From the idea to reality

A milanese story of labor devotion

Unità di Produzione is a coworking space, a shared office where some of the best startup of Milan work closely, trying to integrate as much as possible their complementary skills.
Unità di Produzione belongs to all the people passing through every day, making it a space full of ideas, life and passion for their work.
Around the large open space, gravitate as planets, a range of continuosly evolving areas: a professional kitchen with an eight meters long stainless steel countertop, suitable to host coffee breaks as pop up restaurants, two meeting rooms, a relax area with billiard and table football, a workshop with different tools, a guesthouse to accommodate friends and coworkers passing through Milan, a wide and bright exhibition hall/conference space open to city events.

I usually tell fragments of Unità di Produzione history to all the curious people that are visiting us; I narrated everytime just few shreds of a long adventure, until my best friend convinced me to write a single piece which has a beginning but doesn’t have an ending!

It all started around 2010, when, in the wake of the great economic crisis that two years earlier gripped the world and national economy, it seemed clear that only a radical change of paradigm could save us. Something moved in the underground: Milan went abuzz!
An endless but prolific campaign, laid the foundations of what would become soon the great transformation of Milan.
Un’interminabile ma prolifica campagna elettorale pose le basi di quella che sarebbe diventata di lì a poco la grande trasformazione della metropoli lombarda.
After years of retreat, Milan decided to look ahead with courage.
Not even the most optimistic mind could imagine that the decadent “Milano da bere” (“Milan to drink”) still bogged down in a yuppie and individualistic vision would become one of the main centre of sharing economy and innovation!
It was in that worthwhile period, that the idea of Unità di Produzione was born.
As an architect and freelance I felt that it was no longer possible to follow the paths worn in the past: it needed a big shock in the directions of transdisciplinary, collaboration and hybridisation of working practices.
It needed a physical space to direct as in a funnel all of these ideas, these bets and these energies.
It was immediately clear that I would not find the right place in the city center.
I could not remain prisoner of the middle-class’s prejudice that connotes everything according to the distance measured in Google Maps from the focal point of the city: the Duomo!
One had to have the courage to do what in other cities in the world is ordinary: bring the creative energies and professional in the suburbs, with the express purpose of regenerate them. Equally clearly I was desiring a disused factory and want to make clear that reusing abandoned buildings rather than constructing new ones – eventually on fertile soil – is not only a sustainable and ethically responsible practice, but it is also a source of aesthetic

I began my wanderings in the north-east suburbs of Milan. In the territories of the most glorious italian dismissed manufacturing, where once the chimneys of Falck, Breda, Pirelli were snorting steam, the new district of creativity was incubating silently. Neighbourhoods without planning that could be reinvented starting from the large empty warehouses: not only in large areas cited above, but also in those small plots where there were numerous abandoned buildings.
It wasn’t easy to find, between the magma of buildings, the ex-factory “Forni Industriali Saviotti”.
Often in Milan, disused industrial buildings end up on the market as buildable area and their real estate value (intimately linked to the potential of transformation) is skyrocketing.
Being this ex-factory, part of a condominium and partially penetrated in a residential building, it has to be maintained with its existing volumetric characteristics, so I paid no more than an ordinary three-room apartment near the outer ring road of the city!
The factory workers who had inherited the building from the founder about twenty years before sold me the property.
They had spent a lifetime there. They were there from the beginning, when the factory opened in 1951. Arrived to eighty years old, they had other projects, but they were thrilled to hand over the baton: they gave me also a CD with scans of their “family album”, where industrial furnaces of every shape appear, photographed under the crane, just before delivery to the customers.

Completed all the paperwork related to the deed, I found myself for the first time alone in this immense space. A loss of water from the roof peered out threatening.
I realized that the restoration of the great carcass would not be so simple! I had already faced the recovery of old buildings during my long apprenticeship in architectural firms, but this time I was alone. Paradoxical considering that the purpose of this would have been a coworking, the place par excellence of the collaboration, but it had to be.

I decided to proceed step by step: the first space that I began to restore was the old company office facing the road and connected to the main industrial space.
Like any architect do, the first operation was to break down a wall and convert two small rooms poorly proportioned, in one large openspace.
I recovered the exisiting oak parquet and restore the large tripartite windows by inventing a kind of portal where instead of traditional decorated shutters took place four thin radiators. I resolved all the functional needs by adding two movable walls on the short sides of the room able to conceal a kitchen, a laundry room and a closet. In this way was born the guesthouse of Unità di Produzione, a warm and quiet space, full of books and with a comfortable sofa. An extra meeting room with the possibility to turn into an apartment with a few gestures.

Became familiar with the place, I started the biggest challenge: the transformation of the industrial space.
It appeared large, bare, vaguely uninhabitable!
The only sure thing, was that I wanted enhance the overhead crane of the 50s, the original skylights, the big vault kept under tension by the chains.
I didn’t like the fact that coming inside from the street ones could look, after a few steps, the totality of the space. I wanted a discovery liturgy, a slowdown of perception, which is basically the reason of our exicitement when we got inside an old town center: Think about it, the alternation of narrow alleys and bright squares, is a perpetual change between compression and enlargement. This rhythm affects us psychologically, enrapturing our senses!

I’ve imagined a sort of architectural promenade: what formerly was the loading and unloading area of the old factory would become the entrance vestibule, there the first mezzanine would divide the loft space, creating a low passage (in Venice, we would call it sottoportego) after which the open space would be opened in all its glittering brightness. The main industrial hall needed an architectural recalibration too.
It was large and powerful but ended in a very thin wall with scattered windows.
So I designed a second mezzanine at the bottom of the space, that would be able to control better the space, in a movement of protrusion and recess.
Finally I gave to all the ensamble a vanishing point: a vertical garden behind a large window that dominate the big meeting room on the mezzanine.

The mezzanines were imagined as a reminiscence of the great industrial furnaces, that hanging at the hook of the crane, were ready to be loaded onto trucks to be transported away. The mezzanines volumes do not show any tectonics, only extreme abstraction, ultimately are two metal boxes, suspended in mid-air, never touching the concrete floor as if they were attached to the structural chains of the vault. The use of natural steel, strongly predominant in the project is a tribute to this wonderful material that has always inhabited the place.

So, with few and precise stances, the project was set up, designed and registered at the city council. Overnight, it was the hell of the hammers. They call it “urban acupunctures”, reality is a bit less graceful than word!

In the middle of the building site period I realized that the construction company had given as much it can and wasn’t able to ensure anymore the perfect realization of the project: the uniqueness of the architectural details required an approach and a dedication to architecture of superior being.
Thus began the period of the self-construction.
Breaking down every distinction between architecture and design, the totality of the finishing manufacturing were strive to an unitarian expression mark.
For all the craftman operations I trained a team of Indian boys. Since then they’ve never stopped working on maintenance of the coworking space.

To realize all the several things needed without going bankruptcy, every design gesture began to assume an even greater semplicity, a sort of “instant design” in which the mimimal formal approach of the main architectural gestures reverberated in the smaller details. For example, the stools were obtained from single sheet of natural steel folded four times on themselves, while some handles were obtained from strips of leather which were also folded four times and fixed with two opposite bolts.

There were months of feverish activity and waiting: ferment for the building site that was advancing more and more, increasing the complexity of the process, waitings for the life that a little later would fill the empty space under the shed.

At one point I quarreled with my neighbors: despite the agreed enlargement of some windows they move against me a legal action. I handled a dozen meetings with lawyers, judges, legal expert. It wasn’t easy to define the rights and wrongs: in all my projects current laws divides the field with the reasons of Architecture!

There wasn’t an exact moment when the building site finished and the coworking started.
Actually there is a continuous mutation and implementation of any environments. However every decision is now co-designed with the coworkers settled in the location, every single aspect is molded to their needs. Also for this reason our coworkers have developed a strong sense of community and feeling part of a place that being open 24/7 and having no usage limits belong entirely to them.

Now that is all working I throw a breath away! Everything’s going perfectly. It could be a resounding failure, a big loss of money. But it went well.
Presently we navigate towards the real challenge ahead: transform professionals, freelancers and startup in a sort of multi-service agency where every personal skills are at the service of everyone and become the real bonus for the coworkers.
The awareness of being part of the most particular heritage of Milan, which is the free innovative enterprise makes us happily part of a large community of people.
A community that will lead Milan and Italy out of this long crisis towards a great renewal.