Monday, November 29, 2010

The Tinker Toys of Holzbau Sud

I, like many of you, have a workshop. Mine takes up a portion of my garage. Years ago, when our boys were young teens, there was a Christmas morning when a lot of noise erupted from downstairs. When I moved to investigate, Maria Elena advised that I stay in bed. Turns out it wasn't Santa on his rounds and she knew it. Apparently, surprise-making for dad was in the making down there, for this was the morning that Chris and Eric lugged a radial arm saw over to our home from its hiding place next door. The clatter was from their struggle to negotiate the cumbersome thing through the garage and on into the house. Boy were they proud at getting it done. Needless to say, it didn't fit under the tree. After all these intervening years, I still use that saw. Telling from the tools I've accumulated here and there over the years, like the Christmas present of the radial arm saw, I'd say my shop is now well equipped for woodworking.

As a young child, I recall playing with my wooden Tinker Toy set. It was a fabulous creative toy, which today is in the rarified pantheon of classic American toys. Unscrew the tin cover from the cardboard storage cylinder and you were rewarded with a tube filled with pencil-like dowels and wheel-like sprockets used to interconnect the dowels. In those days, none of the pieces were made of plastic and there wasn't a "Made in China" stamped anywhere! I could 'tinker' with three dimensional shapes and structures to my heart's content. As time went on, I eventually graduated from toys to real tools for the actual construction of wood projects based on the simple principles developed from my hours of play on the living room floor. Using my tools, which have moved along with us from workshop home to workshop home, I've made, built and repaired plenty of things. They range from simple glue repairs to much larger projects such as the construction of multiple decks, a couple of gazebos, a finished basement and even a pergola over our bricked patio. You might think we've moved around some and you'd be right. After a while you are knighted with the honorarium of "handy" by your wife when the topic comes up with friends. What I've been able to accomplish with my sweet set-up, however, is nothing in comparison to the large scale, and I do mean large scale, kind of woodworking I observed recently in Calitri.

From high up in Calitri's Piazza della Repubblica you get a great view of the valley far below. Down there, close to the highway running alongside the historic Ofanto River, are a hand-full of light industries. One in particular is Holzbau Sud, a subsidiary of the Rubner Group, which focuses on wood products for, as they like to say, "a healthy and pleasant world to live in tomorrow". The Group is headquartered in the northern Italian town of Chienes, near the Austrian border. Here, building conventions are steeped in the construction traditions of Italy's Trentino-Alto Adige Region, where timber, a local building material, is king. The group is vertically integrated within the wood industry with assets anchored in the timber forests of Austria all the way to tailored, turn-key building projects manufactured at distributed assets across Europe such as Holzbau Sud. In Calitri, they specialize in the pre-manufacture of technically ambitious, load-bearing structures. With their ample supply of wood, Holzbau custom structures are designed to cover expansive open spaces, as for instance the kind you might find in a mall, cathedral, theater or sports auditorium throughout southern Italy and beyond to include Sicily, Turkey, even the Middle East. Operating from Calitri since 1991, they are essentially active throughout the Mediterranean.

My introduction to the Calitri plant occurred, as you might guess, while I was in Mario's Caffe. You may well wonder, doesn't this guy ever stay home? Well, yes I do but in the morning I like to get out early, while Maria Elena is still asleep. I direct my feet toward Mario's for a few hours just about every day. One of many other morning regulars is Giuseppe Pasqualicchio. He's like clockwork. Giuseppe arrives for his coffee while I'm well into my second cappuccino and about halfway through the morning giornale (newspaper) attempting to decipher what's going on in the world, along of course with much help from Mario. Over my many visits, I've gradually gotten to know the ever smiling Giuseppe. He is, I'd estimate, in his thirties and though never having been formally introduced, I know he is married and has a young child. My wife says I wouldn't make a good detective but I uncovered this fact during the Italian ritual of la passieggiata (the evening stroll), where new and old romances as well as spiffy shoes and shoulder swathed sweaters are on review. It was on one such occasion that I saw him and his wife behind a stroller. He enjoys practicing his English on me, explaining things, and I reciprocate with conversation and more questions. Curious as I am, I once asked him where he ran off to each day after his espresso by asking him, Cosa fai per vivere? (What do you do for a living?). It was then that, neo-sleuth that I am, I learned that he, along with about 50 other Calitri brethren, worked at Holzbau Sud. I knew nothing about the place and even had a time pronouncing it.

It was only a day or two later that Giuseppe presented me with a professionally prepared brochure about his place of employment. The colored booklet was impressive and like any other red-blooded tourist with a camera perpetually slung around his neck, I asked if there was some way I might visit. Not many mornings later, following our coffees together in Mario's, I trailed him down the mountain to the plant. He had arranged my visit with Giorgio, the chief engineer, who met me at the entrance to the yard. The site consisted of a technical and engineering office augmented by two large construction sheds each approaching a football field in length. Between the two lay a supply of spruce and silver fir shipped in from Austria.

Giorgio, who spoke excellent English, showed me around the operation for a time and then excused himself, leaving me on my own while he checked on the status of a large shipment headed to a customer in Sicily that morning. Time was apparently getting short as the flatbed trucks had already arrived. The projects underway, to say the least, were sizable and I'm not referring to how large an order may have been. It is more on the order of the 'Colossus of Rhodes' sizable that I'm referring to. I don't know what I may have eaten or drank at Mario's that morning but in Alice in Wonderland like fashion I’d apparently become small. I had the feeling I'd shrunk due to the gigantic size of the tools and the suspension beams being made around me (see photo album). Their forte is the design and construction of load bearing structures using glued laminated beams, which they refer to as "glulams" (glued laminates) and they were dead serious.

Before I continue to describe my visit, however, I must first lay some psychological groundwork as to the worker's reaction to my visit. Have you ever driven down a highway, along with your fellow motorists, only to see the sudden appearance of a fast moving parallel column of red taillights coming straight at you? Yes, everyone has abruptly altered their driving behavior, hitting their brakes (even when well below the speed limit) and now it's your turn. More often than not, the cause is the intimidating presence of a highway patrol car sitting alongside the road or possibly already busy with someone he's recently detained as in "license and registration please". There's a technical name for this type of phenomenon, which my bookish readers with Psychology 101 behind them will know as the Heisenberg Effect. This effect is nothing more than the simple observation that the very act of becoming a player changes the nature of the game being played! Whether it be the case of the appearance of a new player like a highway patrolman among a group of motorists or my presence at Holzbau Sud, where, by my mere act of observing, I altered the behaviors of the workmen I was observing. Uncertainty, fear, a lack of information, a desire to please, a sudden change from the norm, any of these can trigger it. Apparently now, trigger-happy with my camera for purposes unknown, I'd assumed the antagonist's role of the highway patrol cop!

The entirety of one building was surprisingly occupied by just two men. Together they were working to attach metal flanges to either end of massive curved laminates, apparently major supports of some enormous roof. They worked in silence, without apparent need to communicate, as if so well choreographed from endless repetition of the same procedure that words were superfluous, only getting in the way. But I suspected there would have been animated dialog between the two, as only Italians can perform, absent my being there. The workmen remained silent with no reaction to my presence. Apparently, I was the cat that got their tongues! It was as if I was invisible, though I knew they were watching my every move and click of my camera! Who could blame them? My first appearance, alongside Giorgio, must have passed along some inconspicuous signal giving me a modicum of officialdom, or at the least by their count, official sanction. Later this may have been reinforced when they again saw me while I observed on my own. For my part as a "player" in the drama, I did not interfere with what they were about nor did I ask them any questions. Though no doubt some of the workmen may have recognized me from Calitri, my very presence and lack of engagement, though with all good intention, may have only added to their anxiety. I could almost hear their synapses firing, as in their nervousness they attempted to calculate the meaning of my incursion into their colossal tinker-toy domain. While their thoughts were going round and round, only Giuseppe, who knew all, was relaxed enough to smile and wave to me when I passed his work area.

The adjacent building hummed with the activities of far more workmen, though here again they were equally humanly silent. It was here that I hesitated as giant gigs bent freshly glued planks into requisite shapes, holding them fast until dry. There were also wood shaping machines, which could join two planks, end-to-end, transforming short boards into continuous 'you-name-it' length beams. It was fascinating, at least to a woodworker like myself, to watch as they cut matching finger joints into the ends, added the glue and then jammed them together, all automatically. It was as though a hundred of my manual type biscuit joints materialized within seconds. The other end of the building hosted near completed supports, some of which extended outside due to their length. An army of workers literally clambered over, across and under these giants, like ants, adding finishing touches. Some teams planed the surfaces smooth, others filled imperfections, cut slots or marched atop their lengths staining the behemoths using roller brushes on poles. It was amazing to see how easily they maneuvered these monsters by expertly using a hoist and a single strap positioned at the precise balancing point (photo above). Suspended in the air, they would flex and sway on either side of the support strap like the wings of some enormous phantom beast. As heavy as I suspected each of the members was, once lowered, incredibly only a few metal saw horses were all that separated them from the floor. To my surprise, I also don’t recall seeing any helmets, goggles or other safety type devises being used. Thinking back, as a child, I'd ridden my bike like a madman all without the protection of a helmet. By today's mores how could I possibly have done that, let alone survived? Could their shoes have been steel toed? I doubted it.

Toward the very end of my explorations in Holzbau tinker-toy land, I found myself close to the exit beside a cluttered workbench. It was here that I snapped my very last picture. The subject of this photo had nothing to do with what was going on in that particular part of the plant but when I composed and snapped the shot, it was the only time during my entire visit that I got any reaction whatsoever from the workmen. Almost in unison and no matter where they were in this massive staging area, theirs was a resounding cheer! And their cheer wasn’t because I was nearing the door, signaling my intention to leave either. They were reacting to what I’d decided to photograph and telling by their reaction, signaling that they approved. Their reaction only went to support my contention that they had been discretely watching my every move. My photo subject was of something common to many workspaces of one form or another, large or small. Universal as it is, it has more to do with male sexuality than what the particular work activity might be. Be it a greasy auto mechanic’s lair, a chatty barbershop, a hole-in-the-wall cafe or even a home workshop like mine, might I propose, like it or not, that the annual pin-up calendar is a common accouterment! My subject was akin to the artful female silhouettes painted on the sides of WWII bombers and just as then, served as a reminder of what they were fighting for or in this case, working for. Telling as it was, this tattered, dog-eared ‘Holzbau Madonna’ had seen better days. No Vargas girl, she now sported a mustache along with other graffiti touch-ups here and there. In a vague way, it was reminiscent of the many street shrines seen throughout Italy, although here, the naked, ribald nature of this Madonna spoke to another interpretation of veneration. With that, I can say I’d now literally seen it all!

Outside, I could look up and see sunlit Calitri cascading down the side of the mountain-like bluff toward me. From high atop its perch, it had witnessed the cavalcade of mankind pass by from the footfalls of Roman legionaries on to this day where a legion of workers busied themselves loading flatbed trailers. As throughout the Mediterranean basin the ancient initialism “SPQR” (Senatus Populusque Romanus) meaning “The Senate and People of Rome" emblazoning everything Roman from coins to the feared standards of the mighty Roman legions, today’s shipment of immense gracefully bowed roof supports marked “Made in Calitri” would send a new message.

In the end, all we have are memories, sometimes mere faded memories of memories. I was fortunate to have formed a unique memory that day, one that I know will last, thanks to the largess of both my coffee mate Giuseppe and Holzbau Sud's head-man, Giorgio. It's a long way from my comparatively tiny workshop in the States to Holzbau's glulam headquarters in Calitri. Even further apart are the gradations of difference in the scale of woodworking undertaken at the two. In comparison, mine is and will forever remain at the tinker-toy level and in a space not much bigger than the living room rug where it all began. I'm glad for that. The nub of the thing is that by visiting Holzbau Sud I’d gotten a glimpse at the bright side of progress, surprisingly located of all places, right there in the shadows of enchanting Calitri, a place equally surprisingly defined, not by some throwback to its limitations, but by its potential.

That Rouge Tourist, Paolo