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A Mobile Cinema in Chinatown
In their latest project, architecture collective Parasite 2.0 generates a point of convergence for Paolo Sarpi's distinct ethnic groups, whose film cultures share a highly developed aesthetic iconology.
It is a curious quality of ostensibly progressive urban design and regeneration that its most vehement support is often motivated by social conservatism. The phenomenon of New Urbanism, arguably one of the better-received design movements in the recent past, exemplifies a yearning for “the way things were”, organising technically unremarkable buildings in master plans based on traditional living arrangements — which have little to do with the contemporary mechanisms of inhabitation, from modes of transportation to patterns of consumption.
Over the past decade, these conflicting tendencies have shaped one of Milan’s most unique districts, Via Paolo Sarpi — the Chinatown of Italy’s economic stronghold. This street and its surrounding neighbourhood, comprising one of the oldest commercial zones in the city, have since the 1920s absorbed the influx of tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants, many establishing their own businesses, originally in textiles (still visible in the high concentration of clothing shops). At the same time, the area has retained a predominantly Italian residential population (95% of the total, according to local association Vivisarpi), creating an uncanny and uneasy ethnic stratification between the ground floor and the flats above.
Walking down the street on the occasion of Arte in Sarpi, a festival of 90 contemporary artists hosted by 80 local businesses and curated by Rossella Farinotti, one can interpret the form and activity of the street as the complex outcome of the last decade’s racial and socioeconomic tensions. Once thronged with delivery vans serving the area’s many Chinese wholesalers, Via Paolo Sarpi was pedestrianised on 9 April 2011, in part because of the residents’ protests that living conditions had become untenable (at least by Milanese standards). Yet this urban transformation has by no means tranquilised the street, in which a marked dynamism of activities, foot traffic, and commercial exchanges still take place in spite of the nation’s increasingly bleak economic outlook.
If anything, the recent history of Paolo Sarpi demonstrates the rapid resilience of human behaviour in the face of slow-moving, largely static architecture. The Chinese entrepreneurs have simply adapted — as they did in World War II, switching their production from silk to leather to satisfy the army's demand for equipment — responding to the automobile ban by adopting modified bicycles, equipped with racks to move boxes efficiently. While the pedestrianisation of Paolo Sarpi may have failed to check the wholesale economy in the area, it does reveal a simple underlying desire for a healthy communal street life, regardless of ethnic origins. Perhaps the real problem is the asynchronicity between an enduring human need for sociality and the mostly anachronistic images of how it might appear.
As part of Arte in Sarpi, the young Milan-based architecture collective Parasite 2.0 have assimilated this intricate web of social and architectural pressures in their latest project, the Mobile Cinema. On a modified bicycle frame, the group have mounted a large projection box, complete with a theatrical Mylar curtain and light-up marquee in Chinese and English. Occupying the oddly intimate pockets of space between the outdoor café structures on Paolo Sarpi, the Mobile Cinema invites passersby to gather for a film programme of classic Italian and Chinese films with complementary subtitles, from Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) to Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1991).
In this makeshift theatre, Parasite 2.0 brings together the ad-hoc resourcefulness of the local wholesalers, the communal gravitation of treasured cultural vestiges, and a blend of differing attitudes towards urban space. The Mobile Cinema generates a point of convergence for Paolo Sarpi's mostly distinct ethnic groups, whose film cultures nevertheless share a highly developed aesthetic iconology. However, it demands from its audiences a degree of flexibility in the experience of the spectacle; indeed, it encourages the behaviour of sitting on the pavement in public. With the Mobile Cinema, Parasite 2.0 are pointing to a new syntax of social and spatial interaction on Via Paolo Sarpi, whose charged, dynamic context does not resemble "the way things were" — and that may be its greatest potential. Tamar Shafrir (@tamars)
Mobile Cinema was built courtesy of the open workshop of BRIChECO at Stecca degli Artigiani. Mobile Cinema will screen Raise the Red Lantern on Friday, 17 May, at 20:00. Arte in Sarpi continues until 18 May in Via Paolo Sarpi, Milan.