Taken from an excerpt by Naomi Stead
Associate professor, The University of Queensland
Breeze blocks are having a moment in the sun. Having been painfully hip in the architecture of the 1950s and 60s, they were used so extensively, in both houses and commercial buildings, that they became ubiquitous anywhere in the world where it was hot – including throughout Australia.
While particularly associated with a beachy, holiday feeling – Gold Coast motels, houses in Palm Springs – they were really so widely-used that they can still be found pretty much everywhere. But after that postwar high point, they fell drastically out of favour, and languished for the next fifty years, built into the walls and gardens of our youths, widely loathed and reviled for being ugly and out of date.
Now their fortunes have turned again and architects, for the moment at least, can’t get enough of them: at the 2016 Houses Awards, announced two weeks ago, the “Best house under 200 metres squared” went to the Naranga Avenue House, by James Russell Architect – a lovely minimal house with a tight, rigorous plan, which undoubtedly won the award because of its “skin of delicate breezeblocks,” described by the awards jury as having “a sublime, ephemeral quality.”
Patterned concrete blocks have a long (and sometimes celebrated) lineage. Some people credit Frank Lloyd Wright with inventing them, and indeed he did invent a precast concrete “textile block” system, which he used on several houses in Los Angeles including the Millard and Ennis Houses.
The breeze block can also be linked more broadly to the tradition of the brise soleil, which refers to any kind of sun baffle installed outside the skin of a building (which is where the sun screens should be! Stop the heat before it enters your building envelope!). Breeze blocks are not (usually) structural, hence they were often used where a garden meets a house – patio screens or carports or garden walls. In commercial buildings, they were often used for stairwells, balcony screening, and curtain wall sun-shading to large windows.
Right now we are in the midst of a resurgence of interest in postwar design: the wild popularity of all things mid-century modern (or mid-mod, or MCM) has spread beyond furniture and houses to materials, and the breeze block has been carried along on that tide.
Plus, they’re pleasing to the eye. A breeze block screen wall can be a beautiful thing – the pattern of each individual block adding to a greater whole, and a larger pattern, when they’re used en masse.
Finally, though, in the return of the breeze block is a story about ornament. Many contemporary architects are exploring new modes of surface and material ornament, and it’s easy to see the return of the breeze block as part of this movement. The exploration, and valuation, of pattern, geometry, adornment and richness in the surface of buildings is very much A Good Thing. And so, all hail the breeze block: a material redeemed.