Arpi on Tile
A Tale of Two Cities (in Tile and Stone)
Architectural beauty abounds in London and Paris
(Photo courtesy My London)
By Arpi Nalbandian Tileometry
The cities of London and Paris, steeped in history and architectural splendor, have long been renowned for their use of tile and stone in their iconic structures. From grand palaces to intricate mosaics, these cities showcase the timeless beauty and craftsmanship of these materials. I recently visited both cities and, of course, cast an exploring eye for treasures of tile and stone.
One example of several mosaic tile creations at the Tate Britain by Russian-born artist Boris Anrep to illustrate proverbs by English poet William Blake. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
The Cosmati Pavement, located in the altar area of Westminster Abbey, recently underwent large-scale cleaning and preservation efforts — revealing with great detail the various sizes and colors of stone and glass on a bed of dark limestone known as Purbeck marble. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
: The foyer/entrance of the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, boasts stately pillars of marble and monotoned stone mosaics on the floor. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
London’s architectural heritage is a tapestry woven with a diverse range of materials. The city’s historic landmarks, such as Westminster Abbey, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Tate Britain art museum, to name a few, feature intricate stonework that has stood the test of time. Founded by Benedictine monks in 960 AD, Westminster Abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage site; the great Cosmati Pavement in front of the High Altar is both unique and remarkable. The complexity and subtlety of the design and workmanship can be seen nowhere else on this scale. Laid down in 1268 by order of Henry III, according to Westminster Abbey, artisans from Rome, created the pavement in an inlaid stone decoration known as Cosmati work, after one of the families of craftsmen who specialized in it. The technique is called opus sectile, or “cut work.” The abbey’s work, however, differs from traditional mosaics of the time with its use of different sized stones, its abstract design, and the addition of glass along with onyx, purple porphyry, green serpentine and yellow limestone. Moving forward in time, the Victorian era brought a revival of tilework in London. The ornate façades of the city’s Tube (subway) stations, designed by architect Leslie Green, feature vibrant ceramic tiles in distinctive colors. These iconic stations, such as Covent Garden and Leicester Square, are cherished as architectural gems, reflecting the city’s rich history and attention to detail.
The staircase, located in the Rotunda of the Tate Britain, was reconstructed in 2013 using terrazzo in a pattern that recalls the original marble mosaic floor. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
A closer look at the terrazzo flooring at the Tate Britain. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
An interior view of La Madeleine not only showcases the magnificent architecture of Piere Vignon, but it also showcases a wide variety of types and colors of natural marble. Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
Another view of the meticulous workmanship within the Louvre. During the French Revolution, that the National Assembly decreed that the palace should display and share the nation’s masterpieces. The museum opened in 1793 with an initial exhibition of 537 paintings. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
Paris, known as the “City of Light,” abounds with its iconic structures adorned in stone and tilework. The city’s architecture effortlessly blends various styles, from the medieval to the modern, creating a visual feast for the eyes. The iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, stands as a testament to the enduring beauty of stone. Its awe-inspiring façade, adorned with intricate carvings and gargoyles, showcases the skillful use of limestone. The cathedral’s rose windows, crafted with stained glass and stone tracery, bathe the interior in a kaleidoscope of colors, casting a mesmerizing glow upon the worshippers. Similarly, St. Madeleine (The Eglise de la Madeleine), situated between Place de la Concorde and the Palais Garnier opera house, began construction in 1763 and was consecrated in 1842. The cathedral’s appearance, atypical of a religious building, is in the form of a Greek temple that bears no crosses or belltowers. According to historians, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted it to be a pantheon in honor of his armies; Louis XVII changed the intention back to today’s role as a Catholic church. The outstanding work here are neo-Byzantine frescoes created by Charles-Joseph Lameire from 1888-1893 and produced by the famed Sèvres porcelain factory. St. Madeleine is a must-visit structure for any historical tile-and-architectural enthusiast. Interestingly, as an Armenian, I had no idea an Armenian church was located in Paris, let alone one located near the famed Champs Elysée. Located in the 8th Arrondissement on Rue-Goujon, the Armenian Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was completed in 1904. The architect, Albert Désiré Guilbert, designed the pediment of the church with a symbolic engraving using the Armenian alphabet’s seventh letter – է – a reference to God. No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre and, on the day of my visit, I hoped to get some reprieve from the hot and sunny day outdoors. Unfortunately (and as expected) the scene inside was mass crowds of fellow tourists and dozens of school field trips. However, while everyone was mesmerized by the vast amount of artwork and sculptures on the walls, my eyes were busily searching the walls, ceilings, and floors. I was not disappointed.
The exquisite gold mosaic-tiled ceilings of the Louvre’s Great Gallery. Throughout its history, until the French Revolution, it saw the reign of many kings, queens and emperors, as well as an abundance of palace intrigue. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
The mosaic floor of the Armenian Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Paris. (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
:Green and white subway tiles line the walls of Paris’ Opéra metro station, with a bit of gold stenciling for embellishment representing the artists of the Opéra national de Paris, including the dancers, singers, musicians, and orchestral conductors. . (Photo ©2023 Arpi Nalbandian)
Similar to London’s subway-tiled tube stations, Paris’ metro stations exude a sense of historical relevance, often differing from one station to the next! In Paris, the Musée du Quai Branly showcases a contemporary approach to tile and stone. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the museum’s exterior features a stunning green wall covered with nearly 15,000 plants from 150 species throughout the world that are interspersed with tiles of varying colors and patterns. This fusion of natural elements with man-made materials pays homage to the city’s rich artistic heritage while embracing sustainability and innovation. An exemplary example of biophilia! London and Paris, two cities steeped in rich, complicated history and architectural grandeur, leave an indelible mark on the world with their use of tile and stone. With so many more images and fascinating history to share – and so many more sites left to visit – I plan on revisiting this topic in a future issue of Stone Update Magazine.
The exterior of the Musée du Quai Branly features a vertical garden designed by French artist and botanist Patrick Blanc. (Image courtesy Vertical Garden Patrick Blanc}