Cultural condenser

Located in the area of Milan’s Garibaldi-Repubblica, Varesine and Isola neighbourhoods, among the imposing towers of the latest redevelopment plan, a small building has inherited the legacy of the former Craftmen’s Stecca workshops. The Art Incubator is a space for everyone, in the heart of the city’s future tertiary district.

This article was originally published in Domus 967 / March 2013

The Art Incubator is a small public building occupying just over 800 square metres. Although a modest element within the mammoth redevelopment plan for Milan’s Garibaldi-Isola area, it is an extremely significant structure that makes a fundamental contribution to the urban, social and economic ecology of its surrounding district. Indeed, had the Art Incubator not been built, one might not find any other new buildings in the area today, or, far more likely, the redevelopment plan’s realisation would have created even more acute social tensions.
Top: The Art Incubator has replaced the old Craftmen’s Stecca, a disused industrial complex that was demolished amid protests in 2007 to make way for the Garibaldi- Repubblica, Varesine and Isola redevelopment plan. Above: The building lies on the edge of the future Parco della Biblioteca degli Alberi, next to the Fondazione Riccardo Catella and public gardens. A cantilever of about 13 m shelters steps that can be used as a setting for outdoor events
The incubator represents a significant part of the compensation owed to local residents by property developers and the municipal authority for the controversial demolition of an abandoned industrial building: the former Brown Boveri. Over time, the Brown Boveri site had become home to numerous craft industries, a staging ground for participatory urban planning, an all-inclusive community centre and a space available to a variety of organisations (including Apolidia, Architetti Senza Frontiere Italia, Cantieri Isola, +bc, gas Isola Critica, La compagnia del parco-circolo Legambiente, the Associazione Italiana per l’Agricoltura Biologica Lombardia and Controprogetto). Many of these groups have found new premises in the Art Incubator, while other newcomers have joined in too, such as Ciurma, the Coro di Micene and Cinemaperto. Every five years, the City Council will issue a tender for the spaces in an attempt to maintain the operation’s social character.
In the late 1980s, the Stecca was occupied by artists, artisans and associations and turned into a community centre. The building on gratuitous loan to the associations was reopened in 2012. Pictured, the headquarters of the BRIChECO and +bc associations
Despite the limited financial resources available, Boeri Studio (Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca, Giovanni La Varra) tackled the project’s design with profound dedication, fully aware of the building’s social and emotional importance, and especially of its remarkable potential.

The two-storey structure of the Art Incubator is a simple extended parallelepiped almost entirely clad with expanded aluminium sheet. Its metallic appearance, minute proportions and predominantly light-grey exterior place it in the tradition of light-industry buildings and craftsmen’s workshops that were typical in the second half of the 20th century in Milan. Hence it serves as an appropriate counterpoint to its immediate context, which is composed of utilitarian buildings in traditional bricks, tiles and plaster.

The perfectly contemporary design language of aluminium mesh establishes a remote dialogue with the considerable number of towers that are sprouting up a little further to the north, west and south of the Art Incubator. Oddly, its vertical windows seem to be a precise echo of the buttresses supporting the windowless rear wall of a neighbouring building that overlooks its garden from the east. The roof design was treated with particular care, with the same sheet metal used on the building’s long sides continuing up and over the roof, which features a single slot housing photovoltaic and solar panels. From every point of observation, the incubator is a polite and civilised work of architecture.
The design of the exterior plays on the notion of contrasting materials. The northwest and southeast facades are characterised by large glazed surfaces, while the sides are clad with a continuous metal mesh that envelops the building. Fixed brise-soleils and perforated sheet metal create an effect of shadows on the facade
The refined elegance of the cladding materials, the carefully executed installation and the calculated rhythm of joints belong to a contemporary language with an international outlook. But these elements also tie in with the best works of an outstanding period in Milan between the 1950s and 1970s. During that time a host of talented architects and designers erected buildings that were remarkable for their assembly and the transfiguration of often ordinary materials produced by high-quality industry. This was architecture seen as a design object, only bigger, in the tradition of the Mangiarotti-Morassutti duo, for example.

The project was built almost entirely using dry construction methods, from the load-bearing structure and facade wall to the insulation and external cladding. This approach has never garnered much support from the building industry in Italy and is perhaps even less accepted today than it was 50 years ago. Benefits of dry construction include the possibility of easily rearranging the interior spaces (except for the concrete core containing the elevator and toilets), should the associations’ needs or the building’s intended use ever radically change.
Also known as Stecca 3.0, the Art Incubator is a two-storey structure. The ground floor houses workshops for local associations, while the top level features a classroom for courses and a multipurpose space that is used as a children’s recreation centre in the afternoon
Cost-cutting measures led to the simplification of certain solutions, which were even adopted when construction was already underway. For example, the same expanded-metal panelling used for the facades was also originally specified for the vertical windows, with the possibility of being moved to regulate the amount of natural light entering the building and create an architectural object with a mutable appearance. Instead, the designers opted for an effective alternative: fixed brise-soleils, again in expanded metal but doubled-up to ensure the necessary rigidity and mounted at 90 degrees to the south facade. The interior is extremely simple and plastered white, the ceiling of the ground floor honestly displays its corrugated sheet metal, and all the floors are in exposed concrete. For the associations, this overall neutrality should assist in the process that is already underway of customising and appropriating the spaces.

In contrast, the common areas have not abandoned the ambitions of a more defined architectural style, as evidenced in the fine spatial sequence that begins with the large south-facing room on the first floor, overlooking the steps that can be used for outdoor performances and which are protected by a pronounced cantilevered section of the roof. From the room’s elevated position, one will be able to look out over the future Parco della Biblioteca degli Alberi, designed by Petra Blaisse (Inside Outside), with the silver cantilever focusing the view on the spectacle of designed nature, while hiding the tall towers under construction to the south. Andrea Zanderigo, architect
Boeri Studio, The Art Incubator, Milan
Boeri Studio: The Art Incubator
: Boeri Studio (Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca, Giovanni La Varra)
Design Team: Marco Brega (project coordinator), Chiara Quinzii (project leader); Alessandro Agosti, Daniele Barillari, Frederic De Smet, Kristina Drapic, Marco Giorgio, Inge Lengwenus (collaborators)
Structural and Plant Engineering: TEKNE
Construction Supervision: Boeri Studio, TEKNE
Landscape Design of the Parco della Biblioteca degli Alberi: Petra Blaisse/Inside Outside
General Contractor: COIMA
Client: Hines Italia
Gross Built Area: 800 square metres
Cost: € 1,8 million
Design Phase: 2006—2009
Construction Phase: 2010

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