Growing old beautifully

Patina we associate mainly with natural weathering of bronze sculptures. Or with a coating on an object that has been in the ground for a long time. This is how the object acquires its specific character. Patina however is also intricately associated with architecture. This can be either an adverse factor or something to work with. The assignment in the “Growing Old Beautifully” project for architecture students of the Technische Universiteit Delft (Delft Institute of Technology) was to map aging processes and use the results in a project.

Israel Sack, renowned antiques dealer in New York in the first half of the 20th Century, described patina in a metaphor. He told one of his senior woman employee celebrating her birthday: “Today you are a fine 60-year old woman. However, today you are a different woman than you were at age 20. The difference is patina.”

“The Patina; oxidation coat on bronze and copper objects signifying antiquity; a complex of features distinguishing genuine antique objects from fake.” This definition is definitely not being followed by all. The term “patine” is applied indiscriminately, whereby it generally refers to obtaining the “distressed look”. This may be distressed wood, stone, metal, glass, ceramics, and even concrete. Only plastic, the youngest materials group, should not age; at least not be seen to. Materials and objects change appearance generally due to accumulation of grime and grease, or chemical changes on their surface. As a patine surface provides a rich and attractive appeal, people also add the patina coat artificially. All changes in a surface – a scratch, a dent, discoloration, minute cracks – give the object its specific character: “it lacks patina” in the art world means “it lacks character”.

In the book Hokwerda’s Child by Oek de Jong the main character at some point describes a tree. She thumbs through a “book of trees”, one of those books containing color photos showing trees being gloriously tall and mature, perfectly balanced and glossily brilliant. She hates these images, and thinks of a tree she saw on holiday standing in a rock crevasse. Short, small and bent, inaccessibly lonely on this enormous mountain. She is awed about how in heaven’s name this tree managed to take root in this crevasse. “It had six tiny leaves, but it was alive.” In her eyes this was the most beautiful tree she had ever seen. The appeal of aging lies in making it visible and causing a connection with the observer,  displaying its personality and character. An object’s character is realized by making the ravages of time visible.

In architecture this aspect can be deliberately applied. After all, a building is a product exposed to climate extremes, and it takes a lot of money to keep its facades clean. So the façade-aging process may be deliberately initiated to generate a particular effect, making the building change over time either subtly or dramatically. Change of a surface is visible not only in the effects of weathering; a trend today is to have the facade “communicate” with its surroundings. This can be effected by discoloration, covering it in photos and texts, installing luminescent elements, or fitting panels and screens that change position giving it a continuously changing aspect. But this is short term change.

The contrast with the existing construction even greater, as the new building is frantically aspiring to emulate the grandeur of the existing building.Effective gutter systems are essential. Before you know it, the facade is covered in leak lines and rust stains. Swiss architects of Herzog & De Meuron in the Remy Zaugg studio project purposely have the rainwater run across the façade, resulting in rust lines. Obviously under controlled conditions, creating a magnificent regular pattern over time continuously changing in structure.

Project “Growing Old Beautifully”
The assignment in the “Growing Old Beautifully” project for architecture students of the Technische Universiteit Delft (Delft Institute of Technology) was to map aging processes and use the results in a project. Deliberate attention to grime and aging provides interesting insights; shiny worn manhole rims, leak lines, rust, flaking paint, weather-stained wood and moist corners of rampant moss.

Wim Jacobs studied the phenomenon of moss growing on facades. Jacobs: “How to deliberately use and manipulate moss growth to create deliberate effects? Moss generally grows on moist, shadowy substrate. Having no serious roots, they cause little damage to a construction provided this can take a little moisture. Moss has a high cuddle factor and a nice green appeal in sunlight. My goal is to grow moss on a brick wall, creating an image. Compare it with an offset press whose printing plates are chemically treated to make ink repellant and ink absorbing sections. To grow moss takes no more than a well ventilated brick cavity wall at the rain side of a building. Using a sandblaster and a template the image is applied. The sandblasting makes the brick porous, increasing water absorption. A tree nursery trick is to apply yogurt, which speeds up moss growth. Over time the text becomes visible.”

Sebastian Müller uses a proven Dutch phenomenon; chipped glass on glazed bricks. If water and air cannot permeate the mortar in the brick wall, glazed bricks cannot discharge moisture. In winter the moisture trapped inside freezes, the brick expands and the non-elastic glaze chips off. In a wall with alternating “good” and “bad” mortar a pattern can be manipulated to emerge over time. In this project Müller opted for a closed facade on which over time appears a barcode as the glaze chips off. This effect can be enhanced by using the contrasting colors in brick and glaze.

Artificially aging or mimicking a material is obviously Grand Kitsch; pretend you are something you are not in order to acquire respect and attention is precisely the way to show lack of character and personality. However, there are other ways to make the factor time visible, to create awe and surprise, or simply to decorate.


  1. […] All changes in a surface – whether it is a scratch, a dent, discoloration, or minute cracks – give the object its specific character. In the art world, patina is synonymous with ‘character’ [5]. […]