The Versatility of Tile

Spanish architect Francisco Mangado and tile manufacturer Ceramica Decorativa partnered to create the award-winning Spanish Pavilion at Expo Zaragoza.

Numerous materials are used to build the places where we humans live, work and play. Through the centuries, these materials have evolved based on advances in the development of compositions for new products and in manufacturing processes. With all that is new, however, there are also products that withstand the test of time. Tile, as one example, is a significant contributor to the built environment from a product standpoint. Found in almost every culture, tile—in its various forms—adds strength, protection and beauty to structures of all types and sizes.

The Spanish Pavilion at Expo Zaragoza illustrates tile’s importance, aesthetics and the innovative ways that this product can be used. Designed by renowned Spanish architect Francisco (Patxi) Mangado, the pavilion was constructed for this international exposition, which was sponsored by the Bureau of International Expositions. The event drew thousands of visitors to Spain, and the pavilion will continue to be an important part of the country’s infrastructure.

“The expo’s theme was water and sustainable development,” says Mangado. “In developing my vision for the Spanish Pavilion, I reflected on my country’s rich natural beauty and her architectural heritage.”

Zaragoza is located in Northeastern Spain, a part of the country that is home to numerous forests. “Spain’s forests are lush and varied in their composition, and I quickly developed the idea of using this as my inspiration,” explains Mangado. “The way that light plays on the trees ... shadows are cast and the structure of trees themselves creates an engaging environment. Powerful spaces are expressed in a natural setting.”

Mangado believes that Spain’s resources, including its forests, are the strength of the country. His challenge was to transform forest elements in contemporary ways using the country’s architectural intelligence and history.

Mangado’s final design replicates the image of a poplar tree or bamboo grove resting on a water surface. The 750 pillars, which consist of an iron pipe wrapped in ceramic tile, are 16 meters in height and create a commanding presence within the expo. The pillars surround an inner building that contains exhibit spaces, offices and meeting rooms.

“I believed that Spain’s Pavilion needed to reflect elements of my country’s architectural heritage while connecting to the water and sustainability themes of the expo,” adds Mangado. “Tile is an inexpensive material that is readily available to all and that is used throughout Spain to construct a variety of buildings. It is also environmentally responsible and fulfilled all my design requirements.”

Mangado notes that the 25,000 ceramic tiles covering the columns provide a reinterpretation of wood—thus the poplar and bamboo effect. The tiles are beautiful in their own right but they also serve another important function. The iron cylinders, in addition to supporting the building, conceal a network for pipes through which cold water is pumped. At night, the water runs down the outside of the columns from the top in rivulets to the water basin below. This creates a microclimate and helps to cool the pavilion. Visitors have embraced the design and its benefits, particularly when the water is used to cool off on a hot day.

The terracotta tiles that cover each pillar were manufactured by Ceramica Decorativa, a Tile of Spain branded manufacturer. The company was selected for the assignment based on its experience and its ability to meet the intricate manufacturing requirements for producing the tiles.

“The clay that we used for the tiles was collected from an area that was used some 2,000 years ago to make pottery to hold wine and olive oil during the Roman era,” says Pepe Castellano, director of Ceramica Decorativa’s factory. “Our challenge was to create the desired color and to manufacture the very large pieces according to strict standards.”

The process was very involved. Soft clay was extruded through a mold; the tiles dried for a week and were then fired for 56 hours in a terracotta tunnel kiln. Tiles were then trimmed and sanded (rectified) to the required length of 815-mm. The final step in the manufacturing process involved coating the terracotta with water and a stain-proof sealant. On-site, the tiles were attached to each pillar using a stainless steel pin system that was designed by DISET, a Barcelona-based engineering company.

“Our company was selected for this project based on our experience and our specialized kilns,” says Castellano. “Being part of this innovative project was a wonderful experience that showcases tile’s versatility and importance.”

The pillars surround an interior building that has commanding views to the expo beyond. The exterior walls of the building are glass and are anchored to the structure. The interior design is clean—a reflection of the pavilion’s overall theme and design approach—and features lighting, flooring and furniture that work in harmony to create a comfortable elegance. A system of mobile partition systems provides the required soundproofing and privacy within the building.

Both Mangado and Castellano note that the Spanish Pavilion’s design has been enthusiastically embraced by their fellow citizens. In addition, the project received the architecture prize in the Tile of Spain Awards, an annual competition that judges entries where floor and/or wall tiles made in Spain are a significant material used in a building’s structure.

The beauty, strength and durability of terracotta tile has again been used to construct a building that will last for generations, showing that sometimes the oldest methods are perhaps still the best. •

Janet Wiens is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She was formerly marketing manager for HNTB and now works with industry clients to address their marketing and public relations needs. She can be reached at