Looking at Buildings

Materials & Construction


That class of ware... of a higher class than ordinary bricks, demanding more care in the choice of the clay and much harder firing, and being consequently, more druable and better fitted for moulded and decorative work.

J. Doulton

TerracottaGlossary Term, baked clay, is a closeGlossary Term relative to brick and tile but distinguished by the finer quality of the raw material from which it is made. The clay, refined for purity, gives it a smooth surface after firing. In a form suitable for construction it may be produced as large or small hollow blocks or panels. The hollow blocks are filled with a secondary material, such as cementGlossary Term, broken bricks or concreteGlossary Term. The blocks were jointed and set, often by stonemasons.

Because it is moulded it is most appropriate for decoration elements and details and as such was used in place of stone, which it is often intended to resemble. In this form, terracottaGlossary Term was first used in the 16th century as a means of reproducing elaborate renaissanceGlossary Term decoration without the expense of carving dressingsGlossary Term and ornamental mouldings in stone.

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London, Bedford Square

In the early 19th century the use of terracottaGlossary Term was revived and used to provide ornamentation. It was referred to as artificial stone. But choosing to use terracottaGlossary Term instead of stone was not popular with masons, who resisted its widespread introduction.

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V&A Museum, London

Other contemporary observers perceived terracottaGlossary Term as equal with stone. After the 1850s, with the revival of interest in RenaissanceGlossary Term forms, terracottaGlossary Term was used to provide a sober and serious form of decoration, which could also provide a suitable form for narrative sculpture. Individual components for the structure of a building could also be standardised and endlessly repeated e.g. window arches and mullions.

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London, Whitechapel Art Gallery

TerracottaGlossary Term became an almost exclusively urban building material whose popularity was based upon its resistance to fire and pollution, its ability to be colourful and decorative. All its uses were concerned in one form or another with improvement of the environment of the industrial city. Stylistic fashions in large part dictated the decorative forms of terracottaGlossary Term but towards the end of the 19th century architects began to employ it in freer designs for precisely realised effects. It also became the badge of civic pride in areas of production.

Architects also saw terracottaGlossary Term as a vehicle for innovation and its use was applied in a wide variety of buildings and styles. It could be used to replace painted signs as an integral part of the building's façade or to add sculptural decoration in a variety of forms.

In the late 19th and early 20th century terracottaGlossary Term panels were used to clad steel frame structures, and continue to be used in this form.


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