Tiles, azulejos (Portuguese spelling) or azzelij (Arab spelling) are ceramics placed in the wall and widely used in countries of Arab culture. They are introduced in the Iberian peninsula and today are a prominent symbol of Portugal.
Imagine, we were in 1500: Brazil was colonised by Portuguese. In the first urban settlements, catechisms and extractions of all kinds were made in our rich territories. That was development, they said. But aside from the delicate issues that colonisation can address, today I want to bridge one of the most remarkable architectural technology legacies of the Portuguese in the Brazilians lands: the azulejos!
The azulejos tiles are utilised in different architectural solutions such as interns, water wells and facades colouring and protecting the buildings from the weather changes as protection against heat.
I’m from the city of Azulejos
I’m proudly Brazilian, from an island in the Northeast of Brazil named São Luis (honour of the homonymous french king). As a strategic place next Amazonia, we were discovered by the French in 1612, then retook for the Portuguese. São Luis is known as “The city of Azulejos”. It has a typical urban and architectonical Portuguese characteristics that made the city nominated in 1997 as World Heritage of Humanity. By Unesco, they described Sao Luis as:
“Harmoniously expanded through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the historic centre is an outstanding example of a Portuguese colonial town adapted to the climatic conditions of Equatorial America, with traditional Portuguese architecture adapted to incorporate raised piers and shuttered, wooden verandas. The singularity of the construction techniques employed is expressed in the elegance of the traditional Portuguese azulejos tile work applied both as insulation and decoration”
São Luis is the largest set of Portuguese architecture in Latin America. Approximately, we have 3.500 buildings most of them recovered by the Portuguese tiles. We are close to the Equador line, which gives the city very high temperatures, humid tropical humid climate and sea air. The buildings built with mud walls needed a coating that would withstand the demanding climatic conditions.
Let’s get the hands dirty!
In the heart of the historical centre of São Luis, there is the laboratory of conservation and restoration of the Creative Center Odylo Costa Filho.
With the help of the Architect and Conservator of this centre, Leticia Castro, she explained to me how to do an azulejo, step by step. Usually, they name tiles as cookies; they had to be modelled, cooked and decorated. So, let’s cook!
Step 1: Great argil
For a great recipe, we need a great ‘pasta’. Leticia indicates that quality clay is essential to have a good final product. After cutting the piece of clay, it is weighed and compressed until getting the ideal height to become a ‘cookie’.
Step 2: Molding the cookie
The most common measure of biscuits from the 17th to the 19th century usually ranges from 13 to 14.5 cm. « It is never accurate! », says Leticia. Sometimes each side has the same measure that varies slightly from 13,4 cm x 13.5 cm. The tiles measuring 20 cm are from the 20th century.
Step 3: The enamel bath
Once dried the clay beads, the white enamel carefully applied and mixed in an industrial blender is applied. Again, the tiles are resting, so that the coating is completely dry and do a quality analysis. After drying, the tiles go to the creative phase of the process, the decoration!
Step 4: Let’s do art
The main techniques to decorate the azulejos are the stamp (estampilho), majolica and decalcomania.
- The Stamp technique, the decoration is made by passing the enamel on cast moulds.
- The Majolica technique, pass the enamel over the already glazed chubby, but before we do the “sketch” of the drawing to be followed with a charcoal doll rubbed on the paper butter or vegetable that contains the perforated drawing, called the stress. After the charcoal has passed, the sketch comes out in the piece, and we cover it with the brush strokes of the enamel.
- The Decalcomania technique, utilise decals to transfer images and place them on the tiles.
As for texture, Portuguese tiles can be smooth, semi-relief or embossed. Our case study will be a stamp style. The stamp uses a kind of decal, and the tile is carefully painted by hand. At the stamp, the decoration is made by passing the enamel on cast moulds.
The colours are powdered pigments that are diluted and applied delicately.
Step 5: Gran finale Masterchef
All ready! The biscuits are placed in the high-temperature oven and cook for hours at 980° C until they are ready. One should wait overnight to finally open the industrial furnace and check the quality of the parts produced. Before leaving her laboratory, we took a photograph with all the steps of the process of creating the tile in an artisan way:
Connexion São Luis – Lisboa
I live in Évora, Portugal through the mobility program of the Master Erasmus Mundus in Heritage Studies that I’m holding. The first time that I visited Lisboa was thrilling for me. Me, from the other side of the sea, in the lands of our colonisers. As I said, my homeland preserves the characteristics of a Portuguese city.
‘It was like if I returned to São Luis for a while! I feel like home at Portugal’
Tiled facades, iron balconies, doors and windows with Venetian style openings. Touches of Arab colonisation also can be amply illustrated. Their long presence in the Iberian Peninsula has influenced European civilisation in the economy, society and culture. They left many words and expressions that enriched the Spanish and Portuguese vocabulary. Also, in the constructions in Spain and Portugal, they also went traces of technology and design of the buildings as the tiles and in the urban space, with the water systems.
The National Azulejo Museum of Portugal
One semester after my interview with Mrs Leticia Castro in Brazil, I visited the National Azulejo Museum of Portugal, in Lisboa.
The Museu Nacional do Azulejo is one of the most important national museums, for its unique collection – the Azulejo (tile), an artistic expression which differentiates the Portuguese culture, and for the building where it is located – the ancient Convent of Madre de Deus (Mother of God), founded in 1509 by Queen D. Leonor (1458-1525). MNAz
In addition to a truly magnificent building and adapted to receive such a collection, the National Museum of Azulejo at Lisbon goes through the history of Portuguese tiles from the 15th century to the contemporary production. The tiles, pieces that make up large panels, tell customs, daily life and religiosity in Portugal.
In the first panels presented by the proposed museum route, one can see the Arab influence in Portugal. Later, with the creation of new styles of decoration, the tile panels present different dynamics.
With the modern advent, the tiles gain new shapes, colours and meanings. For this, many of the contemporary architecture projects in Portugal carry tiles that with new patterns, still reveal what Portugal is: the country of Azulejos!
Photos: Anna Karla Almeida
We would like to thanks the Centro de Criatividade Odylo Costa Filho and Mrs Leticia Castro for the reception at their centre.