City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Knockabout space

Written in


I’m fortunate enough to be the CEO of a company—Fabrica—with an incredible space. It’s drop-dead gorgeous, it really is. And that’s the problem.

It’s a 17th century villa in the north Italian countryside near Treviso, surrounded by vineyards, farms and light industrial buildings, and framed by the snow-capped Dolomites about 20 minutes to the north.

As if that weren’t enough, the 17th century villa has been carefully and ingeniously renovated by the renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

And as if that weren’t enough, Ando then extended the complex with an extraordinary, largely underground building, with a variety of studio spaces, agora, cinema, photo studio, workshops, music studios, auditorium, and astonishing Guggenheim-esque library and so on. This is delivered in Ando’s famed polished concrete, augmented by wooden and gun metal detailing and componentry, in an idiosyncratic and beguiling melange of minimalism, modernism and postmodernism, heavily referencing the local Palladian classical style and the more workmanlike, though somewhat perfect, buildings of the original villa.

It’s completely amazing—have I made that clear yet? I daren’t even upload many pictures, as it might just break the internet through its sheer brazen beauty. And as you walk through the entrance every morning, after a breezy “Ciao!” at the portineria and with your lungs full of the fresh mountain air and with the warm sun on your skin, you cannot help but have your spirits lifted by the faintly unbelievable spaces unfolding before you. It’s an incredible gift to Fabrica from its parent company, Benetton, and we feel fortunate to have it, if not a little awe-struck.

And there’s the rub. We’re a communications research centre, increasingly heavy on the making, on product design, on the hardware hacking, on interactive installations, on film-making and photography, on events, on the need to prototype physically at scale. We need to get messy. We need to jam cables through things. We need to splash paint, to spill solder, grow vegetables, make lunch. We need to velcro iPads along the corridor walls. We not only need to paste things on the wall, but we will need to drill. We need to knock it about a bit.

Increasingly, we need the building not as stage-set for creativity, but as part of the toolkit, a character rather than a backdrop. The building itself can be a platform, in the more contemporary sense of the word.

Yet the place is so beautiful it can be slightly intimidating. When I arrived, I heard a myth—from alumni and staff—that it was forbidden to stick things to the walls. The polished concrete, you see. Che cosa?! How can we be a design school, a studio, and not pin things up? How do we show our work-in-progress to each other? How do we bump into half-formed ideas?

Equally, the building’s peculiar topography doesn’t naturally help with communication. In section, it’s mostly underground, albeit with vast light-wells such that you never realise when you are. In plan, it’s an odd multi-layered combination of circles, planes, triangles. Either way, you can’t easily build a mental model of it, and the original concept seems to have had the idea of a more monastic style of individual creator baked into it. It does not naturally suit the today’s orthodox creative environment of war rooms, stand-ups and dailies, informal hang-out spaces, fab labs and workshops, allusions to high streets and ‘market squares’, and so on. In fact, it can instead enable people to hide.

For a communications research centre, it’s not that easy to communicate the communications work that’s going on between teams in this building. And for trandisciplinary practice, which is where we’re going, how does the filmmaker bump into the coder, the product designer bump into the musician, the journalist bump into the graphic designer—or rather, how does the creative output of all these people, these disciplines, collide to form something entirely new? To go between, across and beyond the disciplines, as Jean Piaget had it?

We need a space that supports transdisciplinary exploration. At least part of that means figuring out the physical versions of open sockets, open APIs, common protocols—small pieces loosely joined, to borrow the language of code.

What’s changed here is that our disciplines have changed their modus operandi. Where once communication at Fabrica was largely graphic design, writing, filmmaking, photography, music—all somewhat trades of abstraction, capable of being pursued individually to some extent, and relatively tidy—now communication is within objects and spaces as well as media and people. Thanks to code, ‘things’ can have character, narrative, interaction and, well, the internet, embedded within them, as an inherent part of their fabric and behaviour. So our range of communication disciplines has become broader, deeper and messier, colliding with all those earlier modes. And in a good way.

So in my first few weeks I’ve worked hard to give people the license to pin things up, to get the work out ‘in public’ by hook or by crook, to build half-finished installations out into the corridors, to lean moodboards against the wall, to plonk a Kinect camera under a monitor on the wall, running a different Processing sketch exploring machine vision, to build an interactive exhibit featuring 60 house plants and vibration motors in the most visible space in the building, to drape a wall of monitors down one of our more vertical spaces, and so on. In some very small way, I led by example here. From day one, I blu-tacked sheets of paper to the walls of my office, each covered with scribbles and sketches drawn during the conversations I’ve been having with residents and staff. That alone was a minor topic of conversation in such an unspoiled room, but it was easily followed up by pressing people to get their work out into the in-between spaces as much as possible, and not worry so much about the mess. A Little Printer visibly spools paper around my work table, which is covered in a massive plot of the building, and accretes scribbles of pencil with every meeting.

All of these moves are insignificant on their own, but in aggregate and with constant verbal encouragement, gives a license to genuinely work with the building as a material, to bend it into the shape we need now.

To knock it about a bit, yes. To me, a space that creates should feel more like a small factory, a workshop (a laboratorio, in Italian) or a studio. I’m somewhat influenced by the tales of MIT’s Building 20, in this respect, though I don’t fully buy Jane Jacobs’ idea that “new ideas need old buildings”—I just don’t think that’s necessarily true. And our place is the perfect test, with three centuries separating its old and new buildings.

Either way, though, the productive spaces I’m alluding to are quite different to a pristine gallery, which is largely a place for consumption and contemplation.

(Of course dear Stefano, our indefatigable and brilliant buildings and IT guy, heard my instruction to get some pin-boards and whiteboards up around the place, and instead of popping down to IKEA Padua, as I thought he would, engaged one of our designers to make beautiful cork pin-boards, hung from bespoke fixing elements designed for Ando’s concrete. This meets our need for pin-ups, whilst revelling in craft, adding rather than subtracting, providing new development opportunities for our team, and indicating how design is cultural invention rather than simply ‘problem-solving’.)

Our next steps are to layer in a digital infrastructure within the physical layers, to weave them together to create one hybrid environment, at once physical and digital and social (and yes, I know digital is physical, but that’s another post.) Then we really have a 21st century toolkit for exploring the communications between people, objects, spaces and environments. Then we are genuinely fortunate to have this space: to explore how the Internet of Things meets the effortlessly humane proportions and materials of the 17th century villa and the glorious late-20th century sunken moonbase of the expansion. A hackable habitat, whereby we begin to understand how to use digital services in physical places, to enhance productive serendipity, to encourage collaboration, in a way sympathetic to various architectural elements we live and work within.

Not everywhere need be hackable—we will retain the quiet perfection and polish of some spaces—just as not everywhere should be noisy, colourful, vibrant. It’s about the dynamics: just as noise is meaningless without quiet, connectivity becomes meaningless when pervasive, when it is without a few “sanctuary spaces” as contrast, engineered Faraday cage zones where your cellphone signal drops, there’s no wifi, and no screens within sight.

(We’re making a coffee bar in one corner, which is also another story perhaps, but equally important.)

All of this tinkering is in line with how Ando apparently thought about the building, I believe. The image at the top of this post is from a book on his work, focused on a quote from Ando about the Fabrica building in particular:

“A building is not complete when it has been constructed. A building continues to live and grow as long as it remains standing and people continue to use it.”

Within that fine thought of his, I think we can continue to modify Fabrica’s extraordinary building. After all, some of the ingredients for a productive creative environment have clearly changed since the mid-90s, when the thing was conceived, and so the building should live and grow with that.

Helping to shape a creative, productive organisation is a holistic challenge, requiring the ability to perceive architecture as a system predicated on the inhabitants’ cultures, not a building. Yet the space plays an important role here. It not only enables, supports and provides the tools for one kind of work over another, but it also suggests, projects and cajoles possible trajectories for that work, for the team. If we start using the building as a platform we help figure out what ‘building as a platform’ might really mean.

That is of course way beyond encouraging people to simply put up pinboards and use blu-tack—but the exciting thing about now is that simply giving the license to do that is easily connected to the other. We can now sketch in hardware as well as on paper. We simply need to give our teams the license to knock things about a bit. The building, if it’s good, will survive—and actually thrive, as Ando’s quote suggests.

The architecture of the organisation may be more important than the architecture of the space at any one time—the organisation is the living, breathing, element of the community, the nature, the work, the raison d’être—but you can use one to unpick the other. And the architecture of the space continues to stand for something after particular organisations have long since disappeared, embodying meaning and values for the long term, with the potential to generate new organisations as a result.

It doesn’t matter which one you start with, as long as you do both.


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