Ceramics and architecture
September 6, 2016

A detail shot of the Louis Sullivan-designed Guaranty Building in Buffalo.

Ceramics is having a moment.

As a building material, ceramics reached its zenith in North America with architect Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building more than a century ago.

Opened in 1896, the Guaranty Building was one of the first skyscrapers, with its steel structure covered with terra cotta. The opulent facade was inspired by nature, exquisitely ornamented with flowers, seedpods and the spreading branches of a tree.

But soon other building materials such as metal, glass and concrete came into vogue, and terra cotta—durable, versatile and fireproof—started to look overdone and old-fashioned.

“We feel this is the time to re-invigorate ceramics in its traditional role,” says Neil Forrest, professor of ceramics at NSCAD University.

In doing so, NSCAD’s ceramics curriculum is being reinvigorated too. To be introduced this fall semester, the newly revised curriculum will have three streams of focus: installation and sculpture, tableware, and architectural applications.

The third stream is what’s new, providing problem solving and research opportunities for students, fostering collaborations with students in other disciplines such as design and architecture, and reflecting ceramics’ “return to the industrial palette,” says Prof. Forest. The course at the intro level is Introduction to Ceramics for Design and there are also courses at the intermediate and senior levels.

The colorful Central Saint Giles is a mixed-use development in central London, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

“Ceramics is a beautifully formable material. It’s durable and stable,” he continues. “So we’re going to re-connect with some of the uses of ceramics that Western art schools have kind of forgotten about, and engage the next generation of architects, engineers and ceramicists in the built environment.”

The interest and application of ceramics in architecture is not new for the professors in the department. Since the mid-1990s, they have collaborated on delivering classes at the Dalhousie School of Architecture and are often invited as guest lecturers. Further, their research interests lean to architectural-based investigations.

Professor Rory MacDonald, for example, is interested in history of industrial ceramic production. And Prof. Forrest was among a group of specialists invited to participate this summer in the Architectural Ceramic Assemblies Workshop hosted by Boston Valley Terra Cotta, a leading manufacturer of custom architectural terra cotta. Held in Buffalo, NY, the workshops brought together architects, engineers and artists.  Participants also got a chance to tour landmark buildings built with extensive use of ceramics, including the Guaranty Building and the Martin House Complex, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Prairie style.

(Halifax has a ceramic building too; it’s the stately Merchants Bank of Canada building, now the home of the second-hand furniture store Urban Cottage. Built in 1911 at the corner of Granville and Duke Streets, the facade is made of white terra cotta tiles and ornately decorated with Corinthian columns, garlands and a wave motif.)

Contemporary buildings are pushing the use of ceramics even further. Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, The New York Times Building in Manhattan has a distinctive double facade: glass on the inner facade and, on the outer facade, off-white ceramic rods that change color in response to the changing light and weather conditions. Located in Sarasota, FL, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – Centre for Asian Art has a jade green facade, created by hand-pressed and slip-cast glazed tiles.

“This stream is going to allow students to think on a larger scale and to work with other design professionals,” says Prof. Forrest.

For more information about the curriculum changes in Ceramics, please read more >>

The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida has a striking jade green ceramic facade.