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Salvatore Re


Architect Salvatore Re reflects on the relationship among architecture, politics and sustainability, discussing some of his recent projects in Tuscany.
Interview with Salvatore Re by Flores Zanchi

Your latest project in Pisa, “Officine Porta Garibaldi”, is an important contemporary symbol in a historic context. Can you tell us about the origins of the project and how it will change the city?

Officine Porte Garibaldi is inspired by the city of Pisa and the region of Tuscany’s intention to use public funds to implement projects for recovery of the city’s existing built heritage in the context of its social life. The glass box that will contain Le Officine Porta Garibaldi is part of the “Le Mura Project” for redevelopment of the city’s medieval walls. I believe this is the first time the city of Pisa and the architectural heritage organisation have worked transparently right from the start, expressing the building’s real purpose, not just its recovery but its value as an asset to be restored to humanity. The project involves creation of a multimedia service centre and a citizens’ rights centre which will add to the range of social and cultural services on offer as well as tourist reception facilities in the town of Pisa and the surrounding area. The centre will have intercultural and social functions, particularly in relation to immigration, cooperation in development and the promotion of culture. From the architectural point of view, the project is inspired by environmental and social transparency and sustainability: the entire building is a high performance transparent wrapper which picks up on the shape of the previous building around two key nodes including service areas and vertical links. The transparency of the glass walls is functional in energetic terms because it lets light into the building through a triple layer of glass containing photovoltaic sunshades which produce energy. The building’s permeability permits unusual relationships in the area: the new piazza on Via Gioberti will permit new views and appreciation of the old walls and access to the “covered plaza” in the centre, linked directly with the ancient park of the city walls behind it. From my point of view, re-thinking a building means putting together a number of things that individually have the same performance, without setting limits on the quality of the materials and fittings, while at the same time optimising costs. This was the only way to obtain a costly wrapper performing a number of different functions: architectural, energetic, structural, of historic rediscovery of the walls and of functional value for the people who will be using it. A very high performance wrapper which encloses the centre’s activities, like a treasure chest. Liveability, luminosity and energy are the key themes of the project, to be approached with a responsible, ethical attitude.

The idea of the ethical, responsible project inspires many of your constructions; what is your idea of sustainability, and how do you reconcile it with a building’s public value?

The concept of sustainability has been borrowed from politics in recent years to obtain public consensus. In my vision it is a matter of simplicity, in terms of optimal functioning of a building, research into materials, and keeping operating and maintenance costs down. These are issues that have been at the centre of human reflection ever since the days of the primordial hut. I believe sustainability is a strong point of the idea of the common good: it is only in relation to public sense, defined as an asset to be returned to the city, that the architect thinks of sustainability as a key element in design. Over time politics has appropriated the idea of architectural sustainability to obtain popular consensus rather than concentrating on rediscovery of the public sense of architecture. The Officine Porta Garibaldi project fits into a new idea of sustainability, in the sense that it is intended to offer the public a new piazza in which to meet, to offer citizens an opportunity to get together and enjoy the same place.

While we’re talking about social value, living space and savings, another project that has become a model in Italy is the Praticelli university campus, where you created very liveable spaces which are pleasant for students to use while at the same time keeping costs down by optimising construction methods...

The Officine Porta Garibaldi project will draw on the Praticelli experience, as you point out. Pisa has a huge number of satellite businesses as it also serves fifty thousand students, and so, at the time of the Praticelli project, we felt a need to draw on this potential by creating a pleasant place and optimising costs. In the absence of resources, I used alternative paths in the project through the threesome of idea, concreteness and innovation which has always characterised my work.
The three-storey building is composed of a long main volume containing service areas and apartments for professors, with six blocks of student housing each characterised by one primary colour and one secondary colour branching off it. To bring students together on the ground floor and the first floor of the main building, there are collective functions such as a canteen, a cafeteria, an infirmary, a games room, an internet space, a music room, commercial spaces, a bank, a gym, video and convention rooms, an auditorium, study rooms and a library. The spaces are linked by a two-storey volume facilitating communication and aggregation among students, lit up by a big window designed by Werner Sobek employing an innovative construction system in which plates of insulated glass almost three metres high are supported solely by steel cables and clamps, making for an unusually light structure. Construction systems are optimised by advanced engineering. The entire building was built on a low budget with widespread use of prefabrication and a focus on the properties of materials during the design phase. For example, the coverings on the ventilated façades were designed on the basis of the measurements in which coils of titanium zinc plating and bakelised wooden panels are produced, to prevent waste wherever possible. It was interesting for me to visit the building as an ordinary spectator to see how these kids live and find out whether the project worked. As for the colours, one day I went into the orange block and I saw that one of the girls had bought orange soap and an orange towel, continuing in the direction of the design. The love we put into designing the building continues in the students’ interpretation of the place, in a sort of continuum, an ideal transition from us to the community of the building’s users, in this case the students.

The theme of sociality and architecture also appears in your recent plans for waste to energy plants in Livorno and Genoa in which you transform what is normally considered an ecological disaster into a tool that communicates with the city. Can you tell us more about this?

The waste to energy plant is no longer just an infrastructure for solving an industrial problem; it must be designed to fit into society and the customs of the place. Looking at the city, in the case of Livorno a historic crucible of social and cultural movements, was very important to us, above all to solve the important problem of how to eliminate what we produce while at the same time creating energy for citizens. Moreover, this is a project involving a number of professions, and so it must work from both the technological and urban planning points of view. The waste to energy plant is in fact designed to form part of the neighbourhood and be connected with the city. And it is only in a concept of system, in which architects and engineers sit down at the same table to discuss things together, profoundly immersed in the philosophy and customs of the city, that such a building can come about. It has taken a long time: the first plans go back to 2001, and only now is construction beginning. The project began as a plan to expand the existing facility with creation of a new incineration line which was fit into a single volume surrounded with a wire mesh shell, which gives the whole construction expressive power. The smokestack was designed to be a symbolic element with a great impact on the landscape, an important urban landmark. Characterised by a complex structure generated by an ellipsoid tapered toward the top to form a clover leaf, it has a system of leds which makes it interactive and projects messages on the plant’s energy production to convey the intention of making the structure socially useful. In parallel to its communicative function, in my opinion, the waste to energy plant must serve an educational purpose: planning guided tours for students and citizens is part of this idea of making a building which is apparently far removed from an urban plan part of a discussion involving Livorno and Tuscany.  
Its architectural features thus make the waste to energy plant no longer a monster from which to defend oneself but a place of entertainment promoting the growth of social consciousness on the part of young people when it comes to the environment. In Genoa, the idea is to reuse an existing landfill and build another plant on top of it, a waste to energy plant. We came up with the slogan “ da luogo rifiutato a paesaggio del rifiuto(from refused place to landscape of refuse)” for this project, declaring our intention of closing a wound in the land by creating a new living space of use to the entire community.

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