Clay Culture: Rainbow Tower

1 Aerial view of the Torre Arcobaleno (Rainbow Tower) in Porta Garibaldi, Milan, Italy. The recently restored surface is covered in 100,000 ceramic tiles and the multi-colored Rainbow Tower anchors a new development zone in the city.

Pablo Picasso once said that colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions. A design and architecture firm in Milan has taken this to heart.

Milan’s Torre Arcobaleno, or Rainbow Tower, was once a drab gray concrete water tower in the Porta Garibaldi area of Milan, Italy. In 1990, as part of a larger revitalization project ahead of that year’s World Cup, the facade of the tower underwent a major overhaul led by Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network that took three months to complete. The 35-meter (115 ft.) tall tower has 1000-square meters (10,763 sq. ft.) of surface area. During the restoration process it was covered in 100,000 10×10 cm frost-resistant ceramic tiles produced by the Marazzi Group (an Italian tile manufacturer). The designers chose 14 different colors and three different surfaces (glossy, matte, and structured non-slip) to create a complex pattern and opted for smaller tiles because they would adapt more easily to use on the tower, which is both curved and concave. Along with the tiles, the team used black waterproof paint, made by Mapei, for the top section of the tower and the 24 vertical relief cement ribs that divide the surface of the tower. These black areas frame and cap off the design, and segment the patterns.

In the 25 years since the renovation, the once overlooked, industrial water tower has become a recognizable, dynamic symbol and point of reference in the city.

The color pattern on the tower’s surface was designed to both compliment the Monumental Cemetery—a nearby historic cultural site known for its tombs and mausoleums decorated with arches and columns in black-and-white horizontal stripes—and accentuate the verticality and hourglass shape of the tower while creating a sense of dynamic movement.

Restoration via Teamwork
After 25 years of exposure to the elements and attacks on the surface by acidic rain, smog, graffiti, and other pollution, the surface of the ceramic tiles started to dull, some tiles became loose or detached, and sections of the exposed concrete ribs were crumbling and needed to be repaired. For the restoration project that took place in 2015 in preparation for the Milan Design Expo, a team of companies worked together, much as they had on the original project in 1990.


2 Detail of the renovation, showing the raised vertical concrete ribs in black, and the tile patterning on the upper ¹⁄³ of the tower.

The work started in Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network’s offices (as coordinator, organizer, and designer), and involved five partner companies: Mapei (adhesives, sealants, and chemical products for building), the Marazzi Group (tile), Fila Solutions (cleaning solutions for the 1000 sq. m surface), Bazzea-B Construction Technology (cleaning, restoration and repair of the structure and tile), and Condor (external scaffolding), along with the municipality of Milan and the Italian railway. In total, over 100 people were involved in the restoration, with 37 on-site experts. All of the companies and architects involved donated their services and products and fully funded the project as a gift to the citizens of Milan, so there was no cost to the institutions or city.

The project took a total of 71 days from planning to completion, with 25 of those days dedicated to the physical on-site maintenance and restoration process. Bazzea-B managed the work site. After scaffolding was built, the team cleaned the surface using an acid descaler and a solution that removes graffiti, both of which were provided by Fila Solutions. They removed damaged tiles, prepared the surfaces for new tiles, and repaired and painted the vertical concrete ribs with Mapei products. The restoration team also covered the tower roof using a double waterproofing sheathing. Marazzi supplied the replacement tiles used by the team after the restoration to the structure and painting was completed. The tiles used came from the company’s Sistem C line, which is designed for architectural use, and were made from a dry-pressed, atomized porcelain or stoneware clay body (depending on the color). The company’s tiles are LEED certified because of the recycled materials used in their production. At the end, a protective coating that’s dirt- and graffiti-repellent, and forms an invisible barrier on the surface was applied to the tiles and the concrete areas to make future cleaning easier.


3 One of the 37 on-site experts removing damaged tile from the tower surface at the beginning of the restoration process.

A New Focal Point
Starting in 2016, the area of the city including the Rainbow Tower was named as the “New Area of Milan” and designated as the center for new architectural projects including several skyscrapers. The bright, restored tower fits into the high-energy pace of construction and development now underway in this section of the city.

Information on the redesign and restoration projects sourced from Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network press release. Information on Marazzi Group tiles sourced from www.marazzigroup.com.

4 Preparing the surface for new tile. 5 Setting replacement tile on the tower.

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Video courtesy of Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network. Videography by Stefano Scarpiello. http://www.torrearcobaleno.it/english/
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