Have you ever considered the bricks in the walls that surround you, the walls of your home, your classroom or your office? Alumni of this University probably know the story behind the “Notre Dame Brick” that gives some of the oldest buildings on campus their distinctive buff-yellow hue. But beyond a handful of specific historical instances, how many of us have ever thought about where the bricks in our walls came from, the origin of their raw clay, the process by which they were molded or the kiln in which they were fired?
Research into traditional brickmaking in the central Italian region of Umbria by two University of Notre Dame School of Architecture students, Jack Harrington '23 and Nathan Walz '24, provokes such questions about our built environment, the structures we have inherited from the past, created ourselves, and those we will build in the future.
Supported by a summer research grant from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, a unit within the Keough School of Global Affairs, Harrington and Walz traveled to the village of Castel Viscardo, near the city of Orvieto, in June to document the process of traditional brick making at Fornace Bernasconi, a historic kiln now in its second generation of production. Led by master brickmaker Luigi Bernasconi, the facility is renowned for its bricks, tiles and other terra cotta elements that have helped restore and preserve some of Italy's most treasured structures including the Colosseum and the imperial building on the Palatine.
Bernasconi masonry is crafted using centuries-old knowledge that has been passed through generations of brickmakers and is much sought after. In recent decades, architectural conservationists have realized that modern materials, such as cement, resin and steel, are ineffective and often counterproductive to the restoration of historic buildings and monuments. The School of Gladiators in Pompeii, for example, collapsed under the weight of concrete intended as reinforcement. Historical techniques and materials, such as Bernasconi's bricks, absorb stresses, breathe and contract in the same way as masonry that has stood for centuries, even millennia, and are vital for the sustainable restoration of ancient constructions.
Harrington and Walz share an interest in traditional crafts and material culture and a passion for sustainability, preservation and renewal in architecture and masonry. Sustainable design is a critical challenge facing the field of architecture in the 21st century and it depends significantly on the materials used in a building's construction. For these two builders-in-training, the study of historic masonry is a window of opportunity. “While many experts have looked ahead to new and innovative materials,” Walz says, “few have looked back to historic buildings which have already stood the test of time.”
At Fornace Bernasconi, Harrington and Walz undertook the task of capturing the knowledge behind the production of historic building materials, knowledge that is both tangible, in the form of physical equipment, and intangible, undocumented knowhow passed down through generations. The students' work in both Castel Viscardo and back in Walsh Family Hall reflects an approach that has blended skill, precision and diligence with immersion, presence and empathy. In the process, Harrington and Walz have realized the importance of context, of local knowledge, resources and heritage. But they have also identified principles around sustainability, conservation and innovation that might be applied more universally, including in South Bend, Indiana.
Bernasconi brickmaking: Tradition and innovation
Fornace Bernasconi is one of a dozen historical brick furnaces around the small town of Castel Viscardo. As far back as the Roman era, bricks produced in this region were sought after because of the purity of the clay produced from sediment dumped at the intersection of the rivers Paglia and Tiber. Growth of the brickmaking industry was also supported by access to relatively easy transportation routes along the Tiber and proximity to the region's robust lumber industry, which has long supplied Umbrian brickmakers with a cheap, plentiful supply of leftover chestnut wood scrap to fuel their kilns.
Luigi Bernasconi began his lifelong practice of brickmaking when he was still a teenager working alongside his father, Marcello, who founded the facility in the 1970s. When Luigi inherited the family business in the 1990s, he infused this new responsibility with his two passions — innovative solutions and historical restoration, captured in the company's tag line, “tradizione e innovazione.” Bernasconi adapted the facility in ways that would improve productivity while remaining faithful to techniques that date back to the Roman era: the choice of materials, the manual molding techniques, and a respect for the iterative, adaptive nature of traditional brickmaking. He created indoor space, for example, for the drying of pre-fired bricks, allowing for continuity in production during the darker, inclement winter months.
Bernasconi's second passion — for the restoration and preservation of historical buildings — facilitated an encounter with Paolo Vitti, associate professor of the practice in the School of Architecture and Nanovic Institute faculty fellow who is also affiliated with the Michael Christopher Duda Center for Preservation, Sustainability, and Resilience. Vitti, a specialist in architectural history and the restoration of cultural heritage sites, met Bernasconi when the master brickmaker was involved in restoration work on Trajan's Market, a complex of Roman ruins on the Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome. Since then, their paths crossed on several other projects and Vitti soon came to admire Bernasconi's curiosity and innovative commitment to sustainability and restoration.
In 2021, Vitti brought a small group of third-year architecture students — which included Harrington — to Fornace Bernasconi and identified a pressing need to capture this ancient brickmaking process. Traditional bricks are strong, durable and rare, Harrington explains, because “their manufacturing process has been refined for generations by the intuition and hands-on experience of those who know the craft.” The downside of a process that “prioritizes creativity over replicability” is that it goes largely unrecorded. This is particularly problematic given the way in which societal and environmental changes in the 21st century are making it difficult for new generations to pursue and maintain traditional crafts. As Vitti explains, “Documentation is fundamental in a moment when we need to recover knowledge that is being lost.”
Harrington was eager to take on this challenge, and as the project developed and Vitti realized the complexity of a survey, he asked Walz to join the team. The pair became the first students to undertake research at Fornace Bernasconi and the first from Notre Dame's School of Architecture to conduct documentation research of traditional crafts and trades on their own.
Capturing tangible and intangible heritage
Before their arrival in Castel Viscardo, Harrington and Walz anticipated that capturing the process of making traditional bricks, from raw clay to final firing, would involve more than measuring the dimensions of a furnace or the number of bricks it could fire at once. They appreciated that it would demand more than mapping the distance from the facility to the hillside and lumber yards where Bernasconi sourced his clay and fuel. In order to capture skills, methods and values that are both inherited and evolving, Harrington and Walz realized that their research would have to be truly immersive. Adopting this approach, the students experienced quotidian life in this “city of furnaces,” labored as part of the Fornace Bernasconi team and accompanied Luigi through the daily challenges and achievements of his work.
Harrington and Walz spent the first stage of their research in their sketchbooks, and apart: Almost immediately after their arrival in Castel Viscardo, Walz tested positive for COVID-19 and had to spend several days in isolation in their apartment. The pair adapted to this setback by dividing the labor. Onsite at Fornace Bernasconi, Harrington used the surveyor's hand tools of scales, tape measures and strings to take measurements of the brickmaking tools, stations and equipment. The isolated Walz turned that information into more precise hand drawings. This stage of their survey allowed the pair to begin to get a sense of the logic behind the facility's layout, the distance to the mine and lumberyard, and the stages of the roughly month-long production process: how a handful of men hand-molds around 30,000 bricks, lays them out to dry for several days, takes a full day to stack bricks 12 feet high in tailored formations up to the brim of the kiln, and then spends hours feeding a furnace that will burn steadily at 1,000 degrees Celsius for several days.
To accurately measure the primary focus of their project — Bernasconi's furnace itself — Harrington and Walz enhanced their manual data collection with digital methods. Roughly the size of a city bus, the furnace reaches over two floors and involves a system of fuel intakes, venting shafts and flooring, the complexity of which cannot be fully or accurately captured by the human eye or from a single vantage point. This stage of data-collection required reinforcements in the form of a FARO Focus laser scanner and two technicians skilled in its use, Luca Contrafatto and Alessio Carapellotti. Over the course of four hours, the group scanned the facility in eight-minute increments to generate a LiDAR point cloud dataset, measurements generated by the rate at which infrared rays bounce back from surfaces around the furnace and facility. This digital data collection provided Harrington and Walz with the information that would allow them to develop both physical and digital animated models of the furnace back at their workstations in Walsh Family Hall.
With a view to capturing the intangible knowledge of historic brickmaking, Harrington and Walz immersed themselves in the life and labor of Fornace Bernasconi. In a more formal sense, they worked with Professor Vitti to record interviews with Bernasconi and some of his team and dedicated many gigabytes to footage of the materials, tools, processes and people involved in producing this unique masonry. Then, they actually did the work.
“Every chance we had,” Harrington explains, “Nathan and I would assist in cleaning the facility, setting the bricks to dry, loading carts, making bricks or running the furnace. Luigi seemed to care deeply that we were engaged in the process and were able to comprehend the nuances involved in making bricks by hand.” In this way, the students experienced the all-consuming nature of running this facility. They watched a skilled craftsman, in just 15 seconds, press a brick by hand, slide off the excess and drop it in a line across the floor. And, they observed the fragility of this unique industry, on display when Bernasconi anxiously absorbed the news that methane, used to fire Fornace Bernasconi's glazed tiles, would now double in price due to inflation and Russia's war in Ukraine. These moments taught Harrington and Walz that it is only by doing that one can fully comprehend the joys and stresses of this complex, iterative and age-old industry.
Back in South Bend, Harrington and Walz continue to work on the project of capturing Fornace Bernasconi. Their point cloud measurements of the furnace have been turned into animated 3D digital models, and they will continue the intricate work of constructing a reduced-size replica in gypsum plaster with the use of 3D-printed silicone molds.
While the students have been able to work on these reconstructions in Walsh Family Hall as planned, their time in Umbria taught them a vital lesson: Traditional crafts are inherently local and cannot be replicated elsewhere. Harrington and Walz realized that Bernasconi bricks are a product of locally sourced materials, socioeconomic context, heritage and even personality.
And yet, the principle of valuing and preserving vernacular, local building traditions is more universally applicable. It is also critical to renewing and sustaining the built environment. In contrast to traditional masonry, U.S. brickmaking has long given priority to replicability and mass production over creativity and durability. Most of the bricks in our walls — King bricks — are only designed to decoratively clad the concrete and other materials that do the actual work of holding up a building. This wasn't always the case. Vitti explains that South Bend had a lively tradition in brick manufacturing that was lost by the 1920s because the railroads facilitated transportation of cheaper mass-produced masonry and caused the local brick industry to collapse. He says, “At the School of Architecture, and particularly within the Duda Center, we are attempting to retrieve the tradition for local production of materials for buildings in response to the current climate crisis. Local materials produced locally not only reduce the carbon footprint of the production and distribution chain, but also create buildings that have more identity as they are built with local materials and colors.” At Our Lady's University, this color is buff yellow, the shade of the “Notre Dame Brick” made from marl taken from St. Mary's Lake and fired in kilns built by the Holy Cross Brothers starting in 1843. These bricks were used to build some of the oldest structures on campus, including the Main Building and the Basilica, and masonry from now demolished buildings like Corby and Brownson Halls has been salvaged and carefully stored for future restoration projects.
This commitment to local, durable and sustainable construction is something that Harrington and Walz plan to honor through the remainder of their time at Notre Dame and in their professional practice. Walz explains that the contemporary definition of sustainability focuses on minimizing environmental damage. Instead, he wants to build using creative innovation of time-tested methods, “building durable structures which can be inherited and used for generations.”
In the course of their onsite research, Harrington and Walz created many hand drawings designed to capture the workings of Fornace Bernasconi. Alongside the measured, precise diagrams of the kiln, tools and equipment, the most beautiful pieces are watercolor vignettes of the streets of Castel Viscardo, the hill down to the furnace and its setting in the Umbrian hills. The students realized that the town and surroundings are as integral to understanding historical brickmaking as its more measurable elements. These are also the drawings that are most treasured by Bernasconi, who gratefully received the paintings as gifts from his two new friends and as evidence of their understanding of his unique craft.