|One of the brick murals being carved by Peter Mthombeni.|
Design by Eugene Hon. TWR Library Building.
In October of 1990, the Technikon Wiwatersrand (TWR) inaugurated The Leslie Boyd Library on the Doornfotein Campus. The Building was sponsored by Anglo American and the De Beers Chairman’s fund and bears the name of the corporation’s then executive director. The idea behind the library was to address the problems concerning information management in local commerce and industry by acting as a central point to technological information sources.
This was before computers and the Internet drastically changed our lives forever – just before the dawn of the information age. The then Art School (FADA today – situated on the Auckland Park Campus)) was located in a number of old residential buildings (flats) on the campus. The Ceramic Department occupied two of the five Doornfontein houses that were appropriated and maintained since the piece of land was rezoned for educational purposes.
Access to the library is from the foyer, a circular nodal space through which runs the pedestrian concourse between the engineering building and the rest of the campus. The new structure also had to be the entrance to the enormous modernist concrete structure on the campus.
The proposed library building had to be built with bricks and incorporate a roof structure constructed out of green painted corrugated sheeting, reminiscent of the old Doornfotein homes, situated in the historic oak lane at the entrance of the campus. The logo of the then TWR was earmarked to be cast in concrete and built into the wall and then painted in the bright red and blue colours associated with the then brand of the institution.
I was employed as a lecturer in the Ceramic Department and proposed to the TWR management that we could carve the logo in raw earthenware bricks and fire the handcrafted product in our kilns at a fraction of the initial outlay cost. We were granted the opportunity and Sue Sellschop, a colleague and friend of mine, and I proceeded to carve the logo in the Fine Art basement (see attached image).
The individual bricks were then numbered, dried and fired on site in the kiln room of the ceramic department (image on the left). The bricks were stacked in no particular order in the kiln allowing for colour variation and slight reduction, adding a crafted approach to the overall look and feel of the final product.
Needless to say that the architects were so impressed with the end product that they commissioned me to design and carve murals for the foyer of the new building.
The site for the mural was a ring beam situated in the foyer above the entrance to the library and the engineering building.
Funds were redirected due to the cost saving; funds initially earmarked for the proposed casted and painted concrete Logo.
In the end six specially designed relief panels were built into the ring beam wall in the foyer. The panels were inspired and designed based on the commercial designs of the 1920’s Russian Constructivism, mainly the propagandist posters. Their use of defined structures, pure geometric forms with a lack of decoration were suitable for this type of technique of green brick carving.
Shaping and carving of the bricks
Bricks are formed and shaped by an enormous pug mill, and are cut to size with wires as it moves on a conveyer belt in a variety of ways. However, by removing every alternative wire, a double sized brick is created. By stacking the bricks to the required size and shape of the individual murals, one is able to carve into the bricks to a range of pre-determined depths, based on your design and the site specifics of the envisaged murals; the scale, angle and distance of viewing.
Mural Concepts, Individual Designs and drawings. Six murals were designed based on Russian Constructivism of the 1920s.
Various designs were conceptualised depicting the basic programmes as offered at the Technikon as well as those aspects that make up a healthy student life.
Students of the Department of Ceramics and Fine Art carved the actual murals in a designated small-enclosed space at the Driefontein factory. Two students were assigned to carve a mural, the project taking two weeks to complete - each group completing two murals.
Every design was first conceptualised and realised in a number of ballpoint pen studies. Copies of the renderings (photostatted overhead transparencies) were then projected (using a overhead projector) onto a cotton canvas attached to the wall - done to scale, allowing for shrinkage.
A permanent marker was then used to transfer the outlines of the individual mural designs onto the canvas. Various depths, from one to seven inches, were allocated for carving into the double thick raw bricks (to create depth for the relief carving) - allowing for part of the brick to remain un-carved to secure the individual bricks and mural to the ring beam.
Carving the murals at the factory site. The canvas with the outlined renderings ware then draped over the stacked raw bricks, formed and shaped according to the individual sizes of the chosen designs. A relatively sharp metal tool was then used to trace the design outline onto the stacked clay bricks; pressing on the canvas following the drawing outlines and leaving an imprint on the surface of the raw bricks.
Copies of the designs were then distributed to the various teams to start the carving. Pre calculated depths for the various designs were indicated on the drawings and on the canvasses, as well as marked on steel rulers (1-6 inches) - to eliminate any mistakes.
Wooden boards were used to kneel on during carving process; supporting the weight of the individual carvers, ensuring the surface remained smooth and unmarked (undamaged). I was available to oversee the translation of the two-dimensional drawings into low-relief carving.
Where necessary discussions were held with the team of carvers, a group of very talented and creative TWR students. The individual bricks were then numbered using a mixture of metal oxides painted on the reverse side of the bricks. The murals were then dried for a few months before they were fired to stoneware temperature. This meant the bricks would be able to withstand chemical treatment in the removal of unwanted graffiti.
Installing the murals on site. The murals were then transported to the building site and built into the ring beam; a small cast concrete lip was created to carry the weight of the bricks/murals at the bottom, whilst a special mix of mortar was made available to attach the individual bricks to the concrete support wall. Working closely with special bricklayers ensured the murals were fixed correctly and neatly.