not a building which really forms part of the living shell and skin of the earth on which we live, but is a mere excrescence upon it, a toy which might almost as well, except for the absolute necessity that the people should have a roof to cover them, have remained simply a nicely executed drawing in the architect's office. What we have to get rid of is especially and particularly that. I suppose that the draughtsmanship of the architects of the thirteenth century for their grander buildings was not particularly splendid or complete; I am perfectly certain that a vast number of very beautiful buildings that are built all over the country never had an architect at all, but the roughest possible draught was made out for those buildings, and that they actually grew up simply without any intermediary between the mind and the hands of the people who actually built them. No doubt the great reason why that was so was because the people who built them were traditionally acquainted with the best means of using the materials which happily for them they were forced to use; the materials that were all round about them in the fields and woods amidst which they passed their lives.

* This was an informal address printed from a reporter's notes. - Ed. back

Bibliographical Note


The Influence of Building Materials on Architecture


  1. 20th November 1891 at a meeting sponsored by the Art Workers' Guild at Barnard's Inn, London


  1. Century Guild Hobby Horse, January 1892