Time had dealt harshly with the old factory. Raw holes for power, lighting and sewage were bored through its walls, here and there. Another structure, of vernacular brick, had been clumsily built on top of the apartment, as a post-industrial squat. A long concrete-block wall had been built across and over one corner of it, creating a crooked, floorless cave that might have been designed for Italian bats. Flocks of pigeons lived in one room, covering the floor with their guano. Of course the power was out, it was lightless and none of the plumbing worked. The house of the future was a spectacular ruin.
However, it was spectacular because it had once been pretty close to palatial. The “Fonderie Carlo Garrone” had been built in 1919 as a metal-casting works for FIAT car parts. Basically, it was a simple industrial barn placed sensibly next to a railway. The foundry must have been noisy, polluted and loud, as the smoky furnaces roared and freight trains thundered by constantly.
Nevertheless, this raucous, simple car factory also featured a large, gracious, airy managerial superstructure with (according to the original floor plans): three bedrooms, a full kitchen, two washrooms, a bath, three offices, two studios, a gallery and a closet.
We may never know exactly why, but my working theory is, I think, well-founded: the builder talked them into it. Carlo Garrone had hired one of Torino’s most prominent builders: Giovanni Antonio Porcheddu. The history of the Garrone Foundry building is not about just one factory: it’s really Porcheddu’s story.
G. A. Porcheddu was a Turinese engineer of great intelligence and persuasive powers. We first hear of Porcheddu as a humble teenage orphan laboring as a bricklayer on the island of Sardinia. Porcheddu somehow wrangled a scholarship to the Politecnico in Torino. There he quickly picked up three different degrees, including civil engineering and electrical engineering.
This poor yet blazingly ambitious engineer then ingratiated himself with an older Belgian engineer named Hennepique, who had done well in France with a new, advanced form of iron-reinforced cement. Porcheddu was dynamic, and he soon became the Italian apostle of this exciting new construction method.
Reinforced concrete, or “armed cement” as the Italians liked to call it, was lightweight, fast, cheap, rugged and fireproof. Best of all, the resilient steel rods inside the concrete resisted Italian earthquakes. Porcheddu’s method was therefore an ideal one for Italian bridges, highway overpasses, railway depots, and any building with fire and sparks inside, including coal plants, electrical generators and, eventually, Carlo Garrone’s foundry.
G. A. Porcheddu and his company did extremely well during the Belle Epoque, when his new high-tech method simply swept over Italy from the Alps to Sicily, in a vast industrial wave. He built extensively for the City of Torino, and endeared himself to FIAT, the industrial masters of the town. His works multiplied in every Italy region. The King of Italy spoke well of Porcheddu and gave him a knighthood.
Porcheddu employed a small army of Italian designers and architects. He was always inventively extending the limits of his ‘armed cement’ techniques, and his firm could build just about any structure, on time and under budget. In Torino alone, Porcheddu built stores, hospitals, schools, hotels, cafes, movie theaters, government offices, private homes, churches and six different bridges. While Italy prospered, he prospered.
Then came the Great War, and civil engineering did not do at all well while Europe was being blown apart rather than built. The immediate peacetime was in some ways worse for Italian builders, for severe inflation raged and Torino even suffered bread riots.
Those were the tough circumstances in which Porcheddu built Garrone’s factory in 1919. He must have been glad for the work. It was just a simple factory, and it didn’t need to be that fancy, but Porcheddu, and probably his client too, needed a building that was top-heavy with nostalgia for the classy, refined ways of life in Turinese peacetime. Building a dainty set of offices right on top of Torino’s furiously angry post-war working class was like building on a volcano, but Porcheddu did an excellent job, anyway.
Porcheddu’s reinforced concrete was truly a wonder material. Contemporary people couldn’t believe that his structures were so light, airy and delicate, and yet his buildings never fell down. Because they don’t fall down, not even in 2015.
That’s why the Foundry is still there now, despite everything. It has suffered a lot with the years, but it stayed as solid as iron and cement can get. The Garrone enterprise very didn’t last long; it was promptly absorbed by FIAT. The empty foundry found other, smaller occupants, who struggled to make do with the big space. Areas inside were subdivided with clumsy new walls. Whole crude structures were pasted on top by amateur builders. However, Porcheddu’s stout construction put up with these indignities.
Even at its most glorious moment, just after opening, the Garrone Foundry must have been somewhat awkward and peculiar. It was built in an unlucky time, for a situation that didn’t really exist any more, and ever since then, it’s had a rough life. It’s not at all a “great building.” But it was nevertheless made by a great Italian builder, an insightful and profoundly influential man whose great firm employed a host of future architects, while Porcheddu himself, a former orphan turned the patriarch of seven children, lived in a posh house in glamorous San Salvario overlooking the Valentino Park, where this self-made man knew how to keep up the civilized standards.
Nowadays, the Garrone Foundry has a design co-working space and a fabrication laboratory inside it. Although it’s old and strange, in terms of its users it is one of the most advanced buildings in Torino. It’s a place where young people are doing things with artisanal Italian electronics that are truly futuristic.
The “Casa Jasmina” project exists to domesticate this Maker Movement, and to give it some sense of elegance, in almost exactly the way that Porcheddu’s offices once attempted to domesticate and make elegant a big, loud car factory. Of course it’s an awkward struggle, but somebody needs to do it, and it needs to be done because it makes cultural sense.
In “Casa Jasmina,” we respectfully acknowledge Giovanni Antonio Porcheddu and his client Carlo Garrone as our our spiritual ancestors. We are aware that we live in the shelter of their deeds, and that their civic struggle in Torino is also ours. We are in exactly the same place — just at a different time.