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The Beauty and Architectural Significance of Masonry Buildings

By Ken Lambert, CSI posted 06-02-2020 10:54


Editor's Note: CSI is pleased to publish this blog from Ken Lambert, Director of Industry Development and Technical Services for the International Masonry Institute. He can be reached at If you have an idea or opinion you would like to share with your colleagues in the construction industry, please contact CSI Content Strategist Peter Kray at He would love to help publish your thoughts.


While recently reading an article from Architectural Digest (Sept. 2017) which listed the 50 most “iconic” buildings in the world, I found it interesting and relevant that the majority of these structures are of masonry construction. Digging a bit further, I discovered that 62 percent of the buildings on the “greatest hit” list from the acclaimed magazine were built by masons. (Note: There are a few that are structural steel frame with a masonry envelope.)

Just to list a few herein:

  • Hagia Sophia
  • Taj Mahal
  • Chateau de Chenonceau
  • Acropolis of Athens
  • Westminster Abbey
  • Konark Sun Tower
  • The White House

There are countless others, and of course some readers will also disagree with this Architectural Digest list; that is the end result of almost any list published.

The question is, why are so many of the world’s most significant buildings built with masonry? There are many reasons, with maybe the largest being that prior to 1860 architects and constructors had two typical options—masonry and wood. And in some areas of the world, wood was not a viable option.

These buildings, some of which date back to 80 AD (the Coliseum) and 450 BC (the Acropolis) are on this 2017 list because they still are extant. That itself is fairly amazing, and proves the long-term durability of masonry components—a key factor of which is being extremely fire resistant.

But it is more than the utilitarian and practical aspect. Masonry walls/exteriors can be stunning in their aesthetic. Look at the Hagia Sophia or the Musee d’Orsay and try to think otherwise.

Of course there are some structures, especially of the past 100 years, which are also on this list. Often times these have been very tall buildings which benefit from different materials. That said, there are not many opportunities to build a 2,717 foot skyscraper (Burj Khalifa), or even a 1,000 foot one. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of real estate in the USA will not allow a building over 120 feet in height.

One of the knocks on (structural) masonry is that it cannot be built high enough to be relevant in 2020.  That is not entirely true; sound engineering and design can allot for structural masonry walls up to 11 stories. In fact, the “Anaconda Stack” structure is 584 feet tall of freestanding masonry.

Some others will claim it is too expensive. Again, that will depend on the details and the specific project parameters. Masonry facades/veneers are typically much less expensive than a metal panel or glass panel curtain wall, for instance.

In our collective rush and excitement over some of the newer building products and assemblies over the past few decades, perhaps we (architects/ engineers/ builders) have not given due consideration to the variety of masonry options available. It will not work for every building, partly because of a specific desired aesthetic or due to extreme heights, but masonry construction has stood the test of time- as this architectural “best of” list clearly shows.