Whorls, Curls and Swirls: The Secret Language of Architectural Ceramics
Snaking around windows or down columns, you'll see them: small ceramic flourishes that make up a few syllables from London's distinctive architectural vocabulary. Ceramic artist James Rigler is obsessed with converting these visual ideas into a domestic scale and setting in his sculptures.
Through a visual interview that spanned the gap between here and his Glasgow home, we worked our way through the artists and ideas that inform his work and apply his eye for detail to the wealth of ceramics around White City.
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James Rigler attended the Royal College of Art, but he also trained at Lambs Terracotta & Faience, a traditional architectural ceramics company based in West Sussex. The plasterwork and clay skills that he honed in industry still underpin his practice today, which takes details from the visual languages of our built environment. In his work he creates ceramic sculptures that draw parallels with extraordinary historical objects and monumental architecture. So he seemed a perfect choice for our series of art commissions inspired by Television Centre's East Tower last July. Formerly the home of CBBC, the tower's demolition has begun. By the end of this year, it'll have disappeared completely.
In July, Rigler sampled textures and salvaged wood from the Tower's empty floors, then shipped the lot back to his workshop in Glasgow. Now, his work is complete: 12 mysterious house-like sculptures that replace a vanishing skyline with an imagined one. These pieces encapsulate the building's looming bulk on a domestic scale.
White Noise: Architectural ceramics and the colourful Postmodern designs of the Memphis Group both feel like strong influences in your work. What draws you to them?
I’m particularly drawn to the language of ornamentation and decoration that builders and designers use to communicate – the materials or styles or details, and the tricks of abstraction they use. Ceramics is a particular subset of those tools. My real interest in this very particular area was ignited by a job I fell in to with Lambs. I got to be up close and personal with bits of architecture that we were sent to make copies of, often from the top of Victorian buildings where they designed to be seen from the street, six or seven floors up from the road. I developed a real sense of the stylised and abstract quality of these objects; they make sense from a distance but up close their scale and proportion is strange and abstract.
Thinking about Memphis and the whole Postmodern movement, my process is a distilled version of the Memphis approach: adopting, adapting and exaggerating in both ceramics and furniture, pushing the idea of 'signs' to its limits. I have a strong colour relationship to Memphis too, but my interest in colour is around its power as a signifier. So I work with domestic 'feminine' colours. Working with monumental forms on a large scale can be quite austere, so my interest in pop-y, trashy colours and domesticity plays on the perception of the feminine. What happens if I layer these domestic colours onto these self-important forms? What does that do to both of those things? How can colour change their meaning? I first played with this idea in a piece called Plinth, from my show at Tramway. Plinth takes the capital from the top of a column and transforms the form into a waste paperbasket and a side table, where the glaze confers a peachy, toy-ish plastic quality to something that could be trying to be quite profound.
Ceramics makes this jump between the profound, architectural, monumental and the domestic, everyday, mass-produced. The latter can carry more individual meaning, but is worthless outside the personal realm, against the cultural and economic value of the monument that rarely carries an emotional connection.
There is a hybrid quality to your work. It seems to inhabit a space between the functional, the sculptural and the decorative folly.
The ‘in-betweeness’ is really fascinating, being neither one thing nor the other. Can the piece perform the function and be a sculpture at the same time? Coming from a craft background, it’s a really important part of the heritage. The value of and focus on the way objects can live in your home, the concept that you can be intimate with them in a way you can’t with art, this is a fascinating and powerful place to be in – to create objects that hover between IKEA and an art gallery. I’m delighted that I can do that, which I can because I spent a year learning a skill with Lambs.
It’s a problematic thing in the art world, being material-focussed, but it means I can choose where to pitch an object: as an obvious piece of fine art living outside the world of ordinary things, or an object that blends in so well with the world of objects that you’re not quite sure where the boundaries are. This commission is exactly in that place, a sort of Trojan horse where I can smuggle something I want to say into someone’s life in a way they are familiar with. Intimacy is not something I associate with an artwork. It's really important you don’t sleep in Tracey Emin’s bed, but for a craftsperson it's important that you do and that you sleep well. Maybe it’s something to do with growing up gay, seeming to be one thing whilst also being something else – but neither cancelling the other out.
Edmund de Waal writes about ceramics as a personal and geographical narrative. Can you speak about the narrative in your own work?
When I was studying, I was trying to make work that felt like there was a narrative in process that had just been interrupted. The idea that objects connect us to all sorts of other places and people was explicitly important to my earlier work. Maybe now, rather than making work that was about stories of a former function, I’m moving towards actual function that might engage people in a different way.
One of the reasons I’m so interested in the architectural legacy of ceramics is that it offers such a different take on the world from the domestic heritage of the craft. Pots are really problematic for me. The idea of the pot as 'uber object' or 'ancient form still in use' has lasted millennia. I don’t own pots in my house. There’s a weird kind of middle-class artifice around pots that can be quite self-conscious. I’m more drawn to the amazing craftsmanship, detail and care given to objects in stately homes – architecture in the realm of the aristocratic – as well as the people that made them, over the generations. But you can’t just embrace them as beautiful things without acknowledging the politics of when they were made. My work is a wry response to that. I try to celebrate the beauty of the craftsmanship, but through distortion of function, form or colour, to tell a story of the hierarchy of 'importance' in objects.
I’m interested in the idea that ceramics can be a signifier of place. For example, Lisbon is characterised by its tiled buildings, and London’s Victorian pubs, wrapped in encaustic tiles, are an instant signifier of the city.
Looking at tiles and pubs, ceramics are hygienic and easy to clean, and the glaze doesn’t fade, so they’re the same 100 years down the line as they were the day they were made, glistening surfaces that maintain their beauty. Public baths, the tube and pubs are the places in London where you encounter those amazing ceramics. They are all buildings trying to distinguish themselves from other buildings, so the colour does that job.
Material palette and architectural language are really important in creating a sense of place. Glasgow, where I live, is ugly and beautiful at the same time. It's a weird gloomy Gothic-Egyptian-Classic-Edwardian, which is maybe closer to the Chicago skyscraper, where there’s an incredible, rich architectural heritage. The consistent use of stone also comes from the fact that it’s a plentiful material in the landscape around the city, so its identity grows rather literally from its place. It’s very hard to capture that in a building that’s made of glass. You can almost tell which computer programme has been used to design buildings these days.
I’m hoping that we’re in a transitional generation, where the generation to come might be able to be more irreverent. I would love it to be the case that advancing digital technology might allow developers, architects and builders to start customising architectural ceramics at a price point that works. There is a richness to the surfaces of Victorian buildings that comes from things that are made by hand. There’s a relationship to the body, the mark of the hand which modernist architecture went out of its way to erase.
After speaking to James about his practice and the works and movements that informed them, we wondered what he'd make of the ceramic details in the area around White City, seeking to understand this particular place through the lens of its architectural detail. Uxbridge Road, a little to the south, is in many ways a typically bleak London high street. Yet the proliferation of ceramic flourishes speaks of abundance, mythology and elevated status, a world from another time. We photographed what we spotted and asked Rigler to comment on each design, then talked about how architectural languages have influenced his work.
First up, The Princess Victoria is listed as one of the most important buildings for architectural ceramics in West London.
James Rigler: Even the strangest architectural motifs become almost invisible through familiarity. Shell niches, birds, animals, swirling foliage: these are the ghosts of the lost language of decoration. Their roots are lost in history and myth, but they still haunt our cities between the glossy, blank surfaces of modernity.
Just a little further along the road is The Queen Adelaide.
What are these glossy, luscious tiles [visible on the arch] trying to say? To me, they’re proclaiming the richness and indulgence of the drink and company within, their joyful greens and golds making a real performance of this building. Glazes don’t really fade, so architectural terracotta like these tiles allow a glimpse of the colourful reality of 19th-century life in a way that no sepia photograph can.
Then there's this nice detail on the side of a building on Pennard Road.
This building wears its stylistic influences, quite literally. An ancient monument, recycled and re-positioned in a wall that itself now seems antique in its use of neo-classical or neo-Baroque devices. The contrasting tendency of modernism towards simplicity is seen in the street sign’s no-nonsense font: worlds and whorls away from the looping scrolls of the memorial.
The Cleverly Estate on Wormholt Road is one of the first estates built by Peabody trust.
The ghosts of ancient architectural languages are here again. If you know how to read this decorative language, you can join in the jokes that this building’s architect has created: classical elements used in unconventional ways, oversized circular windows above under-sized columns, the sheer, ridiculous density of detail. Somewhere here there’s the face of a deep-sea leviathan or giant, multi-eyed spider – a building deliberately and proudly getting ‘above itself’.
This textured wall abuts Shepherd's Bush Police Station.
Brutalism meets the woven fabrics of Shepherd’s Bush Market. Rhythm, pattern, lightness; a celebration of light and shade, all with a simplicity and crudeness that makes this building seem primitive, ancient, primordial – as though the law was here first, and don’t you forget it.
Finally, we reach the Shepherd's Bush Empire.
It’s Hawksmoor, Vanburgh, Soane, with a dash of Piranesi and a sprinkling of suburban, pebble-dashed Arts and Crafts. The restless planes of the tower facade bounce your eye from column to window to swooping parapet, as though the whole building has sugar-rushed your eyes out of focus. You can feel how pleasurable it was to draw those layered arches out on paper, to keep returning to the anchor-point of the compass-needle’s imprint. You can enjoy the particular logic that drove the curved tower walls into curved arches, then curved coping, then curved, domed roof.
Do you live in White City, or otherwise have a connection with the Television Centre East Tower? It's not too late to enter Rigler's giveaway for one his Tower-inspired pieces. This piece is part of our Imagined Cities month, guest-edited by writer and urbanist Darran Anderson.
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