31st January 2019
OTO LAB Lecco: I am 120 years oldInnovation
The difficult process of converting small and medium-sized local factories into cultural centers
“I am 120 years old” is the title of the video starring young artists and shot in the former Oto Metallurgica Rusconi factory in Lecco. The video, with its strongly evocative images, immediately attracted the attention of the media and reopened the debate on the conversion and future of disused industrial spaces, especially in areas that are not in large Italian cities.
The images show us the new soul of a place once destined for the production of derivatives of wire rod: wire, nails, fences and small parts. A cultural soul which recalls spaces used for art performances, exhibitions, events and workshops, a place where an identity with strong connections with the territory comes back to life, both from an economic and morphological point of view.
The focus is once again on the industrial history of Lecco, made of small, family-run companies, which over time gave life – along the Gerenzone creek – to an industry based on the processing of iron and the production of its derivatives. A history of men and numerous families, historical memory for the entire territory of Lecco and an identity factor for its community.
The initiative promoted by the owners, the Rusconi family, was sparked by the desire to restore and convert the property disused in 2010. The nearly 2,000sqm building consists of spaces on several levels, adapting to the course of the nearby creek and fitting into the inhabited tissue of the neighborhood of Rancio in Lecco. The regeneration project follows the perspective and models of the most significant urban regeneration projects carried out in cities all over the world first and then in Italy as well.
The innovation lies in having promoted a transformation operation in a local reality which cannot be compared to that of great cities, in a situation similar to the many small and medium-sized industries in our Country, which are disused or are undergoing a process of rethinking and renovation.
The program and process which led to its regeneration are also very interesting, as they give an idea of the work and difficulties behind this type of operation: an initiative carried out by private parties without public support or the support of foundations, although the goal is also that of providing services to the community.
In this regard, we had the opportunity to meet and ask some questions to architect Giovanni Rusconi who was in charge of the design of OTO LAB, as well as being one of the owners of the building.
What does it mean to create a cultural hub, regenerating and converting an industrial space in a city like Lecco? In a different situation, both in terms of the economic and cultural context when compared to large cities like Milan and Turin, which over the past few years have seen the birth of new hubs and internationally-renowned experiences, such as Hangar Bicocca, Fondazione Prada and OGR Torino?
We did not invent anything, we are much more modest! Initiatives such as this have been carried out for many years in Europe, although the context and scale are very different and the problem is common to many Italian areas. Having said this, the OTO LAB space is very interesting because it represents the industrial history of Lecco, a specific history, that of the metallurgical sector. On the Lecco territory there are many disused factories, heritage of our productive past, but OTO LAB is the only experiment of this type which proposes something different.
This is due to the fact that it is very expensive to restore disused industrial plants if you consider costs for reclamation, adjustments and asbestos abatement. Furthermore, there are many bureaucratic difficulties, it is enough to say that the entire process started eight years ago!
What happened after that, how did you get to the current configuration of OTO LAB?
It all started from the cooperation with local schools during the renovation process, to organize a photo exhibition on the changes underwent by the location, its restoration and its regeneration giving it new functions. Students and teachers were interested in telling a different story, not only narrating the state of neglect and the loss of an industrial memory, but a case which attempted to suggest something different.
It no longer makes sense to have productive activities in these areas, inside historical neighborhoods, today we need to convert preexisting industrial spaces into other activities, you either demolish or do something different. Of course the residential option can be taken into consideration, but considering market saturation, we have to think of something else.
All this without forgetting the importance of the historical memory of these places.
So, the topic of the memory of the place and its users, an element which is very clear in the video “I am 120” that you produced. How can you create architecture and culture in a place like this?
By preserving the parts of the factory that are an evidence of this past. As in the case of the watermills which provided the driving force of the production plant or the overhead cranes. Thus starting from the conservative restoration of the building and equipment used to produce iron derivatives and moving on to extraordinary maintenance: demolishing inconsistencies, reclamation, implementing safety measures, facades and restoring all systems. A long and complex procedure, which took eight years and had several halts due to bureaucratic difficulties, in a complex dialog with the local administration and the urban tools responsible for transformation.
In conclusion, a process which moved forward in small steps, also because it was only carried out by our family, with no other financial support.
Today instead we can talk about a renewed space, a transition which led Oto Metallurgica Rusconi to become OTO LAB, a private space for the community and culture. What is the program and how is it managed?
After the first event with local schools, strong interest in OTO LAB was generated and numerous associations and citizens cane forwards to organize exhibitions, private parties, presentations, company events, markets inside the ex-factory. Different initiatives, more or less “public”, which however prove the inhabitants’ need and interest in using spaces such as this one.
The operation was greeted with great enthusiasm, which sometimes clashes with the immobilism of local institutions. A world which was already there and was only waiting to be welcomed, listened to, through a space which is not only for events but for the entire community.
To do this we involved a network of young artists who started a promotion campaign aimed at giving the location a professional appearance, creating a network of active people, interested in restoring and maintaining the building.
All images are by gentle courtesy of OTO LAB