2023 Swank Traveling Fellowship

Karina Mendez is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington, aiming to finish top of her class in Spring of 2025. Professionally, Karina has worked on both higher-ed and K-12 projects in tandem, this summer she hopes to take on the challenge of working in a different sector to expand her experience. As can be perceived by this fellowship, in her free time she loves planning itineraries, travelling, and immersing herself in different cultures that round her life’s perspective and most importantly giving a keen insight of the built environment.


Though researching the cities & municipalities of Lisbon, Sintra, and Porto, I sought to find a deeper understanding of the word craftsmanship in Portugal and learn how a gesamtkunstwerk could open up an architectural discourse about the longevity and identities of cities. I sought answers by analyzing the sites of the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (MAAT) & the historic Alfama district in Lisbon, The Porto Cathedral & The São Benito Station in Porto, and the Pena Palace Sintra. The research explores the historical and cultural significance of azulejos in shaping the identities of cities, and by extension the country of Portugal. By tracing the introduction of ceramics and studying its evolution, we can uncover the impact of the material in terms of a visual narrative, identity, and heritage.


1.0 Introduction: Adoption and Adaptation of Azulejos

For historical context, the Moorish invaded Portugal in 711 AD, introducing azulejos and their patterns to the country. The intricate geometric patterns and vibrant colors characteristic of Moorish ceramics laid the foundation for the development of azulejos in Portugal. Azulejos are traditionally categorized as glazed ceramic pieces of tilework, deriving from the Arabic word azzelij which means little polished stone. Various similarities exist between the geometric patterns seen in Moorish architecture and the earlier Portuguese work. Over time, as the Moors were gradually displaced, the Portuguese adopted and adapted the tiles, incorporating their cultural motifs, religious imagery, and storytelling elements. Cities like Seville and Granada expanded the trade and use of ceramics through the 13th to 15th centuries, growing the material’s popularity. Tiles were first introduced in Portugal when King Manuel I incorporated them in the Sintra palace, a few hours northwest of Lisbon. Like wildfire, the material spread from city to city, and tilework populated municipal & church projects. The Portuguese evolved the craft of tilework well into the 16th century, painting more complex work by hand, and by decorating tiles with people, animals, religious icons, and cultural events (breaking away from Arabic practices). In 1755 after an earthquake in Lisbon destroyed various buildings, the need for reconstruction resulted in the adoption of tilework/azulejo facades. Tiles proved to be a durable material that could withstand the rainy weather of port cities, harsh sun conditions, and some natural disasters. From an aesthetics standpoint, Portuguese artisans prided themselves on the hues of blues that were used, expanding the brand of azulejos within in-country productions.  Azulejos now fill the streets of Portugal covering government buildings, churches, transportation stations, residential streets, and benches, giving the cities of Lisbon and Porto an identity of artistry and superior craftsmanship. Today, tiles of all colors and construction methodologies line the streets of Portugal, expanding on the country’s narrative as a powerful nation well-experienced in trade and craft.

2.4 Sao Benito Station in Porto

The Sao Benito Station (Saint Benedict) is a busy railway terminal that thousands of people, tourists, and locals pass through to travel to nearby cities. Its walls narrate stories of war, monarchies, and rural folks through depictions in the traditional white and blue colored tiled murals, a beauty so rich that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The depictions share the stories of thousands of Portuguese people showing their suffrages, conquests, and achievements through the trajectory of time across different regions, only comparable to the strength in storytelling as the Diego Rivera murals in Mexico’s National Palace. Around 20,000 azulejos were placed between 1902 and 1916 by artist Jorge Colaco to document Portugal’s progression as a country, political power, and society. The upper portion of the tilework showcases the progression of transportation in the country with images of carriages, small boats, and horses with country folk looking towards approaching modern trains. A frame of multicolored tiles serves as the datum between the colored transportation scenes and the blue and white tiles below. Notable depictions in the traditional blue and white tiles include that of the Battle of Valdez, a fight between two kingdoms and cousins that eventually led to the Treaty of Zamora, officially recognizing Portugal as an independent kingdom and monarchy. There was no stronger way to learn Portugal’s rich history than to see it painted across a historic station.

3.0 Conclusion

In essence, Portugal’s mastery of azulejos demonstrates that good craftsmanship, in tandem with a deep understanding of cultural identity, can elevate materials beyond their utilitarian functions to become powerful agents in shaping the architectural character of cities. As architects continue to explore ways to create meaningful and evocative urban environments, the Portuguese example stands as a testament to the enduring value of honoring tradition while embracing innovation in the pursuit of remarkable designs. Portugal’s innovative use of azulejos exemplifies the importance of materials in shaping a city’s character. From traditional ornamentation to contemporary architectural integration, azulejos honor the past while embracing future construction methods. Architects worldwide can learn from Portugal’s approach, understanding how craftsmanship and cultural identity intertwine to create spaces that bridge history with modernity.