Tiles for Miles

TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Brian Dust, unless otherwise noted

CERSAIE, the international exhibition of ceramic tile and bathroom furnishings, takes place every autumn in Bologna, a northern Italian city filled with sensory delights, where sights, smells and tastes arouse the most jaded of travellers. Architecturally, the city is striking: from above, the red roofs of the buildings form a monochromatically rosy textured surface; from the street, the grand arcades in the historic city centre shelter pedestrians from the blazing sun. And in the crowded shop windows of the food purveyors in the Quadilatero district off Piazza Maggiore, the mind-boggling array of produce, pasta, seafood and cured meats astounds: vying for your attention are alarmingly giant legs of prosciutto and bound and bulging mortadellas the size of toddlers.

This richly historic city draws a number of massive trade shows year-round, as its exhibition venue in the Fiera district is one of the largest in Europe. CERSAIE 2009 kicked off its five-day run on September 26, and despite recessionary times, it was a sold-out event that featured over 1,000 exhibitors and 83,137 visitors from Italy and abroad. Given the economic woes of the past year, the theme of “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”–borrowed from Heidegger’s seminal essay–encouraged reflection on issues beyond commerce to larger existential themes.

Located just a few kilometres from the city centre, the Bologna Fiere venue is visible from some distance–Kenzo Tange’s adjacent six-tower office structure (1989-1994) serves as a landmark. The space devoted to CERSAIE is vast–1.9 million square feet, most of it devoted to ceramic tile, and the rest showcasing the latest in slick bathroom furnishings. The sheer volume of tile on display is inconceivable to most: there are tiles that look like tiles, and then there are tiles made to look like wood, like stone, like wallpaper, like wainscoting, like fabric, like anything. They amaze with limitless textures, colours, geometric patterns, floral motifs, iridescent and matte finishes and everything in between.

The design and production of ceramic tile is a vital industry in Italy. CERSAIE is clearly a show geared to buyers; a whole lot of business is being conducted at the tables located at the back of every exhibition booth. And even within the contextless environment of the immense, airless exhibition halls, there is a clear reminder that one is still in this most fashionable city of Bologna: how do the armies of impeccably tailored suits maintain the razor-sharp creases in their chic, narrowly cut wool trousers despite the wilting heat?

What does become quickly evident is the tradition, craft, expertise and pride in the Italian design industry, a sensibility that is understandably not as developed in Canada. With a centuries-old culture of extensive artisanal production, it’s hard to compete.

The bounty of Bologna’s rich history was shared with visitors and participants through a number of events that were held in architecturally significant buildings around the city. The Arena del Sole, a grand Neoclassical structure on via Indipendenza, the city centre’s main thoroughfare, was the venue of choice for an international press conference featuring representatives from the Italian Trade Commission, Confindustria Ceramica and Mapei. Immediately following, a gala awards dinner was held at the spectacular Basilica di Santo Stefano, whose origins are thought to date back as far as the 5th century. This complex of religious buildings includes four linked Romanesque churches along with a medieval cloister and various courtyards and accessory spaces. With dramatic blue uplighting clearly articulating the Basilica’s striking architectural detail against a clear and cloudless night sky, it could easily have functioned as the set of a Fellini film.

As if this were not inspiration enough, one memorable highlight of CERSAIE was the keynote lecture delivered by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano. From a vast body of work in virtually every part of the world, notable projects include the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1977) designed with Richard Rogers, Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan (1987-1990), and the recently completed Art Institute of Chicago expansion (2009).

Rather startling was the anticipation preceding the event, a fever pitch that is usually reserved only for rock stars. Hordes of eager fans queued outside the Palazzo dei Congressi hours before Piano’s scheduled appearance, and ultimately, dozens were turned away at the door, despite the abundant overflow crowds that gathered in the expansive lobby of the venue hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the revered architect on a televised screen.

The impossibly elegant and articulate Piano took the stage and transfixed the audience with a highly compelling presentation entitled “Creating Architecture.” Augmenting his lecture with an impressive selection of slides, Piano emphasized the importance of site and context as the essence of each project, and that craftsmanship is as important as science in building–hence, his emphasis on model-making as a critical part of the design process. His participation in this year’s CERSAIE introduced a three-year (2009-2011) joint venture between Confindustria (the Italian employers’ federation) and the Renzo Piano Foundation, an initiative which admits 16 young architecture students for six-month work-experience programs in Piano’s Genoa and Paris offices.

Piano was not the only design superstar in attendance at CERSAIE: Milan-based Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola introduced a line of ceramic tile for Mutina, just one example of the increasing number of high-profile designer/manufacturer collaborations taking place. Trained as an architect in her native Spain, Urquiola is best known for her interiors and furnishings. At the show, she unveiled “Dchirer,”a collection of large, unglazed porcelain stoneware tiles, the surfaces of which are embossed with a delicate, almost lacey texture, creating evocative patterns of light and shadow. Cut into hexagonal shapes, the ceramic tiles also function as tops in Urquiola’s “Bugs”collection of tables for Mutina’s interior design collection.

In keeping with the existential nature of the show’s theme, the future of building and our planet was addressed through a dominant focus on sustainable solutions and energy-saving technologies. A major feature of CERSAIE was an outdoor exhibition entitled Green Street: Landscape Meets Architecture, in which ceramic tiles were utilized extensively to demonstrate how the use of ceramic, a product made from natural raw materials, minimizes environmental impact. A plethora of seminars were offered that furthered the sustainability objective, covering topics such as energy remediation for existing buildings, and the role of ceramic tiles in the energy/environmental certification of buildings.

The mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle has been adopted by virtually every tile manufacturer at CERSAIE. A real commitment to sustainability is evidenced through the reduction of material in the form of thinner tiles which can still withstand high traffic, the use of recycled materials such as glass and electronic appliance waste to make new tiles, and the reuse of wastewater derived from the production of ceramic tile.

CERSAIE proved that despite global economic setbacks, the ceramic tile industry is thriving. This recent showcase of beautiful product in a beautiful city reminds us that it is now more important than ever to educate ourselves and to keep abreast of new developments in the international design community and in the materials we spec to ensure we fulfill our commitment to a healthy and sustainable future. CA