I wanted this room where I am currently living here in Barcelona for three reasons: it’s in the area I like the most, I’ve instantly got along with my flatmates, and the floor of the apartment is in hydraulic tiles.
Yes, I immediately noticed the floor with its nice geometrical patterns, as well as the imperfections and the time patina, and loved it. Sometimes, we architects have some funny criteria according to which we like to live our lives by, and pay attention to details we find essential whilst others don’t give a damn about. This makes me remember the story of a friend of mine, architect as well: one day he was at the mall with his wife, and they were looking for a free table to sit and enjoy their meal. When they finally found the table, he had to rearrange it before sitting down. “Don’t you see it’s not parallel with the stripes of the floor?” he asked, genuinely surprised that she wasn’t bothered by this.
When renting a place during my travels I’d usually stick to practical criteria like price, location, and size. But here in Barcelona, since this has been my base since a few years now, I needed a bit more visual comfort.
So the place I am spending my confinement days in is a flat on the 4th floor. It has high ceilings with Catalan vaults on wooden beams, big French doors at the balconies and floors covered in this amazing invention which is the hydraulic flooring.
Every room has a different tile design. The perimeters are marked by several stripes of grey and white tiles while the model occupies the centre of each room. The tiles of my flat are neither the most original, nor the most beautiful, but it’s really a joy to see them on daily basis.
A Bit of History
The story of the hydraulic tiles is very much linked with Barcelona, especially with the flats built in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the city expanded with what we know and admire today as the area of Eixample.
The cement tiles are made by hand, one at a time, using mineral pigments, cement, a mould, and a hydraulic press. They are not fired, so there is no glaze layer on the surface of the tile. The origin of the hydraulic tiles lies in slabs made in Italy, during the Renaissance, out of compacted cement pieces. With the advent of the Portland cement industry in the 1800s, the manufacture of this type of hydraulic mosaic began and, from the city of Viviers in France, where the first factory was established, the technique rapidly expanded to Catalonia and then to the rest of Spain. The Catalan company Garret, Rivet and Company presented it to the entire world at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, in 1867.
The tiles have a significant decorative component and they are made using metal stencils with various sections filled in different colors. The designs are usually a combination of 2, 4 or 6 types of pieces, and the mosaic is handmade, piece by piece, out of different pastes, with water, marble powder and white cement, sand and their respective pigment.
The simplest designs had a drawing that repeated and combined piece by piece. Generally, decorators composed designs by simulating a carpet that occupied the entire room and required tiles to form a perimeter ridge.
The coincidence of this technique with the development of modernism made the designs more complex and artistic, and the manufacturers had notable designers among their collaborators, such as Alexandre de Riquer, Domènech i Montaner, Puig i Cadafalch, Josep Pascó or Enric Sagnier.
Antoni Gaudí designed a single pavement for Casa Batlló, which was not finally installed in this house but in Casa Milà and which now pave the sidewalks on Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona.
Today many designers and aficionados try to restore or save from destruction original tiles, especially because the have historical value and they add a vintage vibe to any interior, but also because they are expensive – the more colours, the more pricey they go. There’s an interesting tile rescue project, Tile Hunter, and also the city hall has a page with loads of photos of all types of mosaics of Barcelona, including cement tile designs, called The mosaics of my neighbourhood.
Until the next post, stay safe, and stay home.