Playing with steel and space : installation by Christian Toson and Sovipre at the UDESIGN Week.

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Premises

When Anna, the manager of UDESWeek, asked me to design something for the decommissioned ticket office of the old Cinema Ariston, I thought it would have been an easy job.

But when I was introduced to Fabio Micoli, the young manager of Sovipre, I started thinking they were not completely sane. Sovipre is a high-tech company that makes big and dusty metal frames for concrete reinforcement and prefabrication — not exactly those pretty furniture-design-like things we are used to work with.

I had to come up with something that:

  • fitted in the glass-paneled ticket office,
  • that was coherent with the theme of the event “natural artificial, artificial natural
  • that gave visibility to Caffè Moderno (currently owning the space)
  • that could represent the brand Sovipre

All of this, of course, using only metal reinforcement bars that could be folded and welded.

These are the things that are generally produced in Sovipre:

The journey through this design was very long and with many changes on the run.

Context

First thing to consider and start with, the context. The Ariston Gallery belongs to a urban concept that was very popular in the ‘70ies. It was influenced by the theories of Metabolism and Megastructures, that interpreted the city as a whole organism that could solve the needs of the exponentially growing population.

The gallery is an attempt to make the city more articulated, braking the barrier between the street and the building and enlarging the commercial surface. We can see some examples of these galleries in several places in Udine (Galleria Astra, Complesso alle Alpi, etc.). The galleries for the first time put together in the same place retail, food and entertainment and anticipated the shopping malls, which eventually caused their extinction, and the abandonment of the historical centers.

My starting point was to give again dignity to the abandoned and ruined architectural space of the Ariston gallery.

First design

So I made a cardboard model of the gallery where to experiment different possibilities. I tried different ways to occupy space with iron wire.

The initial idea was to use the space outside the ticket office to create a gallery within the gallery that could go straight to the ticket office, in which would have been showcased some pieces of contemporary design.

The new gallery would have been another layer that enriched the space of the existing gallery. The volume is defined by simple steel bars folded in square angles and interlaced. The metal interlacing is somehow inspired by the eighteen-century passages, but in this case the flowering style is replaced with a non-orthogonal grid.

The grid tries to reconstruct mathematically the interlacing of vegetation. The trees, growing, follow three-dimensional rails defined by passing light. Light and trees form together a never-trivial interlacing.

These are some of the pictures I took on my mountains in Carnia:

From this concept we built a small model with iron wire and solder (that fortunately my father, after 30 years, well remembered how to do).

When the model was ready, we realized that it would have been better to add some reinforcing visual elements to make planes in space more readable, and we inserted red triangles. Red because it is the color of Sovipre.

This gallery could be easily converted into a pavilion or a stand to promote the company: what better represents them than a big and special concrete reinforcing steel cage? Furthermore, this kind of gallery could be useful for me for many applications in garden and pavilion architecture.

Structural problems

When I presented the project to Fabio and his colleagues, it was their turn in thinking of me crazy. But they are at least as crazy as me and proceeded with the executive planning of the structure. The main issue is that steel reinforcement bars are designed to resist to traction, but behave very poorly in bending. We had to verify that the structure would have not bended too much. With Giacomo Mattiussi, a skilled engineer, we did some modeling and calculations, finding the minimum diameter we could use. This was very important to reduce costs of transportation and construction.

Second and final design

We were ready to build. But, just a day before the beginning, we have been stopped for several reasons:

  • insurance says they are not covering any kind of damage by people who harm themselves with the installation
  • there is no clear regulation about this kind of structures
  • the event manager reminds me that I was supposed to design something inside the ticket office.

Quite depressed, I took some time to work out a solution. I decided that it was worth to continue this design even with these new limits. If the concept can be adapted also inside a small space, it means that it is a flexible system that can work everywhere.

And so, from the beginning, I redesigned all at a different scale. I couldn’t simply scale down everything in a way it fitted the ticket office. If you cannot get into it, it loses functionality, but gives me the possibility to work in that void. The gallery now folds at a 45° angle to follow the plan of the ticket office and is open on the viewer’s side. As it is smaller, also geometry can be more complicated, and I altered my geometric grid with a reducing factor that corresponds to a equal temperament (square roots of 2 in duodecimal base). In this way the bars get closer and closer as the frets of a musical instrument and the interlacing is never trivial.

I wanted this space to vibrate, and I replaced the red triangles with red wires, that run across the three-dimensional grid, revealing it.

Construction

From the drawing to the steel. Steel bars are made to stay inside concrete, and are shy showing themselves naked: Steel in never perfectly uniform, folds are uneven, surface rusts easily.

Fabio and Giacomo worked on the 3d model I gave them. We found a way to join all the pieces of different measures and angles in right place. Giacomo solves the difficult problem of maintaining parallel planes in the crossings and makes beautiful construction drawings. He converts the 3d model into machine instructions and the robot in Sovipre automatically cuts and bend the pieces with the right measures and angles. They never tried this before. Steel bars are fixed to the base with a hidden system of sleeves and L-profiles. Fabio builds the first prototype. It works!

With all the pieces ready, assembly comes next. For safety reasons, we couldn’t weld the pieces in the ticket office, and it was impossible to carry it in one single piece. We opted for the much less technological, but always reliable iron wire. From 3d to handwork, respecting the tradition of the best Made in Italy. Fortunately Fabio brought Ivano, a skilled worker who managed to assembly the most difficult parts.

Work is completed, and takes on a life of his own.

Maybe too much, because after some time we see a girl dancing in.

I thought it was done, but after some days the manager of the Caffè Moderno tells me: listen – we use the ticket office as a shopping window, so you are supposed to put in some of our products.

And so, the same day I have been interviewed with Fabio, not very convinced, I placed some bottles and panettones here and there, overall it was not too bad, we can see it as a good omen.

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