It was 1994 and there had been a major flood in Piedmont: the River Tanaro had overflowed, devastating the area between Alba, Asti and Alessandria. On the news I saw images and films of landscapes covered in water, flooding, inundated farmhouses and the tearful faces of people who had lost everything. It hit me hard, not just because of the drama itself, but because everything was incredibly familiar: at times it looked like the videos had been shot around Gonzaga near where I grew up.
It was a Friday: that day I was going to return home for the weekend as I always had done since I started studying architecture in Florence; this time, however (maybe because I wasn’t all that keen on studying), without even thinking much about it, I thought “I'm going”. As soon as I got home I met my father and I enthusiastically said to him “I'm going to Piedmont”.
“And what exactly are you going to do there?” he replied.
However I knew what he was like, and that his scepticism was just a facade, he’d always been a great idealist and in my place he would have gone too. In fact, shortly after, he gave me a new shovel and said goodbye. While I was waiting at the station for the train to Asti, someone I knew from town came up to me.
“Where are you going with that shovel?” he sneered. “To Piedmont, to shovel mud ...”.
He looked at me with the same pitiful and scathing expression that you do with someone who has too much free time. To tell the truth, I met with the same expression on the face of a member of the local rescue committee, who was sitting on a bench at a table when I arrived.
“Good morning”. “Good morning”.
“I'm here to help, to shovel some mud”. “Ah O.K., and who are you with?”.
“And where are you staying?”
(I hadn't thought about it, I didn't even have a sleeping bag ...) “Eh, well, I don't really have anywhere to stay ...”. And there was that expression again, as if to say “Oh come on, go home, what are you doing here ...”. Fortunately, there was another committee member sitting at the same table and as he could see I’d come on the spur of the moment, he said “Okay: tonight come and stay at my house, then we’ll see. And now, let’s get shovelling ”.
So, I joined a rescue team tasked with cleaning up a nearby farmhouse where we were busy all day. The next day, however, they sent us to work in a five-star city centre hotel whose underground garages were all completely under water. As I worked, I looked at all the stranded cars, all of them powerful luxury models, and little by little a thought materialized. “Those will be insured for everything, and the owners probably don't know or care that I'm down here shovelling”.
I would have liked to do something useful for those people I had seen in tears on television, but instead I was down there among rows of BMWs and Mercedes stuck in the mud, and slowly coming to terms with the fact that the image of only helping people in trouble had been completely idealized, the unrealistic result of my need to make myself useful.
However, while I was down in that garage, I noticed something else. The earth that had got into everything didn’t have the usual reddish-brown colour of the typical Piedmontese clays; rather it was a homogeneous and almost hypnotic grey-green. This local clay, also known as illite, owed its particular colour to its composition of mostly decomposed vegetable sediments and essential minerals such as silica, aluminium, potassium and iron oxides. Using the same earth today, we have created a collection of finishes with a raw material that comes from Felizzano in Alessandria.
The first time I went to see the quarry, the owner (a genuine old-time digger who looked as if he had come directly from the nineteenth century) told me that his clay was also used for cosmetic treatments in beauty centres. It was in fact a “ventilated” variant, with a finer grain than that of the common grey-green or green clay and this characteristic meant that it adhered better to the skin. In addition, he told me that his clay was also used by a local riding school to make healing compresses for the legs of injured horses.
The cosmetic or therapeutic application of clay is based on completely different properties compared to the more significant ones for which it used in construction and because of that, until then I hadn’t really thought too much about those particular material qualities. Thus it was that in the following months, I spent a lot of time finding out more on the subject, even going so far as to attend various specialist trade shows in person.
I remember that at one of these in Bologna, I had the opportunity to talk to a doctor who was presenting a treatment method based on a grey-green clay practically identical to the one we had adopted, and the only significant difference between the basic compounds was simply that the one intended for cosmetics was sterilized by a very simple steam process. So I congratulated him, pointing out that he had managed to maximize the value of the raw material by adopting a sale price equal to exactly one hundred times what we were proposing.
Over time, I realized that the world of cosmetics could have very broad implications for the architectural interpretation of clay and in fact, in its original linguistic root, cosmetics must be related to the cosmos in the sense of a protective “filter” against the sun's rays, but also as a “mask”. In ancient times, it was used to reproduce the physiognomies of celestial deities in Egypt, Greece, Rome while Aborigines in Australia still do the same today. Spanning centuries and cultures while becoming ever more refined and rarefied, that symbolic interface remains very much alive and present, even in two very different worlds.
But, I then wondered, what really happens to the “cosmetic” essence of clay once it is spread on the “skin” of architecture? Can it maintain at least some of the qualities that are recognized in other contexts? Now I come to think of it, when I went to shovel mud in Piedmont, the clay had undergone a transformation for me too, since I had looked at it in a completely different way, at least for a few days. The substance that had invaded every surface so aggressively had nothing cosmetic, much less curative about it: quite the opposite in fact.
And yet, the image of that clay spreading its grey-green colour everywhere, like a river in full flood, remained fixed in my mind with astonishing clarity. It was the same colour of the Felizzano clay, and the finish that several years later, we would go on to call “Fango” with a capital “F”. All in all, in this case it had been a little cosmetic, and even a little curative.