Like Moby Dick | by Alessandra Coppa
Visitors to the Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia website are greeted by a picture of a whale and a quotation from Moby Dick. Why did you choose this logo? And when describing the project for the new BNL-BNP Paribas headquarters in Rome, for which you designed a beautiful Snake ceramic element, you made the following comment: “The idea was to create a wave with variable geometry that would change in colour according to the shifting light of the Rome sky and to bring light into the belly of the whale at a depth of more than 35 metres.”
The Whale represents various characteristics of our firm: it stands for contrast, as a mammal that lives in the sea, remains silent in the depths and only emerges when appropriate or necessary. It reflects our approach to architecture, silently plumbing the depths and then emerging only when we really have something to say.
The theme of the belly of the whale embodies a multitude of images, thoughts, sounds and vibes, as well as symbolising our own personal challenge of never giving up.
The relationship with the intimacy of thought is evident for example in the BNL/BNP headquarters building in Rome, where ceramic tiles interact with the transparency of the envelope in an interplay of reflections that continually change perception and carry light down to a depth of fifty metres.
And at the Dallara Motorsport Academy in Varano De’ Melegari, near Parma, the diamond tiles used to clad the chimney-shaped elements incorporated into the centre of the structure are visible from every point in the building, generating secret and mysterious plays of light.
In your projects, it is clear that you treat ceramic material in a complex and symbolic way, not just aesthetically but as if it were the “grammar” of a narrative design language. Could you give us some examples of how you compose these stories, such as when you created the window frames in Asnières-sur-Seine using tiles from Casalgrande Padana, where the essence of the project is to reaffirm the storytelling role of decoration through the use of ceramic tiles and ornaments represented by six angels?
When working with ceramic, as with any other material, our aim isn’t to create a disposable customised product but to collaborate with companies, the material and our clients so as to innovate and adapt off-the-shelf products.
With this approach, we analyse the project critically and if we are unable to find an element that fits in adequately with the architectural aesthetic and the other essential parameters, we carry out dedicated research and the project becomes an opportunity to create a new product, or rather a new way of conceiving the material.
We adopted this approach for the window frames in Les Jardins de Gabriel residences in Asnières-sur-Seine, in collaboration with Danilo Trogu and Casalgrande Padana. The result was a unique product in terms of its artistic and architectural expression, developed together with a company that has attained a high level of technological craftsmanship. The window frames draw the observer in, while the intimate nature of the windows transforms them from a separating element into a gateway to the sky. In the Les Docks project, ceramic is both the narrative element and the guiding theme of the project. Together with Danilo Trogu, we developed a “Mediterranean bestiary” which graces the Docks.
What do you mean by “thinking in terms of ceramic material”?
Research into ceramic is a specific part of our design process that we have developed and fine-tuned over the years. Through its interplay with light and the context, ceramic is able to tell the story of a building. By reappropriating its value as a material, it promotes the poetic and narrative approach of “thinking in terms of materials”.
For each project we examine how the material can express the architectural idea in relation to the place and its history, time and function and contribute to the environmental and economic sustainability of the project.
Inspired by this concept, we built a residential neighbourhood in Romainville in the Paris suburbs.
Each façade has its own specific characteristics and recounts different aspects of the project. The north-facing façade opening onto the main area has a bronze-coloured diamond tile cladding that reflects the light and the Paris sky. Towards the west, a walkway accessible to residents leads through the trees in front of a façade lined with cantilevered balconies protected by a vertical wooden screen. The opposite east-facing façade looking out towards the green hills has a more compact front that accommodates a series of loggias. The main entrance is located on the south side and leads to the entrance hall, a large multifunctional glazed space.
What is the role of ornamentation in reaffirming urban identity, particularly in your Milanese projects such as IULM6 (an organic volume clad with Diamante Boa tiles), Living in the blue in Lambrate (in porcelain tiles) and the forthcoming Milano 3.0 project where the façade will have a modern three-dimensional look integrated into the existing context?
Rather than focusing on the role of ornamentation, we prefer to determine how the material can narrate the project or some of its parts.
The material is the descriptive component and becomes, variously, the counterpoint to or the highlight of the architectural volume as a whole.
The residences in Lambrate, Milan are an example of a generous and responsible social housing project that aims to give a new identity to living spaces where the blue ceramic tiles are a bright, luxurious presence that contrasts with the railings and the plastered surface in a harmonious blend of materials and colours.
In the IULM building, iridescent green ceramic tiles clad the volume of the large auditorium in a counterpoint to its dimensions.
In the Milano 3.0 development, currently under construction, the aim is to create unexpected views, fragmenting the visual line of sight through shifts in planimetry. The choice of combining the façade cladding with portions of diamond tiles helps to emphasise the dialogue between the new buildings and those of the existing volume, creating a striking sense of movement. The ceramic tiles change their appearance throughout the day and the seasons and contribute to the interaction between the buildings, the location and the people who live there, creating a landscape within a landscape.
The pandemic revealed weaknesses and inadequacies in terms of space, locations and functions, with schools, homes and communal spaces all failing to perform effectively. How can ceramic materials fulfil these needs?
We are emerging from a historical period during which we have been strongly focused on individual actions and processes. I hope that we are now at the beginning of a phase in which the ethical values of society will sustain individuals as part of the community.
It is not just a question of a paradigm shift but of developing a different model of cultural infrastructure, which from the perspective of architectural design means making choices that are focused on the well-being of both individuals and the community as a whole. This is a process that cannot be taken for granted because it involves restoring the social and political role of architecture that has been lost in recent years. We need to return to the idea that every project must be of public value.
I have been carrying out research into ceramics for more than twenty years, exploring the material, studying regulations and rules and developing innovative ideas. While this initially involved artistic and artisanal architectural experimentation, it had an industrial purpose that would be of benefit to everyone.
Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia is an international architecture firm based in Genoa, Milan and Paris. The experience gained in more than 25 years of design activity, developed on all scales of intervention, is reflected in an in-depth approach to the most sensitive issues of the city and the local area.
The founder of the atelier(s) is Alfonso Femia. in 1995, he created and cofounded 5+1, which in 2005 was transformed into 5+1AA, then in 2017 changed its name to Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia.
Recent projects include the new Vimar headquarters in Marostica, the Dallara Academy in Parma, the new headquarters of the BNL-BNP Paribas Group in Rome, Les Docks de Marseille, The Corner in Milan and a social housing complex in Milan.
In 2020-2021 he won competitions in Italy for the redevelopment and restoration of the first Italian State Mint in Rome, the Porto Corsini terminal in Ravenna, the Cittadella della Cultura in Messina, the Porto Marghera Venezia terminal and Salerno airport, and internationally for the university campuses in Annecy and Avignon in France.