Want to incorporate them into your home or yard? Contact a licensed professional
They were elemental in the midcentury modern design movement, but they’re making a major comeback in the new millennium: breeze blocks, the pierced cement blocks that circulate air, soften light, and offer structural security and patterned privacy.
If you look around, more likely than not, you’ll see examples of breeze-block structures in your community. Many structures still stand—especially in warm Southern California—while countless others fell following the trend’s end in the 1970s. But architects and homeowners are rediscovering breeze blocks’ many benefits and incorporating them into today’s homes and gardens.
BEAUTIFUL AND FUNCTIONAL
While versions of screening elements made from wood or masonry have been around for centuries in many cultures, the 20th-century breeze-block trend kicked off in hot and sunny Brazil. That’s where in the 1920s a group of engineers—Amadeu Oliveira Coimbra, Ernesto August Boeckmann, and Antônio de Góisof—created the “cobogó” (named after a combination of the first two letters of each of their last names), an architectural element that allows for filtered sunlight and natural ventilation.
Elsewhere in the Americas around that same time, renowned U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright was experimenting with concrete-block construction—which he called “textile blocks”—for his cutting-edge structures, his idea being to create a beautiful and literal building block that people could easily use to construct modular homes.
The cobogó trio’s idea and Wright’s building-block experiments began to gain massive followings when their concepts started hitting the international arena, like when Brazilian architects Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer put the cobogó front and center for millions at the 1939 New York World’s Fair Brazil Pavilion, and U.S. architect Edward Durell Stone’s breeze-block-covered 1959 American embassy in New Delhi, India, caused a sensation.
With highly visible and award-winning structures like these setting the trend, breeze blocks became a hot architectural ticket. They even became so popular that many local breeze-block factories started sprouting up throughout the United States to save on shipping costs and logistics. But trends by their nature are temporary, and after the element’s design reign during the 1950s and 1960s, the breeze-block saturation began to sway homeowners in other directions in the 1970s and beyond.
Consigned to kitsch in the later part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, breeze blocks are getting another look from today’s architects and homeowners for the very reasons why they were developed and became so popular in the first place:
- Inexpensive—Just as they were 50 years ago, breeze blocks are still relatively inexpensive compared to other building materials like stone, with the blocks themselves costing a few dollars each.
- Functional—Originally created in the decades before air conditioning, structurally sound breeze blocks allow for shading and air circulation while maintaining security and offering different levels of privacy based on the blocks’ designs.
- Beautiful—With many designs to choose from, breeze blocks’ textures look interesting on their own, but they also create their own patterns when sunlight moves through them and are especially striking when lit from behind at night. Blocks can be left in their natural state, or they can be stained or painted. They can be used indoors or out, and have an attractive ability to blur the line between the two when the blocks’ perforations offer glimpses of greenery or sky, or even have plants and vines growing through them.
If you want to bring a little mid-century magic to your home or garden, consider bringing breeze blocks back. To plan and implement a retro-modern project in your home or garden, contact an architect or landscape architect licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs’ (DCA) California Architects Board or Landscape Architects Technical Committee; for help with breeze-block installation, contact a contractor licensed by DCA’s Contractors State License Board; check professionals’ licenses at https://search.dca.ca.gov.