Colour and Clay
20 Oct 2021
At a recent event during Clerkenwell Design week, I was asked by Solus Ceramics to join the platform with Simon Allford, there to discuss the work of Gio Ponti who is perhaps best known for his ceramics at the Parco Dei Principi Hotel in Sorrento.
I have always been fascinated by ceramics, and glazes in particular, there is something quite magical and alchemistic about the process that turns a dull slip glaze into a deep and shiny surface. Ceramics offer architects the opportunity to use durable, weather resistant and colourful finishes. The drawback is of course the amount of energy involved in making them, and they are heavy and therefore carbon costly to transport. These are issues that cannot be ignored and may well hamper the use of ceramics unless the industry finds ways to fire kilns without a reliance on fossil fuels. On the flip side, extruded terra cotta has an extremely long life and it can be designed to be dismantled and re-used.
The glass mosaics of Ravenna, which continued the Byzantine decorative tradition, are remarkable for the quality of imagery and the vibrancy of their colour, and some are at least 1500 years old. Glazed ceramic as an architectural feature is perhaps most striking in the Islamic architecture of, for example, Khiva, Samarkand and Istanbul. A tradition that spans the centuries and whose influence spreads afar. In fact there are two fine examples in London.
Leighton House in Holland Park is an extraordinary concoction, built by the artist Frederick Leighton from 1866 -1895. It has a reconstructed Arabic Hall and an extensive use of beautifully glazed peacock blue wall tiles. This together with Halsey Ricardo’s nearby house for the Debenham family has always been a source of fascination.
When we were designing 40 Beak Street we wanted to explore the use of glazed brick and colour as a surface material. We worked with Robus Ceramics to develop a glaze that had the richness and depth of the houses in Holland Park. The brick forges a relationship to Soho, and the street frontage, which is north facing, yet sparkles and glistens when the low angled setting sun hits it.
Berlage’s Holland House in the City has inspired many, and the faience façade has an arts pottery quality that works at every level. Faience is a material that is still made today, slip cast in moulds and hand glazed, it is a material that Eric Parry has mastered, and one that we have used as a detail rather than an envelope. Extruded terra cotta is an alternative that offers a dimensionally stable, precise building elements that can be glazed consistently, one that we have used frequently.
Berlage inspired the principle elevations of our building on Tottenham Court Road, The Fitzrovia. We wanted an animated rhythmic elevation that referred to the Victorian and Edwardian context of the neighbouring buildings. We felt that colour was appropriate as long as it was subtle. Chinese and Korean Celadon pottery gave us the answer we wanted, and we are now in the process of finding a commercial glaze that captures the delicacy and timelessness of this work.
We are perhaps seeing that the opportunity for new building is waning, re-use and re-purposing existing structures is the most carbon effective way to develop the city and to minimise the carbon footprint of construction. When we do have opportunities to re- image or build new, clay offers us such a range of possibilities, and glazed clay products can add joy and durability to the street scene that used judiciously can only enhance our enjoyment of the public realm.