Reuse of abandoned spaces - Interview with Rossella Ferorelli (SMALL)

Reuse of abandoned spaces 

Interview with Rossella Ferorelli (SMALL)


In the Open Talk on March 23rd, we hosted the SMALL Lab, a study founded in Bari in 2007 that is set up as a permanent laboratory and as an open platform for territorial and global collaboration networks.

The acronym that gives rise to the SMALL name, "Soft Metropolitan Architecture and Landscape Lab", identifies a progressive and "soft" approximation to design, starting from the peripheral fields of the discipline, with a preferential orientation to the intangible components - software - of the territories.

Rossella Ferorelli, partner of the study, presented a series of projects that describe their multidisciplinary approach and the main issues on which they focus. The laboratory investigates the contemporary urban condition both through the architectural project, and through parallel research forms, hybridizing the curatorial practice with independent publishing and experimentation in the academic field. Among the projects presented were the Conversion + festival that since the first edition of 2012 has as its theme the reuse and reactivation of urban landscapes in a state of abandonment and proposes a series of workshops, inspections, research, conferences and exhibitions giving rise to a platform for sharing information on the theme of reuse in architecture; the redevelopment of the Libertà district of Bari activated through a series of punctual interventions in the urban fabric of which the Spazio13 project is part, an abandoned middle school that has been transformed into a school of innovative practices and a creative forge of ideas and events; the Publio installation is conceived as a curatorial activity aimed at researching the meaning of public spaces and the dynamics that regulate them through a selection of texts relating to the theme of public spaces.

After the presentation of the SMALL Lab work, we asked Rossella Ferorelli a series of questions to discuss specific topics particularly interesting for us at the Open Design School.

Where does the need arise to deal with abandoned spaces?

It is a story of astral convergences between the global economic situation and our specific gaze on the territories. The first reasoning we did on the topic began around 2010-2011, in the deep abyss of the financial crisis and at the beginning of our history as a collective of 4 members. Accomplished the decline in the construction market (and therefore the availability of "traditional" orders), we have taken note of the apparent discrepancy between the expansion of cities and the contraction of uses and living that in many of them was occurring. We immediately saw the cause of the transformation of the phenomenon of decommissioning and abandonment of large-scale dynamics with a widespread, subtle, almost invisible but disruptive issue. And from there came the need to understand more thoroughly, and then to show, and even try to give some answers.

Your projects are presented as the result of a research process, what role does historical research play in the reading and analysis of a building / district and in the solutions you propose?

It depends on the case: every project is different, a real start over not only in the work on the solutions, but also in the setting of the questions and the method. In some cases historical research is fundamental. It can certainly be in cases of abandonment, even just to trace the events that caused it, and in any case to interpret well a space or an object. In general we look very much at urban fabrics, to understand the origin of the dynamics underway at the time of the project, and to be able to distinguish and understand "structural" phenomena that characterize spaces and their uses and could be valorized and facilitated, and not to confuse them with contingencies due to transitory conditions, sometimes pathological, on which it is necessary to act with the transformation without indulging in nostalgia. Finally there is the collection of references and inspirations and, in that case, historical research is accompanied by an emotional research, the construction of an imaginary that gives meaning to the project beyond the series of actions that it entails. That is the moment when all the conditions are reversed. Finally there is the collection of references and inspirations and, in that case, historical research is accompanied by an emotional research, the construction of an imaginary that gives meaning to the project beyond the series of actions that it entails. That is the moment when all the conditions are reversed and the identification phase begins. It is an immersive and unpredictable moment, in which the intuition and sensibility of the designers is superimposed on all the "scientific" work that you have carried out until that moment. Something that is often considered "obscene", because it is largely arbitrary and authorial, but instead is a fundamental component of the project, the one that makes it a story that is unrepeatable every time.


Could your redevelopment project of the Libertà district of Bari be considered an example of participatory planning?

Important question, not simple answer. When we talk about participatory planning, what exactly do we have in mind? A structured, institutional work, starting from the administrations? If so, in the cases of redevelopment that we have shown a similar process, unfortunately it has not been built upstream. At this point it is interesting to ask what role the designer has in such conditions: in this case, even if the real "machine" of participation has not been started, in our small we have consulted the neighborhood, starting above all from the schools that overlook on part of the spaces that belong to the project, to think of a project that also responds to the needs of that age group. And then, believing strongly in the aggregative value of the game, to imagine urban playgrounds we started an informal dialogue with the skaters and skaters of Bari, to design safe spaces, within everyone's reach, in which to have fun together to invent the city. 

Do you think that the design of new public spaces should be designed in relation to new digital technologies?

Of course, like anything else. The socio-spatial phenomena linked to digital are one of the main themes of our research, and the public space, for its symbolic power and its political relevance, is the area in which we have concentrated more in recent years. How are the margins transformed between public and intimate life in cities, thanks to digital technology? For us it is an absolutely central question in this historical era. What we have observed is that, despite these margins being a continuous field of negotiation, perennially under discussion, it remains certain that public space can assume an infrastructural function, that is "enabling". In our opinion, access to global information is becoming a new inalienable human right. Public space, to be called a real common good, must guarantee and defend this right, now that technology allows it. We also invented a word for this feature: "accessibility".

What are the motivations and obstacles you encounter practicing in the urban context of Bari?

Working in the South, as we all know, can be difficult. The main problem is that, true or not, the perception is that of a widespread "poverty", which generates fear and forces a war of all against all for the available resources. That sometimes they are not even that few. There is a lack of the culture of cooperation that should be instilled immediately, starting from the smallest and then, from the institutional point of view, rewarding synergies and alliances and thus avoiding the atomisms and downward competition that sometimes takes place. And then you have to get used to the citizenship to ask, even to demand, to have ambition and therefore to reward those who have vision. Working with communities is good when you can convince everyone that good things are possible.

On the other hand, Bari is doing well in this. There are many interesting realities and above all, today, a sensitive administration, perhaps also because young and international culture. For those involved in the project, where working is not a trivial matter. When you can do it in and for your land, everything you get has infinitely higher value.

Describing your Publio project, the difficulty of identifying an Italian literature dealing with public spaces has emerged. This gap you talked about, refers to a manual aimed at interventions in public spaces or theoretical and historical literature?

In truth to both. Working on public space is also interesting because, even from a disciplinary point of view, it is a bit 'no man's land. Architects snubbed it, urban planners flew over it, and therefore even literature is hardly categorized. Who takes care of the public space? What kind of profession is that of those who want to design it? It is not clear, and it is precisely this that makes it so fascinating: because it is ambiguous, it escapes control and perfect prefiguration. It is very difficult to work on it because we are always risking to cage it in configurations that are too static, incapable of interpreting the dynamism of collective life. On the other hand, not treating it as an object of project is tantamount to condemning it to decay, and a degraded public space is a real urban bomb, capable of triggering spirals of decay that immediately pass from the physical to the social and the economic. This is how delicate and important it is to dedicate ourselves to, and that is why we want to study as much as possible, exchange ideas and gather a library of research and stories together with all those who have clashed. Also with you, of course!


 Click here to know more about SMALL Lab

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