June 4, 2019
As a condition for its planning approval, the Londoner—a 14-story luxury hotel under construction in the British capital’s fabled Leicester Square—was required to contribute an artwork to the surrounding community. Developers Edwardian Hotels London chose to integrate the piece into the building itself, holding a competition for ideas that Ian Monroe, a locally based painter, and sculptor, won.
His proposal included alternating patterns of glazed tiles that would line the development’s exterior window reveals and tower entrance. These tiles nodded to the material history of the area, which is revered for its tilemaking.
The main challenge was realizing this complex composition. These hundred-foot mosaics required untold levels of coordination between Woods Bagot’s digital-design specialists and project engineers, consultants, and off-site fabricators that resulted in installing over 15,000 terracotta tiles.
Things began with Monroe’s hand-drawn sketches, in which he experimented with colors, shapes, and arrangements. He then made paper-cut models of the tiles he believed would be the best anchors for the designs. The firms’ team transferred the forms into modeling software Rhino, where—with Monroe by their side—they transformed the drawings from concept to feasibility. Together they worked through factors such as optimal sizes, weights, and thicknesses, adjusting the tiles’ geometries without compromising the design intent. They also solved practical concerns, such as how the pattern could accommodate the building’s mechanical elements and—with engineers Arup—how to affix each tile to the building’s framing.
The firm’s digital-design team was already developing an interactive prototype of the development, using building information modeling (BIM) to create the Stage E document that would be handed off during the contractor bidding phase. The team decided to utilize a similar BIM framework to create Monroe’s mosaics, but take the process two steps further: to the actual fabrication and installation of the artwork.
To produce an intricate artwork of this magnitude, it was imperative to maintain communication. Woods Bagot imported 30 different designs as well as their step-by-step pattern and installation instructions into Rhino. The project’s eight additional façade contractors built upon this digital model with the stone-fixing experts adding information about the stainless-steel fastening system on the back of the tiles—a solution developed in conjunction with project engineers Arup.
Similarly, Woods Bagot worked hand-in-hand with the terracotta manufacturer, guiding their mostly traditional artisans through the geometries of Monroe’s very modern forms. Fabrication meant returning the digitally created designs to their analog roots: creating physical molds for the ceramics, and then casting, drying, painting, and baking the pieces. Each tile took up to six weeks to make, from the initial pour through the final firing.
The resulting deep-blue tiles, which begin on the Londoner’s ground floor, extend through its roof. It’s an artistic triumph, but a technological one, too, where a level of complexity and craft nearly impossible to render humanly is made visible and tangible thanks to collaboration enhanced by digital tools.