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Installation issues: the meaning of signs

by Alfredo Zappa

The first known rules of paving were those of the famous Roman opus techniques, such as incertum, quadratum, reticulatum, vittatum and testaceum. Far more than mere installation patterns, they combined creativity and rigour with technical skill to achieve outstanding aesthetics as well as consistent quality and durability. Prior to these techniques there was mosaic, which involved painstakingly placing small multicoloured pieces of glass, stone or terracotta to recreate figurative subjects or geometric patterns.

The word “mosaic” itself derives from Greek and can be translated as “patient work of the muses”. To find surfaces with geometric grid patterns, we need to go back in time by about 6000 years to the splendid pavings made by laying alternately black and white pebbles in the ancient Greek city of Olynthus in the Chalcidice region.
But “freedom would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices,” as philosopher Theodor Adorno said. And the evolution of paving designs over the years, from the classical period through to the age of “technical reproducibility”, can ultimately be traced back to this logic. Architects and installers have always measured their freedom through the possibilities they have been able to achieve through their skill and intelligence.
In the arts and architecture, actions and meanings are often bound up with the ability to fully exploit the opportunities offered by technology and materials. But major progress has often been made by pushing this relationship to the limits of transgression and learning from mistakes. As Giancarlo Livraghi has written, “Mistakes are not always stupid. When the lesson that is learned is more valuable than the damage caused by a mistake, the result belongs to the realms of intelligence.”
A case of intelligent transgression is that of the floor coverings in the late mediaeval basilicas created by the Magister Cosmatus, using geometric inventions drawn intuitively from experience in construction, generating complex geometric configurations by combining elementary shapes based on a limited vocabulary. These designs were in fact so intelligent that contemporary mathematicians have sought to decode their patterns through the use of algebra. The same applies to some of the floor coverings by architect Carlo Scarpa, most notably the apparent juxtaposition of shapes, materials and colours created for the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.
Floor covering designs have drawn from the work of these and many other great masters to create surfaces capable of conveying more than expressive meaning, using geometry to describe and narrate space, and ultimately to experiment with the possibility of breaking away from the rigid perception of a plane, alluding to three-dimensional shapes through the use of trompe-l’œil or camouflage techniques.

Aesthetic research has experienced exponential growth, fuelled by the ever wider range of products developed by the sector’s companies. Architects can exploit this new potential – combinations of different tile formats (standard or custom sizes and shapes), colour palettes, surface finishes (natural, polished, glazed, textured), and the dimensions and colours of the joints –to enhance the form, rhythm, composition, functional accents and values of their compositions.
Through the use of material, form, colour, geometry, modularity, symmetry, repetitiveness and patterns according to specific goals, ceramic floors are transformed into an elegant and undifferentiated space-time continuum, a kind of map for stirring emotions or suggesting the ways in which spaces can be used. They indicate routes (not just with colours, but also for example using relief elements to help the visually impaired), define spaces, steps and gradients, emphasise hierarchies and functions, identify specific areas, viewpoints and much more.
It is a kind of sign language in which the ceramic floor is transformed into something that refers to something else; a dimension in which tiles are the individual words, the rules of construction are the grammar, and the architect is the person responsible for transforming these words and grammar into literature.

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