I first saw the Petersen Tegl brickmakers’ spectacular ‘Kolomba’ brick collection when I was studying Peter Zumthor’s museum of that name, on the site of the former Saint Columba church, in Cologne. Like all of Zumthor’s work, there is a deep authenticity about it, in this case the bricks are a contemporary extension to the various brick structures that came before it, their colour speaks to the muted urban fabric of millenia-old Cologne. So when I was in Denmark last month, I decided to pop in meet the man himself, Christian Petersen the seventh generation master brick maker of a company that was founded in...1791!
Wind-weathered (all that sailing), silver-haired, Petersen has clearly lived well. At three years-old his grandfather told him he would run the company one day. At 10 his father said he’d had enough school for “a brick guy", and he began to learn the trade. At 21 he undertook an engineering degree and upon graduating he worked for the Swiss giant Laufen, who made bricks and ceramic products.
After his father’s death in 1961 it was Christian’s turn to step up to the plate. At that time Petersen Tiegl was only making extruded bricks, and it wasn’t long until the young visionary realized that the only way to survive was to move away from what the competition was doing and become super niche, become the world’s specialist in hand-made bricks. When I say hand made, there are different products and many are assisted by machines, but still have a hand component and unquestionably a hand made quality, their form pleasantly irregular, their surfaces flecked, ridged, pocked and varying in colour.
Probably the most outstanding thing about this guy and his philosophy is that nothing is a mistake, authenticity is everything, the ‘error’ becomes the unique quality of the work. It's a very Wabi Sabi approach. For Petersen, quality is paramount and working with top architects to make incredible buildings is critical.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, business really started booming and they progressed to build their own sales and distribution office – one more thing their competitors did not have. Then came Zumthor and the church in Cologne, the defining moment for the 21st century Petersen bricks.
The church was destroyed in WW2. The earliest relics found on the site date back to 70AD, there are walls of an earlier church dating back to the 7th century, and a Roman cemetery. The church was very rich and ran a design competition to convert the religious building into a museum, to be run administered by the Archdiocese of Cologne. The space created can only be described as grand ethereal – the serene fabric of the bricks, many storeys high, bathed in the soft light carefully controlled by Zumthor through the various penetrations and perforations.
Since then, at Tobias Partners we’ve used these bricks on our project in Bondi (more on that later) and are planning to use them on our religious building in Sydney's East, the Chevra Kaddisha.
Petersen Tiegl, not just another brick in the wall.