La Polveriera gets a beautiful and practical makeover
Just outside the city centre of Reggio Emilia stands a complex of military depots built in the forties – the so-called Polveriera (munitions store). For fifty years it has been abandoned, an architectural eyesore in the heart of the city. But a recent project has healed this situation of degradation, and the buildings are now fully restored in green parkland, ready to house activities of all kinds. In particular, they include spaces for disabled users and offices where disadvantaged and vulnerable people will work. The project, which began in 2011 and was completed just a few months ago, was created by London-based architects Marcel Maurer with the idea of using beauty as an architectural element to remediate a significant urban area. The implementation of this concept was guided by attention to the genius loci and respect for the location’s history, which in practice meant leaving the structures themselves intact while rehabilitating and transforming their interiors. The project was also guided by consultation with local residents and the people who would one day live in and use the facility.
The cold rhetoric of the military architecture of the past has thus made way for a functional and yet playful minimalist style. It is a clear, luminous and often coloured structure fronted by a metaphysical portico and characterised by gable roofs, wooden ceilings, large windows and skylights and evocative rows of arches. It also has meeting spaces, restaurants and cafés, and last but not least a charity shop. Surprisingly, the most difficult part of the project, according to the architects, were the toilets and bathrooms, areas in which style is usually subordinate to the demands of function and use. This is particularly true of bathrooms for the disabled. The project aimed to produce the opposite effect, to eliminate the perception of disability as opposed to « normality », achieving a pleasing aesthetic with « beautiful, normal sanitary ware and furnishings installed in observance of legally prescribed clearances and heights, to make them equally practical for all users », regardless of their mobility.
The choice of ceramic coverings made a key contribution to achieving this goal while maintaining the simple, rigorous and yet elegant and relaxed industrial style characteristic of the entire complex. The designers chose to use Marazzi’s vaguely brutalist cement effect Chalk collection in the Smoke, Avio and Sand colours, with the Fiber and Brick textures. On the walls, the panels were applied in a horizontal pattern, to give a greater sense of depth and order to the rather small rooms – an effect which is enhanced by the chiaroscuro effect of the panels’ 3D texturing. The scene is rounded out by the refined covering of the squared off volume which acts as a backdrop to the sanitary fixture. Chalk mosaic tiles were used for the purpose, in the same colours as the wall tiles.