This summer, a few readers might have wandered around the shaded streets of Lisbon or Porto, or perhaps a small Spanish or Mexican city, and noticed the brightly coloured, occasionally dazzling tiled walls. They might have seen the Delft palette of the blue-and-white azulejo tiles of 18th-century houses, as fashionable in Portugal as Willow Pattern tea sets were in England.
Or maybe they came across turn-of-the-century geometric tiled façades with trompe-l’oeil patterns or, in a less salubrious back street, a small house fitted out in what looked suspiciously like 1970s orange-and-brown bathroom tiles.
Either way, these readers might have pondered the colourful, urbane surfaces — durable and wipe-clean too — and thought, “What a wonderful idea — why on earth don’t they do this elsewhere?”
It is not an easy question to answer. Even the streets of the ceramics cities of Stoke-on-Trent in England or Limoges in France are not clad in colourful glazed tiles.
This does not mean architects have not occasionally had a go. Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona was certainly the most famous and the most experimental. His Casa Batlló of 1904-06 is one of the century’s most eccentric and brilliant polychromatic designs, and his contemporary, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, designed equally extravagant tiled houses.
Slovene architect Max Fabiani designed one of the Secession’s masterpieces with the Portois & Fix Building in Vienna (1900). In Britain, it was Arts and Crafts architect Halsey Ricardo who tried with his remarkable house (1905-07) for department store magnate Ernest Ridley Debenham in Addison Road, west London. Clad in Royal Doulton ceramics, the house’s peacock highlights of turquoise and green act as a trailer for the stunning interior of mosaic and Byzantine decoration. It was perhaps the most luxurious and expensive house of its era.
Although they might rarely have been as extravagant, many other Edwardian structures were built from glazed brick, a beautiful material which was resistant to pollution and kept its rich colour as long as the building itself lasted.
The tiled Secessionist look was revived by anarchic Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser in some of his irresistibly kitsch projects — such as Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus (1986) with its eccentrically tiled fragments like patches on a worn jacket — where sometimes dull buildings were revived using Gaudí-esque tiles.
The most explosive contemporary addition to the genre is Charles Holland and artist Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex (2015) in south-east England. An exuberant tiled fantasy squishing up everything from Post Modernism and mythical dragons to Essex churches and Russian Orthodox chapels, it could have — and should have — kick-started a ceramic tile revival. It did not, quite.
But there are glimmers of hope: not quite, perhaps, the exuberant all-over cladding of the azulejo-tiled houses but tile reappearing as a highlight. Denizen Works’ Haddo Yard apartments (2017) in Whitstable, a coastal town in south-east England, feature 3D decorative tile panels with a kind of crystalline stealth geometry.
The tiny cabin (2018) designed by Emerging Objects in Oakland, California, is clad in thousands of 3D-printed ceramic tiles, some of which become little plant pots for succulents. On a different scale, Metropolitan Workshop’s overscaled 27-storey tower (2018) in Wandsworth, south London, is a heap of micro-homes clad in ceramic tiles to give some shimmer.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, though, is the almost mythical Villa Nurbs outside Barcelona. An experimental house designed (2007-09) for a digital dawn by Enric Ruiz-Geli, it became a cult building among young architects looking for a language for a new architectural age. Among its most prominent features are the complex tiles laid like dragon scales across its back. Daubed with abstract expressionist splurges of paint, the building represents a cocktail of the digital and the handmade, organic yet mechanical.
Ceramic tiled façades, it turns out, are still very much around, as highlighted by the current exhibition “Hand Held to Super Scale: Building with Ceramics” at the Building Centre in London. They just do not look quite like they once did.
Photographs: Getty; Matthew Millman; Luis Ros