Last edited 18 Dec 2020

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Floorscape in art and design

This article originally appeared in IHBC’s Context 152, published in November 2017. It was written by James Caird.

Medieval tiles in Winchester Cathedral 450.png
Medieval tiles in Winchester Cathedral’s retrochoir. Photo: John Crook,

My father, a scholar of the classics, remarked to me when I was young that the literature of the ancients was liberally sprinkled with two recurring complaints: the young no longer respecting their elders and the dire state of the streets. I suspect this rather odd pairing was intended to bear a lesson on its first element; but I have always remembered it as a truth concerning the latter.

Complaints about the state of the streets are as old as streets themselves. This is, perhaps, not surprising: they are used by all but maintained at the public expense. The connection between the wear and tear attributable to any one of us and our acceptance of the consequent taxation is scarcely perceptible to us as individuals. On the other hand, we can be quick to note the low priority seemingly given, despite paying our taxes, to the maintenance of the particular streets we use from day to day. If you are reading this column in a quest for the answer to this conundrum you need read no further. It isn’t here.

It seems that the Greeks may have had a pretty laid-back attitude to public floorscapes. Despite the refinement of their formal architecture, RE Wycherley tells us in ‘How the Greeks Built Cities’ that only streets and interiors of the highest status were paved. Perhaps in a society in which philosophy and mathematics were prized they just accepted that circles cannot be squares. Despite getting to grips with town planning in the Hellenistic period, improvements to the quality of pavement had to wait for the advent of Roman engineering.

Sellar and Yeatman in ‘1066 and All That’ tell us what we all already knew about Roman roads – that they were all straight and all led to Rome – but the references in that work are substandard. In fact, a considerable amount is known about Roman streets and floorscapes from archaeology and texts. Book 7 of ‘De Architectura Vitruvius’ sets out the then standard methods of paving interior and exterior spaces. The basic formula was similar to what we now call granolithic paving, laid either directly on compacted hardcore or over a timber sub-floor constructed to very specific directions.

In the specification for exterior surfaces Vitruvius pays particular attention to the need for cross-falls of 1:80 (two digits in 10 feet) to promote surface water run-off and the maintenance of water-tightness to prevent frost damage. This is a lesson still needing to be prioritised by present-day highway authorities, but Vitruvius’s recipe to this purpose of an annual autumn treatment of recycled waste from the olive-oil industry seems unlikely to be revived. Just how the early-19th-century Scottish engineer John McAdam came to provide the sobriquet for the Romans’ specification for graded pavement remains a mystery.

The Romans’ technique of setting tesserae of marble, and other materials with natural colours, in concrete gave a very hard-wearing finish as well as considerable design potential, both geometric and pictorial, without the much higher cost and technical difficulty of quarrying and accurately cutting and laying tiles of a larger size. But it did depend on the all-important process of rubbing down, which Vitruvius emphasises must not be skimped.

The point is aptly made elsewhere in these pages that, of all architectural elements, floorscapes are the most subject to wear and tear, and are thus always the likeliest candidate for periodic renewal. It is not surprising that ancient floorscapes are more likely to have survived as archaeology and in art than as continuously used surfaces.

Some artists have used the absence of floorscape detail for oppressive emphasis in interiors and townscapes, such as the sinister ‘Carceri d’Invenzione’ of Giovanni Piranesi or the dystopian streetscapes of Giorgio de Chirico. At the other end of the scale there is Pompeo Batoni’s magnificent triple portrait of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn and his Grand Tour travelling companions (Cardiff). This picture is a very clear statement of the sitters’ artistic refinement and taste, which must naturally include the beautiful floor of marble tiles of five different shapes and colours prominently lit in the foreground.

In high-renaissance painting of the North European school, fine pavements were used in paintings to denote high status. Some artists favoured layouts of plain tiles laid in geometric patterns: David Gerard’s ‘Annunciation’ (The Met, New York); Petrus Christus’s ‘Annunciation’ (Bruges); and a particularly fine example, Dieric Bouts’ ‘Last Supper’ (Leuven). Others favoured designs in which the tiles themselves were patterned, such as Jan Van Eyck’s ‘Annunciation’ (Washington), in which an overall geometric design contains panels of quite elaborate pictorial scenes.

Another Van Eyck, ‘The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin’ (Louvre) has not only a magnificent floor of tiles, some plain and some with elaborate geometric designs, but also a view from the centrally placed arcade of an external floorscape: a paved garden behind battlements, with planters and with two children looking at the view from the walkway. By contrast Sassetta, in his ‘St Francis’s Vision’ (National Gallery), depicts a plain gravel path, an appropriate touch of asceticism, but also tries to show us what the Heavenly City might look like from below: a strange square surface almost suggesting that it should be tiled.

Of course Van Eyck understood the understated refinement of floorboards too. In his ‘Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife’ (National Gallery) the plainness of the floor serves to emphasise the restrained richness of the setting as a whole: an early example of ‘less is more’, to be sure. The portrait is a template for what became a motif in Dutch painting.

In the 17th century the device of a scene back-lit from a side window was much used by painters of interiors, particularly Pieter De Hooch and Jan Vermeer but also others including, occasionally, Rembrandt van Rijn. Vermeer’s paintings are notable for their repeated use of objects (such as chairs, carpet-draped table and yellow ermine-trimmed jacket) and the floors are no exception. These are mostly of large black-and-white tiles laid diagonally, although not always to exactly the same design.

Pieter de Hooch’s interiors and exteriors depict a wide range of floor surfaces: tiles, red, black and white in various combinations, and laid square or diagonally; red and yellow brick; and floorboards, often with changes of surface material visible through open doors or down passages. Some of the patterns depicted have very bold repeats of two metres or more. De Hooch’s influence was considerable. A nice 20th century example I encountered recently is Fred Elwell’s ‘My Neighbour’s House’ (Bristol).

A favourite painting of mine is Gustave Caillebotte’s ‘The Floor Planers’ (Musée d’Orsay). It reminds us that high-quality floor finishes were often achieved in situ after laying. We are lucky these days to have mechanised techniques to take the heavy labour out of tasks like this and rubbing down mosaics. At the time Caillebotte’s painting caused a furore, partly because it showed real life in a non-pastoral context but mainly because it depicted male torsos in the process of sweaty hard work. This was a similar reaction to that of the nudes of William Etty 50 years earlier, clearly not of classical mythology because of their fashionable contemporary hairdos.

All these examples tell us something about appropriateness. Maintaining our historic streetscapes appropriately has become extraordinarily complex and the task of the streetscape designer has not become any easier over the years. As recently as the 18th century the considerations he was faced with were limited to the acquisition of suitably hard-wearing materials, matching these to the skills of his workforce and laying the whole so that the surface drained properly. In John Bulmer’s photographic series ‘North, UK’ there are numerous images showing that traditional streetscapes of this simplicity were common as recently as the 1960s.

There are now many more factors that affect floorscape design. The list, in rough order of their introduction, is long: bollards; cellar hatches; coal drops; man-hole covers; lamp standards; water stop-cocks and hydrants; gas industry cut-offs; electric-cable inspection chambers; basement lighting and smoke vents; telephone equipment boxes; cable TV junctions; traffic-control markings; aids for the disabled; cycle lanes; pedestrian controls; the retention of historic surfaces and infrastructure such as tram lines; inlaid memorials and inscriptions; up-lighters; and fountain arrays, with or without computer controlled choreography.

After all this, the designer may just have a little wriggle room to use some imagination. Even then, careful design may soon be undone. As the breadth of functions lurking beneath our streetscapes has increased, so has the likelihood that one or other of them will require disinterment for some reason.

Floorscapes are such an important feature of place. But they are fragile and liable to damage; and we shall always need to replace them from time to time. If we can do this well, perhaps younger generations will respect us for it .

This article originally appeared in IHBC’s Context 152, published in November 2017. It was written by James Caird.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again