Sofia Tjernström

Potter Building

Potter Building



Sweden I Architectural ceramics and ornaments, historical analysis


What can bring ceramics to the architecture?
A symbol of sustainability. Let’s have a look at the long history of the art of building, from the antiquity to our century. Sofia Tjernström returns to the etymology of the word “ornament” and analyses the different uses and functions of architectural ceramics in a historical perspective.

Ranging from the Ishtar Wall to skyscrapers, this review reminds us of, the great durability specific to the clay product, its adaptability and its extraordinary ability to tell us stories about issues of society and of people. All of that, with no side effects during production, use, deconstruction and reuse. Indeed, the architectural ceramic is the building material of our time!


    Author: Sofia Tjernström

The meaning of building

Until the age of Modernism, an architect´s main duty was to decide on the decoration, proportion and color of towns, buildings and interiors so that they would be charged with more meaning than they would otherwise have had. The principle was to find an appropriate expression for each assignment. Architectural ceramics can form public spaces, be a part of the structure of a building or be added as ornaments.

“Ornament” comes from the Latin verb “ornare” meaning to embellish. The aim of ornamentation is thus to adorn but in a broader sense also to order, clarify and explain. Ornaments can have different symbolic meanings, which may be religious, moralizing, educational, hygienic or commercial. The design of ornamentation has often been dictated by the prevailing style and each period had its own way of making architecture and ornaments blend together- often in such a characteristic way that these ornaments have symbolized the entire era.


A sympathy between ornament and structure

Many times it is difficult to draw a line between structure and ornament, since different structural solutions often are ornamental. I find it most interesting when the architectural ceramics are both ornamental, symbolic and part of the structure. Or to quote one of America´s most famous architects, Louis Sullivan: – “There exists a peculiar sympathy between ornament and structure. Both structure and ornament obviously benefit from this sympathy, each enhancing the value of the other”.1

History has given us an abundance of examples of different ways of expression through architectural ceramics – structural, ornamental and often symbolical – from the beginning, in Mesopotamia, through the exceptional development during the industrial revolution in Europe and the United States. With Modernism came a condemnation of ornaments, but some architects did not limit form to utility. What is next? Will the future provide us with new architectural ceramics and ornaments?



From the Beginning

Earth, fire and water are the basic requirements for the ceramic material that has been part of human activity since the dawn of time and this has spread throughout the entire world. When and how the knowledge of making ceramics began is uncertain; the practice probably started independently in different parts of the world. It was the need for a durable building material that led to the firing of bricks 4-5000 years ago, both in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.


Ishtar Wall Lion

Ishtar Wall Lion

The Ishtar Wall

The ornamentation of masonry has actually been going on for just as long. In Babylon an architectural style was developed which featured glazed bricks – some decorated with mythical animals in relief. The Ishtar Gate and the walls along the processional street, leading from the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II to the main temple of Babylon, were built in the 6th century BC. When you walk along the wall towards the temple you meet 60 lions on both the 180-meter-long walls.

The glazed lions in relief symbolize Ishtar – the goddess of love and war and aimed to fill the people approaching the temple with respect and fear.  The street ends in the Ishtar gate on which there is a procession of 600 bulls and dragons inside a frame of ornamental bands with yellow and white flowers, all applied to a background of deeply blue glazed bricks. The walls had both a decorative and a religious purpose and this world of animal ornament, symbols of power and strength, later became of great significance for Western art.


Etruscan Antefix, Photo Antikmuseet, Lund

Etruscan Antefix, Photo Antikmuseet, Lund

Etruscan Antefixes

Roofing tiles came about as a consequence of changing building techniques – from round houses with flat roofs to square houses with hipped roofs. When the “tegulae” (flat tiles with an upturned edge) and “imbrices” (semi-cylindrical tiles that cover the joints) came into use around the 7th century the technique was introduced by the Greeks to the Etruscans in Italy. The roofing tiles protected the house and its inhabitants from the weather but the terracotta elements that ornamented the roofs also protected the house and the people living there from bad things. One example is the “antefix”, an upright ornament that closes the tile of the lowest “imbrex” at the eave. It is usually a semi-circular tile modelled as a woman´s or gorgon’s head. The heads could have staring eyes, snakes instead of hair and sharp canines.


This combination of functions – structural and apotropaic for both the house and the inhabitants was unique for the Etruscans. In the Middle Ages the Christian church became the main commissioner of architectural and artistic work and a pan-European art style developed in the Romanesque and Gothicism. The ornaments were built up from a number of different elements: Byzantine art, the traditions of classical art, and Christian symbolism. Gothic architecture created a new decorative system in which elements that had been purely structural were given a strikingly decorative roll. During the Renaissance the ornaments were grouped in strict symmetry, a character that has been retained in the West until present day with a few exceptions such as Rococo and art nouveau.


The industrial revolution

The industrial revolution had far reaching consequences for the manufacture, decoration and use of architectural ceramics. Their use increased enormously due to the growth of towns and the extensive restoration of churches and construction of new ones. The new materials and manufacturing techniques together with the skilled entrepreneurs made it possible to meet the demands. During the industrial revolution the architectural ceramics were to become the symbol of such different things as hygiene, fire safety and morality.

Long Island Historical Society

Long Island Historical Society

Educational Terra Cotta

Terra cotta was a material that hardly been used since the Renaissance but around the middle of the 19th century it enjoyed a revival. Terra cotta offered an opportunity to create decorative facades, walls and floors which withstood soot, fire and smoke and, of equally importance, it was cheaper than the equivalent work in stone. In addition, it was thought that the material could improve the people´s education and morals. The first experiments with terra cotta were conducted at the latest fashion in education, the combined schools and museums. Here, the new products for the industry were to be designed by collecting the best arts and crafts objects through history and let the students copy them.

In architecture, the terra cotta elements copied the Greek and Roman work of stone and the material won acceptance only if it was used in historically associated styles. Alfred Waterhouse put an end to the accent of historicism. In his Natural Museum in South Kensington, London (1873- 1881), the terra cotta is not just designed to look like Greek and Roman stone, it was explored for its own artistic potential. The material expressed a symbol of the purpose and meaning of the building. The colors are new – pale yellow and blue and the blocks and tiles are part of the structure. It might be the first building in the world where both the facades and the interior walls are completely dressed in terra cotta. The ornaments are abundant, for example different animal species, extinct or still present, not just as symbols for the building, but educating in themselves – appropriate for a Natural museum.


A National Expression

At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, the interest for the new material was awakening in the new world. After a tentative beginning, importing and imitating products from Great Britain, an immigrating Englishman established terra cotta production in Chicago and on the East coast in Boston and New York. Now the search for a national expression, not just imitation, could begin. George B. Post – one of the fathers of the high rise building in the United States – is credited with finding the national American expression. With his Long Island Historical Society in Brooklyn (1878) he also marks the establishment of architectural ceramics in the new world. Like the Natural Museum in London this building is a combination of a museum, a library and a school. The building in brick with extensive terra cotta ornaments in a Renaissance style gives a lecture in American history and culture. The rich high-relief ornaments are concentrated into the spandrels of the arches and a series of medallions. The almost life-size Viking and Indian above the main entrance amplify Post´s nationalist overtones.


Natural Museum, London

Natural Museum, London


Fire Proof Skyscrapers

Long Island Historical Society is not a skyscraper, but a step along the way, using advanced metal framing to achieve more floor space. As greater heights became possible, the limitations of masonry structure grew increasingly obvious. In a load-bearing structure the wall carries the weight of the entire building. Therefore, the thickness of the wall has to increase in direct proportion to its height. Unfortunately, the interior space, the inflow of light and the circulation of air then decreased. The highest masonry structure ever built was Monadnock Building Chicago (1889-91); this 16-floor building has 1,8-meter-thick walls at the base. This kind of construction was not cost effective. Innovative building methods, such as the skeleton construction that concentrated the load to just a few columns, solved the problem with space, light and air. It changed the building process more than any other invention since the buttress during the Gothicism. Between the loadbearing columns, the curtain walls were left to be dressed in any material. Architectural ceramics proved to be an excellent choice.


Potter Building, detail

Potter Building, detail

During the development of the skyscraper architectural ceramics often played a key, and sometimes a crucial, role for both structure and design. The skyscraper and the architectural ceramics were mutually dependent and influenced each other’s development. When the buildings grew higher the ceramic material was favored due to its fire proof qualities and light weight. Thanks to the molding techniques it was cheap and quick to produce and ceramics also gave new possibilities for ornaments and colors. Last, but not least, the material was considered to have hygienic advantages.

The metal used in early skyscrapers was best protected from fire when it was surrounded by a fire-resistant material. Several materials as plaster and cement were tried but porous terra cotta blocks proved to be the most suitable. This method was especially effective when an air space was left between the pieces of terra cotta and the structural part they encased.

The Potter Building (1883-86) was among the first buildings in New York in which fired clay was employed to protect the columns. 3500 tons of terra cotta were used in the three parted façade, inspired by Post. Tile-arched floors along with both structural and decorative terra cotta were used to provide state-of-the-art interior and exterior fireproofing. Potter building was described as “an example of the best use of terra cotta for both constructive and ornamental purposes”.2


Spiritual Tiles

Tiles can be of any shape but are always applied to a surface and can therefore be removed without affecting the structure of the building. Ceramic tiles, unlike terracotta, were thought to have an indisputable practical value. In addition, there were powerful medieval models.

Tiles stimulated a demand for faience (that is, glazed terra cotta), initially as complementary frames and corner motifs but later with more independent forms in large sections or panels.

There was a huge demand for encaustic tiles for neo-Gothic churches and this medieval technique of making tiles with inlaid clay was mechanized. The medieval motifs were more than copies and contributed to new ideals in which architecture as a whole was a mean for expressing spirituality.

The tiles served as the basis – the floor – for the new religious focal point, sometimes supplemented by tiled wall panels in the chancel. The aisles were opened up and cleared from furniture so that the tiles became visible and could draw attention to the east, towards the chancel and altar. The closer the altar the more color and complex patterns. It might seem a bit ironical that it was an industrially produced product that met the demand of a medieval look. Nearly 50% of the churches in Great Britain today have a floor of encaustic tiles. William Butterfield used tiles in not less than 75 of his 102 churches; one of them is All Saints´ Church in London (1849). The interior is a mere (but colorful) chaos of tiles, bricks, terra cotta and stone.




Hygiene and Commerce

The hygiene requirements and health aspects, due to the foggy dense cities and towns, were met by easily cleaned tiles and shared by such widely different types of buildings as dairies, butchers´ shops, fishmongers´, baths, hospitals, railway stations and skyscrapers. The Royal Dairy in Windsor (1858) has tiled walls and a frieze along the ceiling with portraits of the royal children separated by seahorses. The tiles in the ceilings are perforated and part of the ventilation system while the tiles on the floor have reliefs to make them more skid-proof.

Reliance Building in Chicago (1894-95) is the first skyscraper fully dressed in white faience (that is glazed terra cotta). This skyscraper is characterized by very big windows and is considered a forerunner for both the International style and Modernism. The thin and glistening wall surface of glass and ceramics in a very refined and elegant Gothic style was recognized as a major innovation: “It is indestructible and as hard and as smooth as any porcelain ware, it will be washed by every rainstorm and may if necessary be scrubbed like a dinner plate”.3 A number of public buildings were embellished with architectural ceramics both externally and internally, on floors, walls and even ceilings and roofs, for example the illusory effect of the material was frequently used in the chief contemporary place of entertainment, the theatre. Pubs are in principle unique to Britain and they were able to advertise themselves on the means of signs reinforced by bold ceramics. On the inside the walls could be hung with panels at once works of art and integral parts of the architecture. In the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast (1890) people were attracted into the completely tiled interior – even the counter is made of ceramics.

Reliance Building, detail

Reliance Building, Chicago

Varied commercial ventures sought to express their identities through the buildings that housed them. Eating establishments like Child´s (1923), a chain of family restaurants with an elaborate dining facility on the Coney Island Boardwalk, used many marine images including rondels of Neptune with seaweed in his beard and ornamental bands featuring shells and fish.

Few buildings can match the exuberance of the Michelin Building in London (1910-11). The French tire company had its building of reinforced concrete structure masked in ceramic materials, white, blue, yellow and green tiles. The ordinary decorative elements were replaced by symbols of the company and the product creating a permanent and audacious piece of architectural public relations. Thus plaques, capitals, spandrels and tympani, beside the company´s name and monogram, feature wheels and tires – here in durable ceramics that does not wear as the rubber ones.


Modern Times

In modernism, buildings were treated as spaces, and a new visual order was developed as a result of the new materials. In addition, function was considered primary and decorative elements were condemned. Quite contrary to the modernists in Europe´s disapproval of ornaments many architects, builders and clients of skyscrapers saw new ornamental possibilities in architectural ceramics. Architectural ceramics could transform a heavy and inelegant cube to monuments for commercialism -the possibilities through texture, ornament and color seemed endless. In 1911 you could read in New York Times: “The New York skyline – is more than half architectural terra cotta”.4 That might not be the truth today but even more than a hundred years after this article most of the buildings it refers to are still standing.

Guaranty Building, Buffalo, detail

Guaranty Building, Buffalo, detail

Sullivan and Ornament

One of America’s most prominent architects, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), has been called both the “father of modernism” and “the father of skyscrapers”. He was one of the leading architects and theorists of the steel-frame technique and the rational expression of the skyscraper. “Form follows function”5 is attributed to Sullivan, but to him function was not limited to utility but included the symbolic and the spiritual as well. Sullivan claimed that new kinds of buildings required new kinds of architectural expression thus rejecting the use of historical elements in the skyscraper. While the European modernists rejected ornamentation as such, Sullivan designed a highly individual system of organic ornaments which were brilliantly integrated into the form of his structures. An idealist and a romantic, Sullivan intended his ornaments to delight the viewer but also to ennoble architecture with a democratic spirit. Nature was a main inspiration and the organic, often botanical, shapes complete and enhance the simplicity in the underlying geometrical urban composition.

Ceramics – or terra cotta – was the material of his choice to realize his visions. In Guaranty Building (1894-96) Sullivan created a taut skin of ornamental bright orange-red terra cotta. The windows are recessed to allow the eye to pass from the ground floor columns and the entrance pediment up to the surfaces of apparently unfathomable intricacy. The slender piers, decorated from bottom to top, sweep into a coved attic with moldings like interlacing vapors trails and curve out to the shallow cornice. The deeply recessed windows allow the rich terra cotta detailing surrounding the windows to be clearly visible from the interior. From a distance the round windows look like a series of rivets that holds the skeleton construction together which adds an urban scale. Close up appears a graceful intricacy.

Sullivan thought, and clearly showed in his rich architectural heritage, that a plastic material as clay that records the imprint of a thumb – is more logical to work into ornamentation than to smooth out to a plain surface and hence, deny its decorative potential.




Modernism and Art Deco

After the Second World War, the modernist´s sterile surfaces, as part of a simplified geometric architecture, became known as the International Style. For the 1932 exhibition with this name in the Museum of Modern Art´s, McGraw-Hill Building (1920-21) was the only New York skyscraper selected. This streamlined structure was the first skyscraper in New York to express Modernist ideas. It has strong horizontal bands of metal-framed windows that alternate with panels of smooth turquoise terra cotta blocks that offered none of the decorative qualities that had come to be expected from terra cotta. The impact of the building depends on the overall strong color and not on ornamental details or patterning.

The architect, Raymond Hood, was one of a few that believed that the future was in entire buildings in bright colors, and the turquoise jukebox, McGraw-Hill, was his realized vision.

This strict functionalism was balanced by another style, art deco. The exhibition with this name in Paris in 1925 showed the way and in the United States inspiration came from both France and the indigenous Indian cultures. Art deco was well-suited for the technology of ceramics; easily pressed low-relief patterns could be highlighted in bright colors and repeated extensively over broad sections of a façade. Bright, often abstract, forms reflected a country sufficiently confident to break away from European historicism. It was in New York that art deco first took a firm hold partly on account of its eminent suitability for the setback skyscraper. These were the result of a zoning law from 1916 preventing the streets of Manhattan being reduced to narrow lanes. The restrictions required tapering skyscrapers which led to innovative designs creating silhouettes recognizable at a glance. In Fred F. French Building (1926-27) the setbacks are accentuated by red stripes lined with a black zig- zag in ceramics. The water-tank enclosure at the top was given faience panels emblazoned with images considered appropriate by the construction company that built and occupied it: a rising sun for progress, griffins for integrity and watchfulness, beehives for thrift and industry.


Fred F French Building, New York

Fred F French Building, New York

The future – Symbol for Sustainability

Even today the impressive monuments, from the Ishtar Gate to the scrapers of the sky, inspire the modern use of ceramics in architecture. Sweden is not a country known for its architectural ceramics. Naturally, in a country covered in woods, wood has been the first choice building material. Today, however, architectural ceramics is gaining popularity, now often in the context of sustainability. One example was built in 2011 at Chalmers University of Technology as a hub for formal as well as informal meetings between community and society. The building, by Wingårdhs architects, is named Kuggen (the cog). It is characterized by state-of-the-art solutions for adapted ventilation, lighting, heating and cooling, all to minimize the environmental impact of the building. Kuggen was awarded for its sustainability on the international property event MIPIM in Cannes. Every floor level adds two bays making the building grow in size for every added floor. The center of each circle is shifted so the southern elevation gets the longest shadow. A screen with photovoltaic cells moving around the building adds shade and electricity. The triangular windows maximize daylight to the core of the building and minimize the climatic deficiencies. On the roof, sun collectors for tap water complete the solar energy system. The entire façade is made of glazed ceramics in six different shades of red and two shades of green. The colors were chosen for their brightness and inspired by autumn leaves and brick from Mesopotamia. The material was chosen for its technical advantages such as easy to clean, maintenance-free and very sustainable. The future possibilities for reusing the ceramic panels extend beyond the limits of our own civilization and become a symbol for ecological sustainability.

Architectural ceramics have been used in a structural, ornamental and often symbolical way throughout history and many of the buildings are still around today reminding us of the materials´ great durability. Ceramics have no side effects during production, use, deconstruction and reuse. Besides, it has endless possibilities of ornamentation through sculpture, texture or color. The ornaments clarify the circumstances of its´ time, they tell stories about important issues of society and of people. So far, for example, we have heard stories about fear and respect of gods and fire, of strive for health and moral and of creative marketing. Today we see an increasing use of ceramics in architecture and I would say the ceramic material itself is an ornament – that explains the material´s durability and as such is a symbol for sustainability. This is the story of our time – and must so be for the future!

Kuggen, goteborg. Photo Tord Rikard Soderstrom

Kuggen, goteborg. Photo Tord Rikard Soderstrom

All the article’s images in full size  




1.  Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings (New York: Wittemborn, Schulz, 1947), p.189, quoted in Schmitt, Sullivanesque, Urban Architecture and Ornamentation, p. 6.
2.  New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company Catalogue (New York: Lowe & Company, 1888), p. 17-18, quotedin Tunick, Terra-Cotta Skyline New York´s Architectural Ornament, p. 22.
3.  Economist 7, 1894, p. 206, quoted in Stratton, The Terracotta Revival. Building Innovation and the Image of the Industrial City in Britain and North America, p. 187.


4.  “Architectural Terra Cotta A Big Factor in New building”, New York Times (14 May 1911), sec 8, 1, quoted inTunick, Terra-Cotta Skyline New York´s Architectural Ornament, p. xii.
5.  Sullivan, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (Lippinscott´s Magazine 57 1896), quoted in Schmitt,Sullivanesque, Urban Architecture and Ornamentation, p. 4.


– Schmitt, Ronald F.: Sullivanesque Urban Architecture and Ornamentation, Illinois 2002.
– Stratton, Michael: The Terracotta Revival. Building Innovation and the Image of the Industrial City in Britain and North America, London 1993.
– Tjernström, Sofia: Keramiken och skyskrapan – om utvecklingen av arkitektonisk keramik i USA, Emmaboda 2010.Tjernström, Sofia: Keramik i arkitekturen, Stockholm 2003.
– Tunick, Susan: Terra-Cotta Skyline New York´s Architectural Ornament, New York 1997.




Sofia Tjernstrom, the story of our time crossing architecture and ceramics


éditorial N°0

Academy is a place of discussion, exchange, and reflection to share knowledge.