An emerging Italian network brings together expertise and proposals that go beyond the specific architecture, to reuse the enormous wealth of abandoned buildings from recurring tools and the involvement of local communities.
Expanding settlements and smaller housing may seem like contrasting phenomena but they have coexisted extensively for all of the last 40 years, leaving large numbers of abandoned and derelict constructions behind them on the Italian cityscape.
This phenomenon has taken on different forms during this lengthy period. Up until the early 1990s, the voids created by the exodus of large production plants and the many obsolescent infrastructures spawned what were veritable icons of the late-20th century post-industrial landscape but then triggered a mechanism that has pulverised the urban exodus over the last 20 years and is now turning into a pervasive and silent process, linked principally to housing and to minute local functions. This speckling of unused buildings is generating an urban imagery linked to the recession that is, for the most part, unconscious: a cultural landscape on which street fronts with lowered shutters and vacant buildings create a scenario dotted with unfinished skeletons, empty industrial sheds and the remnants of a rural past encircled by the built fabric. This is starting to become ingrained and almost passes unnoticed.
These new professional bodies seek to invent unsolicited work opportunities
With the era of the few, vast and mostly publicly subsidised urban-regeneration projects drawing to a close, this speckled fabric, its distribution and the predominantly private nature of the abandoned building stock are challenging traditional regeneration models to such an extent that we are seeing the emergence of a mixed galaxy of architectural firms and, even more so, of collectives, independent research groups, associations and start-ups, all busy reviewing the learning and re-use processes for this multitude of buildings. These new professional bodies seek to invent unsolicited work opportunities by means of cooperation and negotiation, which act as catalysts for a demand expressed by the active population that goes beyond the straightforward architectural project. They are enablers for the re-use of the abandoned cityscape, groups that, instead of drawing up projects for single buildings, develop platforms that can reactivate several spaces  with recurrent tools.
The main apparatus of this shared tool bag is online mapping, fundamental for a census of an often virtually invisible disused built heritage. Making an inventory and cataloguing are the first operations required to highlight these places, which escape the institutional cartographer’s overhead gaze. Thanks to the dissemination of locative media, constructing maps via crowdsourcing is the Internet’s bread and butter, if not almost its main obsession, and a fundamental basis for structuring networks and platforms that bring together the demand for spaces/activities and the offer of urban, financial or skilled resources that guarantee the efficacy of re-use processes in the long term.
Producing festivals and events, both on the subject of abandon and inside the places that have to be reactivated, is an additional approach that has the dual aim of focusing on raising awareness within local communities as well as training those who must do the work. Broad-based communication joins forces with those producing workshops, talks and experimental editorial products, constructed in collaboration with or independently by the academic world.
This rapid diffusion of re-use enablers all over Italy prompted the creation of a dense cooperation network that, following preliminary encounters between some groups, led to Standbyldings, a two-day workshop run by Small in Bari at which many of Italy’s main players, all working on the same subject but from different angles, painted a structured picture of the re-use tools and strategies employed. One case focus was on Puglia, where the Laboratori Urbani regional programme is the first structured example of public policy leading to the re-use of approximately 150 abandoned buildings for social, cultural and entrepreneurial activities.
The two-day workshop had several aims. Firstly, to consolidate mutual knowledge of this small galaxy of activists, which started by sharing and expanding the Re-bel Italy manifesto drawn up by Temporiuso.net. Secondly, it highlighted the fact that, despite the constant stress of political and academic rhetoric on the pressing need to re-use the existing architectural heritage, Italy actually finds itself in a condition of cultural inadequacy at all levels, and particularly in terms of legislation. Two operational proposals were drawn up to overcome this failing.
Although the re-use of unused spaces draws on the self-organising strength of enablers and local communities, given the general lack of public funds the groups intend to come together to propose, negotiate and help structure a new – state or regional – fund allocated entirely to the reactivation start-up phase, i.e. the delicate, initial extraordinary maintenance of properties in a state of abandon that is hardest for the population to deliver and that halts the majority of bottom-up actions in their tracks. The local population or enterprise would then be responsible for managing the spaces and keeping them alive, on the condition that, as well as the financial survival of their activities, they pursue eminently public aims directed at the local communities.
Moreover, if the concept of re-using urban resources is to permeate the collective mindset, the network must support a structured series of campaigns aimed at raising the awareness of the active population – the receptive nucleus of urban society – and training which, following on from the technical contents imparted by academic institutions, can help provide means and ways to investigate the complexity of re-use processes, the nexus of which lies far beyond the architectural project.
Standbyldings and the entire Italian re-use enabler network are concentrating their investigations, energy and visions on the ethical outcome of the potential uses that are, at last, beginning to appear in the world of abandoned buildings – via an ongoing exchange of experiences and knowledge developed in the field and with the long-term objective of constructing a social practice of flanking an institutional service offer with bottom-up action from the communities and, at the same time, breathing new life into the cityscape of abandon.
1 Elisa Poli, [im]possible living: mappature dell'abbandono