To dream in brighter colours

This article first appeared in Vault Magazine, print issue 14, May 2016. Image courtesy of Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network.

Cities are often defined by their landmarks. Milan’s famed Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, is an enduring symbol of its rich history, however, it is the city’s newer monuments such as the Rainbow Tower (La Torre Arcobaleno) that symbolise the Milan of today.

Taking its name from the 100,000 coloured ceramic tiles that adorn it, the Rainbow Tower is a striking structure that began life as an old water reserve built in 1964 on the grounds of Milan’s busy Porta Garibaldi railway station. It was revitalised in 1990 as part of an urban renewal initiative that was the result of Italy hosting the FIFA World Cup. But in 2015, the Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network — an acclaimed Milanese design firm whose members include Francesco Roggero, Albino Pozzi, Rita Alfano Roggero and Kiyoto Ishimoto — started a new chapter in the building’s life. The collective restored the 35-metre high tower in time for the Expo Milano 2015, a global event dedicated to sustainability and technology, held in the design capital later that year.

“The Torre Arcobaleno [the Rainbow Tower] is a project which aims to encourage […] the process of perception which emerges when art meets everyday life and in an urban context,” explains Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network’s Francesco Roggero, adding that the restoration was part of Wonderline, a research initiative dedicated to conceiving art, design and architecture projects that embrace the Picasso manifesto: “Colours, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.” “For the occasion of Expo 2015, we decided to restore the Rainbow Tower to treat visitors travelling from all over the world to our city and involved the same group who created the tower with us in 1990. We played with the [tower’s] vertical [nature] and colour tonalities to create a sense of movement and make the most of its peculiar shape.”

The Rainbow Tower took three months in total to create in 1990. Its meticulous restoration — which included repairs, restoring surfaces and replacing and cleaning ceramic modules — in 2015 took 71 days. It was also truly collaborative and involved the coming together of Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network; heritage Italian ceramic tile company Marazzi; building adhesive and chemicals company Mapei; surface care and treatment company Fila; construction technologies company Bazzea; and construction building equipment company Condor, alongside the Comune di Milano [Municipality of Milan] and Italian Railways. Each company’s contribution, both during the initial works and the restoration of the project, were donated as gifts to the people of Milan.

The tower, a circular structure with an hourglass shape, concave walls and surface area of 1,000 square metres, lays claim to a unique shape and size and its metamorphosis took significant planning. And its exterior, which is divided into 22 vertical sides, bisected by 22 relief cement curves and was damaged by smog, rust and graffiti, also required significant restoration work before the 100,000 coloured 10x10cm ceramic Marazzi tiles were installed.

“Because of the building’s central position, close to railways and busy streets, the surfaces had been affected by smog and atmospheric agents,” Roggero explains. “To add to this, the iron structures inside the tower have pushed out the ceramic tiles and broken some relief curbs. Bazzea, the constructor, carefully restored the surfaces before replacing the ceramic modules and covering up the missing parts and imperfections.”

Rogerro also says that the group maintained its original focus on striking a balance between the Rainbow Tower and the nearby Cimitero Monumentale [The Monumental Cemetery] — a nearby architectural icon designed by Carlo Maciachini in 1866.

“We first observed and studied the nearby Cimitero Monumentale [the Monumental Cemetery] an important and historic site of Milan in 1990,” Roggero says. “The Cimitero Monumentale is covered in black and white horizontal stripes. In order to create harmony between the Torre Arcobaleno and the historic Monumental Cemetery, we included horizontal white and black stripes in our project for the Tower. We then added other 12 colours and, in order to obtain a rainbow, we finally completed it to count 14 colours. Then we added plots and lines with vertical colours to give the tower volume and create movement.”

The area’s transformation occurred under the Porta Nuova Project — a vast urban and architectural requalification development designed to link Milan’s Porta Nuova (including the former Varesine area), Porta Garibaldi (which includes Porta Garibaldi railway station) and the Isola district — which has changed the area into a lively urban hub.

“In 2016 this area became the new area of Milan, the heart of new architecture projects including skyscrapers such as the Bosco Verticale [a duo of architecturally striking residential towers, also known as the Vertical Forest] and Piazza Gae Aulenti [a new futuristic public square],” says Roggero of the dramatic changes to the area surrounding the Rainbow Tower.

Rogerro adds that a second project, Passaggio Nord Est, which revolved around the Milan railway underpass between Viale Forlanini and the Linate Airport, was also a major focus for Wonderline in 1990.

“1990 was the end of the revolutionary movements that defined the sixties, seventies and eighties — decades that gave rise to the Milanese student movements, hippie fashion, industrial design and the first forms of futuristic architecture,” he explains. “Both projects had the aim to recolour an area of Milan in order to bring creativity and life to artefacts, which were grey and degraded, to stimulate both the world of art and emotions.”

The group has since explored their Wonderline manifesto in exhibitions at Milan’s Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo Da Vinci and Spazio Krizia, with new recolouring projects set to take place in the near future, both in Milan and other countries around the world.

But for now, the Rainbow Tower is a colourful symbol of Milan’s evolution. “The Torre Arcobaleno is a reminder of Milan’s renewal at the start of the new millennium and the dynamism of our people and craftsmen,” he explains. “Its design and colour [represents the city’s] new life.”

Interview responses were translated from the Italian by Selene Polli and have been condensed and edited for clarity.