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Saving Barcelona's Decorative Tiles

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

Joan Moliner is a man on a mission and has been for seven years. Every day, as Joan Moliner cycles to and from work, he has one eye on the road, the other on builders’ skips. His quarry, if that’s the word, is cement floor tiles.

All over the city, 19th-century apartment blocks are being made over into luxury flats. In the process, a vital part of Barcelona’s heritage – its decorative tiled floors – is ending up in a dump.

Conservation of the architectural heritage rarely extends beyond listing the facade, despite the wealth of interior detail in buildings erected at a time when Barcelona was a mecca for artists and artisans.

“I see these old buildings as a conversation between all the different parts – the walls, the floors, all the details,” says Moliner. “Preserving the facade and nothing else doesn’t make much sense. It’s part of our evolution as a society that we’re throwing away.”

He picked up his first tile seven years ago and now has 1,600 of them stacked up on his terrace.

The tiles Moliner collects came about thanks to the creation of cheap and versatile portland cement in the early 19th century by the Englishman Joseph Aspdin and were used to floor most of the buildings constructed in Barcelona from 1870 to 1950. Easier to lay, they did not need to be fired and could be produced by hand by a team of four artisans working a hydraulic press.

Furthermore, they could be printed with any pattern, freeing artists from the rectilinear restraints of mosaic to produce the images of flora and fauna that are a trademark of modernisme, the distinctly Catalan version of art nouveau.

Moliner believes it’s important to conserve this part of the city’s heritage, even if the tiles can’t remain in situ. “There’s been talk for a long time about putting them in a museum, but nothing’s come of it so far.” But, hopefully, one day he will be able to properly showcase his haul of tiles for the world to enjoy.

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