Inside Manifattura Tabacchi, one of Italy’s biggest regeneration projects


Between the Renaissance wonders of the Uffizi Gallery and Brunelleschi’s Duomo, homegrown visionaries including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and fashion legends such as Guccio Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo, Florence is not readily associated with the grit and grime of industrial manufacture. Yet a short 3km from the 15th-century cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, a new manufacturing, life, work, study and culture hub is being constructed out of the empty shells of a vast 110,000sq m, 16-building factory.

Manifattura Tabacchi is one of the most ambitious urban regeneration projects in Italy. The heritage protected factory was originally commissioned by the government, built over a staggered period in the 1930s by the construction company that was owned by the now revered rationalist architect and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. As the name shouts loud, the historic factory was dedicated to the making and packaging of cigar and cigarette products that were sold in volume to a smoke-happy population, then oblivious to the dangers. Tobacco farming – alongside textile manufacturing – flourished in the region from the 16th-century onwards, but with global sales dwindling in recent decades, the factory shut up shop in 2001, the gates were locked, and the network of buildings fell into disuse.

The façade of the Polimoda fashion school's building in the complex, which opened in 2020

The façade of the Polimoda fashion school’s building in the complex, which opened in 2020 © Stefan Giftthaler

The Bento Bar and Todo Modo bookshop in Building Nine

The Bento Bar and Todo Modo bookshop in Building Nine © Stefan Giftthaler

“The site was a model factory and developed to include new features and functions,” says architect Michelangelo Giombini who, as head of product development, is spearheading the project. “There was advanced air filtering, an after-work center that offered organized theater and sports, and a kindergarten – everything for the plant’s employees and their families to flourish. It was a work citadel and a pioneering project, as tobacco was a big business. ”

As a shining example of state ownership enterprise, the Manifattura Tabacchi became a beacon of progress under the fascist regime. The quality of the architecture, materials and landscaping remains impressive in scale, with its artifice-free façades evoking unity and a sense of purpose, while a curving monumental entrance wall protects the citadel with a sweep of grandeur. Nervi, both a structural engineer and an architect, was a champion of reinforced concrete – it aided his exploration of voluminous space and vaulted ceilings. His sense of monumentalism made him a popular choice as a visionary of sports stadiums across Italy and he collaborated with some of Europe’s greats – including Gio Ponti and Marcel Breuer – on institutions and landmarks. “Nervi built several Manifatturas, and all are upstanding systems of architecture,” says Giombini. “Politics aside, Italy has finally had the courage to ask how this era of architecture can be renovated.”

Designer Duccio Maria Gambi in his workshop in Building Nine

Designer Duccio Maria Gambi in his workshop in Building Nine © Stefan Giftthaler

Building Eight's lobby, with its restored 1950s decor

Building Eight’s lobby, with its restored 1950s decor © Stefan Giftthaler

A staircase and tiles on the first floor of Building Eight

The first floor of Building Eight © Stefan Giftthaler

Back in 2016, the complex was purchased as a joint venture between a private equity fund, managed by the London-based asset-management business Aermont Capital, and the Italian government, which invested in the redevelopment under its Gruppo Cassa Depositi e Prestiti pension arm . The joint undertaking is worth some € 250mn. There are comparable Manifattura restoration projects in Bologna, Lucca and Naples that are also run as joint state / private ventures, yet Florence is arguably the most exciting in terms of scale and future use.

Giombini says the vision plugs into the innovative legacy of the historically prosperous area. “The Florence complex has a specific flavor and opens itself up to become a new neighborhood. There will be retail, housing, student and social accommodation, a hotel, residences and studios for artists. It is a contemporary companion to the ancient center. Florentines are in love with their city – perhaps even overwhelmed by the beauty of it – and it’s often thought of as a city that looks behind not forward. The idea is to give Florence a center for tomorrow, ”says Giombini, who hails from Milan and previously headed up special projects at Internalthe architectural journal first published in 1954.

Cars parked outside the Puccini Theater, part of the Manifattura Tabacchi complex

The Puccini Theater, part of the Manifattura Tabacchi complex © Stefan Giftthaler

Mannequins being worked on in the workshop in Polimoda fashion school's building

A workshop in Polimoda fashion school’s building © Stefan Giftthaler

Manifattura Tabacchi will give a starkly different facet to the city that is, in the winter months, often shrouded by mist and, in the spring, alive with honeymooners and gelato-licking tourists. Yet throughout the region there are bottegas (workshops) and factories specializing in the production of luxury leather goods, textiles, glass, pharmaceuticals and ceramics. The industrious tradition of the Tuscan region is ripe for expansion.

The complex began with a reimagining of its function and social purpose. In pre-pandemic 2018, creative businesses and startups were invited to rent studios and space in a series of buildings, while the original factory shells were redeveloped for the autumn 2022 opening. In addition, the fashion school Polimoda purchased a building – its third base in the city – which now caters to 800 students in 6,700sq m of space. Gradually, a community now counting 1,000 has begun to form, with a buzz created by performances and exhibitions.

Cranes loom over the construction site for Buildings Four, Five and 11

A view of the construction site for Buildings Four, Five and 11 © Stefan Giftthaler

Artwork on display in Building Nine by Duccio Maria Gambi (on floor) and Marzia Migliora (on wall)

Artwork on display in Building Nine by Duccio Maria Gambi (on floor) and Marzia Migliora (on wall) © Stefan Giftthaler

Artist Il Sedicente Moradi at work in his studio in Building Eight

Artist Il Sedicente Moradi at work in his studio in Building Eight © Stefan Giftthaler

To promote creative fermentation, Manifattura Tabacchi launched its own YouTube channel with a spoofy documentary entitled The Factory Show (hosted by presenter and actor Francesco Mandelli) with studio visits to some of the center’s more innovative tenants, including filmmakers Doghead Animation and resident neuroscientist Stefano Mancuso. The backdrop of the newly cleaned concrete walls, the copious greenery, plus cocktail lessons with occupant mixologists Bulli & Balene messaged the “Live. Work. Enjoy ”manifesto of the Factory, wrapped up in a slice of Warholian experimentalism. For his part, Giombini has also been inspired by the late Richard Rogers’ thinking on the integrated city and neighborhood ethics, considering how such projects work on a human level.

Building 9's interior spaces are designed by Florentine studio Studio Q-Bic - here, sinks in the restroom are made with reclaimed materials from the construction site

Building 9’s interior spaces are designed by Florentine studio Studio Q-Bic – here, the restroom is made with reclaimed materials from the construction site © Stefan Giftthaler

The Bulli & Balene bistro in Building Nine;  the methacrylate chandelier is by Italian designer Jacopo Foggini, who works with industrial plastics

The Bulli & Balene bistro in Building Nine; the methacrylate chandelier is by Italian designer Jacopo Foggini, who works with industrial plastics © Stefan Giftthaler

As with the regeneration of London’s Greenwich peninsula, the docklands area of ​​Lisbon or Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, the emergent center is helping to attract retailers, startups and residents as well as further investment. Real-estate firm Hines is investing € 80mn in new green-build student housing for 500, slated to open in 2024. A new venue belonging to the Academy of Fine Arts Florence is housed there, as well as LVMH’s IME (L’Institut des Meters of Excellency). Meanwhile, prospective residents can select from industrial lofts by Florentine studio Q-Bic, apartments designed by the architectural firm Quincoces-Dragò & Partners, and luxurious dwellings conceived by Patricia Urquiola.

While this sounds like a recipe for exclusive urban swankiness, there is also a new social housing building and a kindergarten, as well as a space devoted to the history of the complex and its workers. The latter was specified as a “must” by the Florentine administration as a means of preserving legacy at a local level. “The building preservation laws mean that the structures can be cleaned up and the windows changed, and we have installed geothermal heating as solar panels are not permitted,” explains Giombini of the restrictions. Landscape architect Antonio Perazzi has been commissioned to create an urban hanging roof garden, the Officina Botanica, with local flora and easy-maintenance planting, which will act as the lungs of the complex. Streets will be dotted with shops and restaurants, and there will be a craft brewery.

The entrance to Building Eight

The entrance to Building Eight © Stefan Giftthaler

Building Seven will be converted into residential lofts designed by Patricia Urquiola, a community hub and a public arts space

Building Seven will be converted into residential lofts designed by Patricia Urquiola, a community hub and a public arts space © Stefan Giftthaler

With the vast Parco delle Cascine to one side and a sports stadium and agricultural university in the area, the development is poised to attract businesses and residents seeking a striking green, campus-like environment with its own unique ecosystem. “Its geographic appeal lies in living at the door of a city where the countryside begins,” says Giombini. The political shadow of fascism seems long dispersed as an entrepreneurial collective supersedes it. At its peak capacity, Manifattura can accommodate 7,000, including visitors, workers, students, and residents who might arrive by train, plane (it is 15 minutes from the airport), tram or car.

Urban regeneration projects the world over are proving a winning attraction for visitors and investors alike – and a former 1930s Florentine tobacco factory that is morphing into a clean air creative mecca is this city’s flagbearer for progress.



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