Spotlight on Petersen Tegl: the Danish masters of burnt clay
We knew right from the beginning that our latest project on Hackney Road was going to be special. Situated between the urban oasis of Hackney City Farm and the former St Augustine’s church – a beautiful Grade II listed building – the immediate setting is truly something to be in awe of. Add to this the fact that the site is just a few minutes walk from Broadway Market, Columbia Road and bustling Shoreditch. It already has the location so it’s our job to give it the design, specification and materials to match. And that’s where Petersen comes in.
In 2016, our Managing Director, Jon, traveled to Denmark to visit the same craftsmen making the bricks for our Curtain Road development – The Hudson. The time-tested process, the care given and the handmade final product was unlike any usual, run-of-the-mill building material. So when the opportunity arose to bring the rest of us along, with our new East London development at the forefront of our minds, Jon jumped at the chance.
A warm welcome
After an open-armed greeting by the charismatic factory owner, Christian Petersen, in his brick-patterned jacket, we followed him inside to learn about the vast history of the company. Christian is the seventh Petersen to steer the factory’s ship, and it can be said that he’s brought it through some rough seas and into much calmer, comfortable waters. During the 1700s, the rural Nybøl Nor cove was home to around 50 brickworks, including Petersen. Now, very few remain, their looming smoke-less chimneys a reminder of the troubles that many came to face.
Christian’s brick jacket
Christian noted the pivotal moment that helped Petersen to become the success that it is today: the collaboration with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor in 2000. Zumthor had been tasked with designing the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany – a building set to rest atop the WW2 bomb site of the Romanesque Church of St. Columba and the 1950 chapel that Gottfried Böhm had designed to replaced it. Unable to find the perfect grey brick to marry the fragments left from each church, Zumthor approached Petersen. He asked if they could develop something new, much longer and thinner than your usual brick. Petersen accepted the challenge and the Kolumba™ brick was born – handmade and fired with charcoal giving it a warm hue. The museum has gone on to win multiple architectural accolades, including the Brick Award for contemporary European brick architecture. Nowadays, Kolumba™ bricks are found in the walls of beautiful buildings across the globe.
The factory tour
After hearing all about Petersen’s journey to success, it was time to see some bricks and meet the craftsmen who made them. The best way to depict the Petersen factory in your mind is to imagine Willy Wonka’s factory – simply swap the chocolate for clay. As we walked through each cavernous room, we were greeted with steaming machines, churning mixers, shiny chutes and conveyor belts taking lumps of clay up and around our heads. Christian led the tour, playing Wonka-esque tricks on us with the help of his employees, who all found it very funny as we fell for their pranks. It definitely wasn’t the standard tour we’d expected but instead was an exhilarating, charming surprise. It’s clear that Petersen do bricks differently and it filters through to every aspect of their work.
Conveyor belts taking clay here, there and everywhere
The kilns at Petersen are nothing short of huge. It takes 3 days for the bricks to travel through the main kiln where the clay is subject to temperatures reaching 1060 degrees. Thousands of bricks are fired at a time, piled on top of one another; a technique that means small variations occur between the size of each brick, as well as differing cracks and markings. The procedure hasn’t changed for many years, and that’s the way Petersen likes to keep things.
The flame of the kiln flickers behind the bricks
Every Kolumba™ brick has been handmade using the same age-old process and we were lucky enough to see the brickmakers in action. Each skilled craftsmen produces over 800 bricks a day using wooden moulds, cutting wires and their two hands. They work at an incredible pace, moving in rhythm with one another, not forgetting to inscribe Petersen into each 1,000th brick. Here, brickmaking is elevated to an art form.
Taking us under their capable wings, the brickmakers taught us the steps to make our own Kolumbas™. They made it look very easy, which we soon found wasn’t the case as we walked away covered in watery clay. It’s a good thing we aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty. And our clothes, our shoes and our hair. Practice clearly makes perfect.
Our Design & Technical Director, Dimitrios, tries his hand at brickmaking
Unlike your average showroom, Petersen has chosen to make the most of the beautiful Danish surroundings. A wall of each brick colour and mix has been built outside amongst the leafy trees, calm cove and rolling hills. Being able to see exactly how each option looks in the sun and shade was incredibly helpful (we usually have to use our imaginations and a brick sample in the office). Using 4 different shades, Petersen also demonstrated how the choice of mortar can transform a brick.
Not your usual showroom
The Petersen family
It isn’t just Christian and his relatives who work so well alongside each other. The whole team of over 160 people seem to have a bond that centres on their shared passion for creating something beautiful and sharing it with the world. It’s clear to see how much Christian values each and every one of his employees – the first part of his day is spent walking the 4km route from his on-site house to each of the factory buildings to say good morning to them all. They’re his family, too.
Christian’s house sits in front of the factory
Christian told us, proudly, ‘I have the most crazy people, but the best‘. Aside from playing pranks on unassuming visitors, his crazy employees are often finding innovative and unexpected ways to answer seemingly impossible requests. They’re masters of perseverance, persistence and positivity, unafraid to experiment and make mistakes as that’s often when magic happens. Accidentally burning some bricks once caused an uneven dark discolouration, but the client fell in love with the outcome and ordered 80,000 ‘mistakes’.
It’s these success stories, alongside the fact that they know they’re doing something special at Petersen, that means a relaxed, quietly confident atmosphere has settled over the entire brickworks. They’re not looking for machine-like precision. Instead, Petersen celebrates the perfection of imperfection.
Mistakes are displayed with pride
We can’t thank Christian and the entire Petersen team enough for the incredible hospitality we were shown in Denmark. From Christian’s opening presentation, to the finale of a delicious lunch aboard the Petersen boat, Emma, we couldn’t have enjoyed ourselves any more. We’re now just incredibly excited to get the bricks over to Hackney for our new project. Keep your eyes peeled on our social media to see which brick we’ve gone for.
Christian Petersen aboard Emma