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Strolling down the streets of Cologne, it will not take long for you to notice the tiled façades of Cologne’s post-war architecture. Considered unsightly by many Rhinelanders and visitors alike, they still have a very special attraction of their own. I like to jokingly call Cologne the “Lisbon of the Rhineland” since it has the greatest variety of colourful rows of tiled houses anywhere in Germany. It’s not that far-fetched a comparison at all: The tile not only numbers among the oldest inventions ever, it is also subject to centuries of tradition as a decorative walls and façade ornament that can be found from Persia to Portugal. While the local German tiles may be nowhere near as ornate, they certainly do greatly influence Cologne’s cityscape.

Reconstruction after WW2

Cologne was destroyed in World War Two, with almost 78% of the city gone. Years of disorder, debris, and ashes, led to a particular yearning for straight and clean lines in Germany’s reconstruction. What could have been a better response to this wish than file? We know them from bathrooms, operating theatres, and swimming pools: tiles are solid, non-porous and, first and foremost, washable. They offered a new order and aesthetic in 1950s and 50s architecture. From butchers’ shops that continued their indoor tiling on the outside to symbolise hygienic businesses, the tile trend spread and kept on spreading.

Cologne tiles

They still decorate some houses not only in white or light blue, but also in yellow, pink, black, and pink to this day. I have almost turned it into a sport to add new patterns, shapes, and colours to my mental scrapbook during my visits to Cologne as I come across façades I had never noticed before. Street artists have also discovered tile as a medium for themselves by now. One example can be found in the cheerful stick figure messages of “SweetNini” or the politically critical works by “ARMX”.

All of this makes it worth the time to go looking at the supposed ugliness of a city from a different angle, paying close attention to details, discovering the graphic elements and comparing the differences between the buildings. It makes a walk through Cologne just that little bit more fun.

Some of them are mosaic-small, others large and white, and many have brightly coloured patterns: The tiles on Cologne’s post-war architecture façades.

4711 genuine Cologne tile: The building that once housed the Cologne perfume giant is also tiled

Tile meeting street art in Ehrenfeld

Tiles inside and out: The Agrippabad bath in Cologne

Some buildings sport only small tiled decorative elements instead of entire facades, as in the case of this one from the Greek quarter

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