21st September 2010   

Un grande sognatore obbedisce ai sogni intimi d’una sostanza magica; (…) ascolta con attenzione le confidenze mormorate dalla materia

(Gaston Bachelard, Il diritto di sognare, Dedalo, Bari, 1975, p.51)

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Casalgrande Padana, the first work in Italy by architect Kengo Kuma will be inaugurated soon in the Sassuolo-Casalgrande ceramics district. Casalgrande Padana, according to its vision envisaging ethical and social commitment, will donate a work of architecture to the city, whose value exceeds that of the work itself.

The construction will be a real local landmark and the gate to the ceramics district: it is the result of a preliminary agreement between Casalgrande Padana, which incurred the financial costs of the initiative, and the municipal authorities. To create this work, the Company welcomed the proposal made by Prof. Alfonso’s Acocella and me, who had already been working on a broader research project on ceramic materials, assigned by Casalgrande to the Faculties of Architecture of Ferrara and Siracusa – leading to an operational collaboration between Casalgrande and architect Kengo Kuma.

CCC-Wallis a work whose value is not limited to its significant intrinsic qualities, but includes the repercussions it has had in terms of research progress and the connection between project didactics and professional training.

The implementation of a multidisciplinary approach and its operational verification in terms of a “concrete” case determined a transition from the solution of purely technical-constructive problems to a broader system of relations, involving the levels of experimental research, new materials and building approaches, innovative didactic repercussions from the project, the relation between production and research at University level, the dialogue between corporate know-how and the project. Thanks to this work, research on “the matter” was absorbed by the “vision” of one of the most interesting modern architects, whose sensitivity in terms of the essence of materials and the environment worked a miracle: architecture as an object is “dissolved” to “become alive” through a sympathetic dialogue with the environment. In developing this complex network of relations, Kengo Kuma “builds” his personal dialogue with ceramics starting from the Japanese tradition: technical devices, traces left on the matter during the production process, the intrinsic nature of matter, its archaic nature are enhanced by aesthetic values.

Ceramic matter is an “absolute” and not complementary substance; its texture is not only physical, since it lives in time and space; it has thoughts since its is a thinking being; it influences us since it is the source of a poetic universe whose hidden thoughts are welcomed by Kuma. However, Kuma does not consider the imaginative act and the capacity to discover potentials beyond matter as an arbitrary action: rather, it is a structured action calling for full knowledge of the material and production processes. Insight presupposes the ability to “dominate matter”. Also in compliance with this principle, the effectiveness was affirmed of the collaboration between Kengo Kuma and a great ceramics manufacturer 

Materials generating shapes and geometry within nature are some of the themes used by Kuma to develop a sense of disorientation, temporal suspension, ambiguous perception, dissolving matter conveyed by CCC_Wall. The relation between the subject and the anti-object1 is not univocal but multi-faceted. Kuma “reverses the direction of vision”, conceives architectural space as a machine to “frame” portions of landscapes, inverts our mode of perception, exhibits a whole called “place”.

Masses dissolve, are fragmented, and matter conveys meanings that become involved in the “development of shapes”. Kuma cuts, joins, endlessly replicates a principle acting as a space-generating element. Unity is generated through repetition, a part and the whole are connected by necessity. The action of building becomes like narration, a discourse developed through polarity and “opposing pairs”: light/shade, opaque/transparent, massive/light, constant/inconstant, repetition/variation, high/low. 

Kuma “erases architecture” as an object to convey it as substance; however, we can never fully dominate that substance. When exhibited, matter is itself but also something different. Thanks to this suspension mechanism, the meaning of the work – through assonance and empathy – reverberates within us and expands the environment welcoming it. The technical and constructive device is a mirror magnifying the qualities of a place, and makes them resound inside us, leading to resonance.

The search for a “harmonic connection” with the location is also encouraged by the dialogue between matter and light, seen in its double nature as a natural and artificial element. In the CCC_Wall project, light “speaks” with the work and produces a system of dynamic shades magnifying the “constructive virtuosities” enhancing the presence of ceramic material. In this work, ceramics reaches an astonishing level of expressive intensity, a result made even more unexpected by resorting to standard ceramic elements: 1200x600x14 mm unglazed stoneware slabs.

Innovation does not lye in the material or its consolidated performance levels, but in the “unusual” logic according to which it is used. Kuma re-invents the material, giving it a new life; he frees it from the slave-like condition of surface-covering material – the outer layer of a sort of skin. Unglazed stoneware slabs are mutually supported and exhibited in their full essential beauty. An intelligible order and a rigorous geometry unveil a structural principle whose intrinsic mechanisms remain incomprehensible. The components and the whole establish a close relationship and are given a meaning only through their mutual relationship. This work has been a long and complex challenge in which University has played a linking role as a go-between connecting the project and production, free from the bias of those who unjustly consider University only focussed on self-referential research projects rarely dealing with concrete applications. In contrast, this work clearly shows how effective a “different” operational model can be. From the didactic and training viewpoints, it allowed to broaden one’s views by directly tackling the real problems of professional life: limits, money, procedures and schedules to complete the work. Within this process, Alfonso Acocella, Franco Manfredini – Casalgrande’s CEO – and I believe we have the merit of having seen the potential of interacting worlds (education, manufacturing, architecture) leading to mutual benefits. Casalgrande has had the merit of playing a socially and ethically valuable role: corporate promotion and the promotion of products of excellence was also an occasion to contribute to improve the quality of places undergoing a transition, by donating a valuable contemporary work to the city and giving the students the opportunity to become familiar with the project and architectural technologies. Casalgrande made a dream come true for many students: participating in, observing, understanding and studying the generative process of architecture and the tools governing it. We have operated from inside to move outside, we have reversed the mechanism that is often implemented for didactic purposes, in which a project in an ex-post experience. During their development, the building site and the project provided opportunities to gain didactic insight and unveiled the “phenomenon” from all viewpoints: that of the client, the designer, the structural engineer etc., until all the reasons leading to a balanced compromise and constantly converging rationales were clarified. 

A typically Anglo-Saxon managerial model was implemented, according to which the client is not a passive subject but an active player, who implements and exploits complex cognitive and managerial tools. The mediation and linking role played by the University allowed to arrange and guide the flow of actions and decisions towards shared objectives. Those objectives were clearly stated in a brief which was repeatedly discussed collectively in the presence of Kuma himself. When the project was in its initial stages, its potentials were explored and then assessed during the schematic design and – above all – design development stages. The latter was the most exciting stage, which was extended in time to experiment with innovative solutions, whereas consolidated, recurrent and readily available solutions were rejected.  

During every meeting, Kuma’s input revealed new stimulating opportunities. On those occasions, the team was required to exploit its listening and interpreting skills, resources, expertise, patience. Several 1:1 scale models were manufactured at Casalgrande Padana and the same happened also for knot solutions, element colours, light systems, etc. This was the approach we selected: on the one hand, very sophisticated instrumental verification systems  saw two teams of Italian and Japanese professionals constantly involved in a remote dialogue; on the other hand, the Casalgrande skilled workers and experts were constantly involved in the making of prototypes. Within this exchange process, everybody gave their contributions and acquired new knowledge. Industrial know-how was injected into the project and played an active role in the decision-making process. Handicraft skills were sublimated and the results confirm the effectiveness of the intuition and operating capacity of certain research sectors in the Academia. The difference was made by human beings, their characters, skills and experiences, who also contributed to avoid oversimplification, which inevitably tends to emerge when problems are dealt with.

This space of freedom is owed to all those who – thanks to their commitment and generosity – have dared to take a step further and reach this goal.

Luigi Alini

1 This inverted perspective is determined by the belief that when watched from outside, architecture resembles an object; matter, if separated from the environment and observed from a certain distance, looks inevitably like an object. When something is framed and observed, an object undeniably emerges, regardless of how chaotic the structure or transparent a material may be, and this happens because the frame inserts a distance between subject and object, and separates the object – which is selected and specified by the frame – from its context (see Kengo Kuma,Giardinaggio, versus architettura, in Luigi Alini, Kengo Kuma. Opere e progetti, Electa, Milan, 2005).

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