Milan, 12 December 2021

If there’s one thing that will always depress me when I see them, it’s those tall industrial chimneys belching out white clouds of steam (sometimes tinged a faint orange by the oxides of nitrogen they can contain, depending on which way the sun is shining). Here’s a typical example of the genre, this one a frequent sight on our hikes upstream of Vienna – it belongs to a power plant.


It’s all that grey concrete that does it, often topped with garish red and white stripes to keep planes from flying into them. Just so ugly! And so damned tall that you can’t ignore them!! So in your face!!! They just drain any brightness and colour out of the surrounding landscape.
I almost think that the older designs of brick chimneys were nicer on the eye. They were less high for one thing, and – at least in some models – took the form of long thin cones, which are considerably more elegant than mere cylinders. But that black smoke which they routinely belched out! Like in this British painting from about 1830.

View of Rotherham, South Yorkshire (c. 1830) by William Cowen (1791-1864). Photo credit: Rotherham Heritage Services

The fact that someone actually painted all that black muck shows how our sensitivities have changed in the last fifty years or so. When the artist painted this, black smoke was a thing to be celebrated, it meant the economy was growing. Now, we think instead that the company’s top managers should be in jail for allowing it to happen.

But back to today’s industrial chimneys. Among all the gloom they have brought to my life, there have been two bright shafts of light over the years, caused by chimneys which I’ve actually enjoyed looking at. The first of these is a chimney in Vienna which belongs to a waste incinerator.


Wonderful piece of work! The design, both of the chimney as well as the rest of the facility, is due to an Austrian artist by the name of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. His normal output looks like this.


I’m sure readers can see the relation between this type of work and his chimney design.

The incinerator has been originally built in the late 1960s, but needed extensive repairs after a fire broke out in 1987. I was told that the mayor of Vienna brought Hundertwasser in to redesign the facades of the facility as well as the chimney, because the local community was up in arms about the city fathers’ plan to continue having a working incinerator in their neighbourhood. Hundertwasser, who was quite an environmentalist, was only persuaded to accept the commission when he was promised that the most up-to-date emissions abatement technology would be installed – and in fact the chimney hardly ever gives off anything. I must say I’m quite glad Hundertwasser accepted the commission, because he created what must be the jauntiest waste incinerator in the world. It makes you almost want to work there (almost …)

It was the second sighting, that of the chimney of another waste incinerator on the outskirts of Milan, which moved me to write this post, although it has taken me nearly nine months to get around to it. Last April, after the success of the hike my wife and I did from Milan to Monza, I decided to do a similar hike in another direction. I chose the direction pretty much at random, which meant, among other things, that there was one stretch where we had to walk along a very busy road with trucks thundering by and no space on the edge of the road for us to walk on. My wife regularly reminds me of this walk whenever I suggest doing a hike sight unseen around the edges of Milan … In any event, it was on this grim stretch of road that we stumbled across the waste incinerator. Its chimney immediately caught my attention. It had been painted a most extraordinary colour, a sort of shimmering, silvery grey blue, merging, but not quite, with the surrounding sky. It was really lovely to look at. I took several photos of it between the thundering trucks. I’m not sure any of them do justice to the chimney’s colour but I throw in the best one.

my photo

By one of those extraordinary coincidences that make one believe that there is some order after all in the chaos of the universe, this chimney happens to have been painted by another Austrian artist! Jorrit Tornquist is his name; his Wikipedia entry informs me that he is a color theorist and color consultant (no doubt it was in this latter role that he was called in by Milan’s waste management company to paint the chimney). As an artist, he does works like this.


Again, readers can surely see the relation between this type of work and the chimney.

As I say, these are the only two industrial chimneys which have ever brought some happiness into my life. But writing this post has moved me to search the Internet to see what other painted industrial chimneys await me and my wife on hikes we might one day do around the world. Here’s what I found, in no particular order.


A couple of chimneys in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, being finished up in classic trompe l’oeil style.


A chimney at the sewage works in Milwaukee, where the art is actually part of the city’s water management system. The chimney is normally blue-coloured but turns red when heavy rain is forecast, warning people to reduce their water use so that the city’s drains are not overwhelmed.


An old chimney in Mount Vernon, Virginia, now hosting two graceful tulips.

I finish with a chimney which happens to be in Milan! It’s the chimney of the old factory where the Italian amaro, or bitter, Fernet Branca used to be produced.


For those of my readers who might not be too familiar with this drink, this is what a bottle of Fernet Branca looks like.


This particular bitter was first formulated in 1845 in Milan. It is made by steeping 27 herbs and other ingredients in alcohol. Which herbs and ingredients are used is of course a tightly-held secret, a pesky problem I have already come across for these kinds of drinks. But apparently at least some of the herbs are pictured on the chimney, so perhaps a close reading of the chimney will lead me to figure out what herbs are used in this drink.

As readers have no doubt understood, I am planning to view this chimney. It can be the object of one of the urban walks my wife and I will take this winter. I’ve already checked on Google Maps to see how to get there, and I’m happy to report that we will not need to walk along busy roads with trucks thundering by. I’m going to have to wait for the right moment in which to casually suggest to my wife that we go for this walk, without spilling the beans about what we are going to see – and of course I will have to reassure her about the absence of busy roads with thundering trucks.