Sarah Halford

Architecture and Ceramics

opposites attract

Charles Holland of FAT has written an interesting post about architecture and its antithesis.

This post is about two of my great loves, architectural design and making ceramics, and the similarities.


Architecture takes time. After the initial brief is given, design takes time, moving forward and backwards in decreasing measure [hopefully] until a design crystalises. Designs are ‘tested’, which means they are modelled, analysed in terms of form and use and precedents are studied. Sketching, sketching, sketching options until you can’t even see the problem anymore, talking to colleagues who bring you back to your initial ideas, it’s a complex process where you must keep all technical, site and cultural constraints in mind.

The design is ‘frozen’ once construction begins. You stand aside and inspect as others form your work. In fact, getting involved in the construction of your own design is very dangerous!

Pottery takes time. In your mind’s eye you may see something, or nothing but the lump of clay before you. You must make instinctive decisions; how do you want the piece to look? How do you want the piece to feel? You move forwards and backwards, adding and subtracting clay, rotating the piece, learning from the clay how far it can be manipulated through wet and dry states.

The design is ‘frozen’ once firing begins. You stand aside and inspect as the kiln does the work.


A work of architecture lasts, in theory, forever. The work is a one off, designed to stand exactly where it is, on a specific site. It is an investment for the client, who will need to maintain, repair and use the building as they see fit.

A ceramic piece should, hopefully, last forever. Although pieces are often bought as they come, rather than commissioned as architecture is, the owner will see something in the piece that draws them in. It could be extraordinary form, the beauty and quality of the glaze, something else that makes you think ‘that is good, I want to own it’. The owner must maintain, repair and care for the piece and it will never dull, and will always recall the time it was obtained.

Historical importance

There is a huge amount of architectural history, as well as the history of architectural discourse, and it’s important that students and architects feel connected to that. It gives me a sense of belonging to something that isn’t only historically important, but is also very interesting.The nature of architecture means that it’s not always possible to experience buildings first hand, and a great tradition of architectural drawing and latterly photography allows the experience of great architecture to be felt by anyone, regardless of location.

A history of making pottery is difficult to document, and the work often speaks for itself and for the way it was made. Potters have spent years perfecting techniques from all over the ancient world that weren’t written down, that have had to be recreated from pots that have survived. An oral history has necessarily sprung up, as potters aren’t academics, as architects often are. Never the less, reading the history of pottery through the pots is possible due to fantastic collections such as at the V&A, who have a committment to show the best pottery from all over the world.


Architectural design brings me joy. It is essentially a problem solving exercise, where all the constraints and wishes of the client must be crystallised into one solution. People live in and work in the design, it’s a great achievement to see something that you have drawn and modelled be built, the scaffolding comes down and there it is – inhabited; there’s no feeling like it.

Pottery gives me pride in my own abilities; it is me alone who forms the clay, mixes the glaze, and the surprise and joy I feel when finished pots come out of the kiln is fantastic. It really is fantastic therapy.


2 comments on “opposites attract

  1. Dougal Stanton
    November 12, 2010

    People live in and work in the design, it’s a great achievement to see something that you have drawn and modelled be built, the scaffolding comes down and there it is – inhabited; there’s no feeling like it.

    This is interesting… in fact, this whole post is interesting. Whether you realise it or not programmers have been looking to architects for validation for quite some time. Architecture has the same combination of creative problem solving and engineering constraints as software development but with the added bonus of being ancient, venerable and respected. (To give an example of direct influence, the concept of “design patterns” in software engineering comes from architectural patterns and Alexander’s book on pattern languages.) Wherever the argument of poor software design rages the analogy of architecture, of designing buildings, of constructing buildings, is drawn. (Some developers are even styled “software architects” though the term is equally widely ridiculed.)

    The problem of course is that some segment of developers see themselves as artisans, as followers of a craft. The remainder emphasise the scientific, academic and mathematical aspects. Both sides agree that software isn’t good enough but think the other lot are part of the problem! 🙂

    Mostly I had assumed that this affinity for architecture was just coincidental. We use the analogy of designing and building software, but it is equally sensible to talk about writing, editing and publishing software. Yet few programmers think of themselves as novelists…

    So I’m ultimately curious if such a cultural divide exists in architecture? Is there a humanities/sciences split, or some other deep misgiving about the One True Way to design buildings?

    • sarahhalford
      November 14, 2010

      I’m glad you found it interesting 🙂

      There’s a lot I’ve been getting into lately as part of my exams, which is unfortunately nothing to do with design at all, but is to do with the multiple hats architects have to wear. There’s a good quote at the beginning of one of the key texts which goes something like ‘an architect has to be something of a lawyer, something of a designer, something of a businessman…[badly paraphrased]’ so although design is a HUGE part of the job, the books I’ve got my head in at the mo err more on the ‘lawyer’ side, which is another important part of the job. I think architects spend so much time managing design and practice that it would be wasted energy to squabble about design methods.

      It’s a question that academics ask all the time though, and there’s a definite move away from Structuralism, for example, which was rendered all but irrelevant in the 90s.

      When it comes to design I don’t think architects have such a definite split as programmers. Although you probably have the same issues in software – that there is more than one way to skin a cat – the workings of programming might be more readable than the workings of a building. Plus, architects aren’t generally interested in the workings once the thing is finished; the product is the interesting thing rather than the method.

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This entry was posted on November 12, 2010 by in architecture, pottery.
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