Attention to detail, calligraphy, an obsession with the body, auto-destruction: these are some of the terms that spring to mind if one compares the “In Factory” of Francesco Gatti, with “The pillow book” by Peter Greenaway and “Nine objects of desire” by the Chinese author Mian Mian. An Italian architect who designs the redevelopment project for an abandoned industrial area in the centre of a Chinese megalopolis, an English film director who studies with his western but bewitched eyes the sensuality of oriental ideograms, and an author from Shanghai who writes autobiographical novels in which the characters listen to The Beatles and read Freud.
In common, a capacity for intense narration, divided between an observation of a different rather than a foreign world, and a passion for small details. The layers with which Greenaway divides the screen, superimposing different stories analogically, can be found with an added tri-dimensional aspect in the alleys and courtyards of Francesco Gatti. The surfaces in “In Factory” lie vertically and horizontally; they are opaque (the effect of the advertising posters), transparent (the effect of the “walls” created by a succession of metal rods), changeable (the American vine varies its aspect with each season), but above all they reflect the light (like the treated steel of the benches and the horizontal surfaces of the “ceiling”). The result is a space which interacts with the density of the environment, particularly in the main courtyard, where a touch to the rods can generate a vibrating sound, and where the lamps, hanging at different levels, swing with the movement of the wind. The project is finely tuned to the use of materials and colours. It adopts local elements such as bowls and bamboo but using them in a Western way, balanced between naiveté and aesthetic implications (in the same way as the Chinese ideograms painted on the bodies of Greenaway’s characters); it merges the traditional and the contemporary, the nature and the artifice, the western imaginative and the oriental imaginative.
From the upper levels of the surrounding buildings, the interweaving of the “virtual ceiling” with its metal rods overlooks the textured flooring, interspersed with benches, water and greenery. The observer, moving along the alleyways, sees the textures come to life.
The “In Factory” is destined for auto-destruction, as the lovers in the novels of Mian Mian. Envisaged as a visiting card for the community of artists and intellectuals who gradually moved into the area, it is already beginning show signs of being worse for wear on account of the removals and works that have been taking place recently. An enterprise on an urban scale which is incapable of surviving its original intention: to convince new purchasers to move into the areas that have been restored for professional use. Francesco Gatti has taken into consideration the possibility of his project having a short life, giving more importance to the fixed and hard-wearing flooring than to the virtual and ephemeral ceiling, created by the frame of metal cables.
It is difficult to speak about a project that interweaves culture as if it were an American vine climbing up a metal network; the articles and literature about contemporary Chinese architecture designed by Westerners living in China are without depth and banal as a result of the over-simplifying effects of globalization.
Perhaps the “In Factory”, with its physical and temporal transitoriness, can truly represent a different aspect of this East-West relationship: that the speed with which Chinese culture is metabolizing the gap which separates it from the rest of the world is the same whereby modern works of architecture by Westerners, who are by nature bound to a stratified cultural and historical background, are adopted and recycled in China.
In this light of perennial transformation, the body (as described by Greenaway, Mian Mian and Gatti) is the only instrument through which one can survive: whether it is used to communicate, to feel pain or pleasure or to observe the space around it.
*original title “Yansuan gingren” by Mian Mian, 1997
Text by Giampiero Sanguigni