I visited Lisbon recently and was quite taken with this hillside city that overlooks the Atlantic—its sidewalk cafes, narrow stone-lined streets, colorful palette and especially its distinct layering of tiles. Azulejos—painted ceramics date back to the 13th century when the Moors occupied what is now Portugal—are embedded in the culture, history, aesthetic, and overall experience of this place. From institution to infrastructure, they cover Lisbon, inside and out—museums, churches, homes, walls, benches, and subways. From simple geometries in blues and whites to highly ornamental, multi-color arrangements, azulejos create a distinct sense of place rooted in craft and art.
History by Tile
If cultural institutions help define a city’s values and tell its stories, Lisbon’s National Tile Museum, or Museu Nacional do Azulejo, puts tile front and center. Housed in a former convent and church founded in 1509, the National Tile Museum showcases Portuguese ceramics from the 16th century to present day. The museum is solely dedicated to tile and it holds one of the world’s largest and most impressive ceramics collections.
Walking through this ancient space offers a sense of how deeply intertwined ceramics and storytelling are in Portugal’s history, culture, and everyday life. Geometric patterns and a simple palette marked the early style introduced by King Manuel I after an influential trip to Seville. The exhibits become more narrative and sweeping, from religious scenes to striking landscapes, in the spaces featuring ceramic work from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Portugal’s azulejo heritage has influenced many contemporary artists and several spaces within the museum are dedicated to their work.
Given the preponderance of azulejos in Lisbon’s public realm, it is fitting and distinctly “of Lisbon” that the City’s underground subway stations are covered in them. The Portuguese modern artist Maria Keil designed tile art for 19 of the City’s 50 stations between 1959-1982. Her installations, large scale ceramic murals, appear to be one with their stations, several of which were designed by her architect-husband. Keil’s work—playful geometries and studies in color—is attributed with helping to revive the nation’s interest in azulejos, which had fallen out of favor during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the late 1980’s new artists were chosen to decorate the remainder of the stations.
Pulling into each new station, the azulejos become visible through the train windows, marking each stop with distinction. A mesh of art, wayfinding, and neighborhood identity, azulejos offer a colorful and very specific transition into the next experience of the day.
I’m always struck by the feeling of stepping into an everyday public space that pulls my eyes to its ceiling, like Grand Central, or sparks my curiosity like the plentiful steps that connect hillside streets in my own neighborhood in San Francisco. Great civic spaces like these can imbue an upcoming journey, or simply another day at work, with a sense of care for the human experience and pride in place. The Azulejos in Lisbon’s metro stations offer this same kind of care and pride while helping to embed Portugal’s artistic and cultural heritage in the everyday act of riding the subway, signaling that these things of beauty or curiosity or storytelling are for everyone.
By the end of my 8-day trip, I could tell I was “home,” by the tiles that had become familiar throughout the week. That courtyard café surrounded by tiled buildings just around the corner, that light green tiled house that marked the end of a busy commercial neighborhood and the beginning of the residential neighborhood where we stayed, the stairway with the perfect balance of ceramic and graffiti—these artistic “signposts” became my wayfinding devices, familiar and welcoming.
One of the neighborhood restaurants had a tile wall that you could write on. It was our last meal, and the experience felt very much in the spirit of our adventure by azulejo. It was difficult to find space but we in our small way we took part in the story of tile in Lisbon.