Milan: kill the shopping centre

Article published on Nov. 19, 2007
Article published on Nov. 19, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Isola Art Center, a group of artists and residents, have spent six years fighting building projects in a popular district of the north Italian city

Contrast between reality and the picture demonstrated in the project link contemporary art and the protection of public space. This is the leitmotiv of Bert Theis, an artist from Luxembourg and the founding member of the Isola Art Center. In 2001, the first news began to filter through concerning the urban future of the Isola Garibaldi quarter in the outskirts of Milan.

A group of young architects from the area decided to make the residents aware of the changes that were to come: the first plans of rehabilitation of the area anticipated the building of a trunk road in the shape of a Y, splitting the area into two. On both sides of these lanes the mayor plans to build 30, 000 to 90, 000 m3 of new buildings in a working class district, which is rather poor in green space. In the seventies some rare gardens were planted in the ruins of old factories.

In 2001 a group of artists decided to build a fence of whitewood on the intended route of the motorway. The aim was to attract the attention of the residents: ‘for us, the challenge remained to use the resources of contemporary art to achieve a true political and urban change,’ Bert Theis continues. A work of art supposedly disappears after three months, but this one has now lasted for six years.

‘Since 2002, I have understood that this symbol, this fence, was not enough. We had to make a social and political barrier’, Theis recollects. The Office of Urban Transformation (OUT) was therefore created to provide technical material and the necessary media-related impact for the residents to experiment and organise their action.

Cultural reference to Milan

The architects and artists of OUT launched a survey amongst the residents, asking them to describe the district as they would like to see it. DEesigner Marco Vaglieri was in charge of producing drawings and models from the testimonials gathered.

The residents’ association chose a slogan themselves: What if it was like this?. Later, the results of the survey were published everywhere, put up in shops, on bus shelters and even posted in letterboxes of the town officials and property developers.

Finally, in 2002, the artists decided to set up on the second floor of an abandoned factory, owned by the town council. It was in this squat of fortune, christened Stecca degli Artigiani by the locals, that future expositions and conferences were organised.

In Milan, the Isola Art Center has rapidly become a cultural benchmark. The action has already received the support of numerous intellectuals, including Dario Fo, a man of the theatre and an Italian author, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997.

More than 50 internationally renowned artists have exhibited their pieces there, like the Slovenian Marjetica Potrc, the brain behind many audiovisual projects in run-down areas in the outskirts of large cities.

OUT has also developed abroad: in Mexico, Korea and Geneva in Switzerland and, thanks to a network of architects interested in research of urban solutions adapted to local problems. [picture]

(Photo: Isola)

Kill the shopping centre

Despite general mobilisation, the city planning work, planned by the council since 2001, has already started. Bert Theis notably deplores that the mayor gave a free hand to the hardly scrupulous property developers, like American firm Hines (EUA) or the Italian business man Salvatore Ligresti who was accused of various acts of corruption in the property business. At that time Milan itself was nicknamed Tangentpolis - ‘the town of bribes’.

'We often meet alone when we negotiate with the builders,' he explains. 'The town authorities let us down. We ask that they assume their public responsibilities.' The group of residents have now begun legal procedures and succeeded in slowing down the first project planned: a shopping centre with an area of 30,000 m3.

But Bert Theis shows himself as a realist: 'it’s not that we are opposed to every construction; we simply want this one to be done differently. We know we can’t prevent this huge project. That’s why we are concentrating our efforts on the small quarter of Isola.'

Like this area of Milan, more and more contemporary artists and residents of large cities have chosen the broadcast of news and the emphasis on international mobilisation to fight against these questionable development projects. This autumn, for example, the Istanbul Biennale of Contemporary Art was an ideal occasion to attract the attention of the media and the art world to this spread of the region of struggle.