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Huge dismissed factory lives the city perimeter. Abandoned, they seem mythological monsters that fought a big battle. Fascinating and uncanny, they also gave birth to a new photographic movement dedicated to capture the inside of these gigantic monster’ belly. Thanks to far-sighted architects those immense industrial cathedrals, with the graft of a new architectural shapes, have a new life and become museum models. 

The London’s Tate Modern is now one of the most iconic example of this method. The former dock’s power station, since may 2000, became one of the most important contemporary art museum, thanks to the architects Herzog & De Meuron, but it was already since 1992 that the Tate Trustees had announced their intention to create a new gallery of modern and contemporary art, and selected the Bankside Power Station as the site. Herzog & De Meuron decide to preserve the original body of the factory. This was a key decision. The big machinery was removed and the brickwork and steel structure of the building cleaned and given a new life. The block shape remains the same as it was as factory, improved to give room to visitor’s facilities and exhibition spaces. The huge turbine hall is now the iconic entrance of the museum, and the boiler house transformed into the exhibition gallery. In 2009 a new block was opened to the public: The Switch House – or the now called Blavatnik Building, in honor of the contribution of sir Leonard Blavatnik -: a red bricks tower, with the original color of the old building. This block that adds new exhibition spaces, performances spaces, kids lab, bookshops and a parking space for the visitors. 

A similar example can be found Milan’s Fondazione Prada where, since may 2015, the venue of the 1910’s former distillery Società Italiana Spiriti, famous for the Cavallino Rosso’s brandy, hosts one of the most important contemporary art museum in Italy. Designed by Rem Koolhas, from OMA studio, the compound maintains most of the original distillery buildings in contact with new blocks designed as an ideal museum. Part of these new buildings, that interact with the old ones, is the Podium, a glass box were the exhibition became part of the inside and of the outside. We see here an experimental use of material: the aluminum foam, a new kind of foam, is light and thermal insulated but also has its own aesthetic. This project provides two conditions: preservation and creation in an ongoing interaction. In a comparable way with the Tate Modern’s Switch House, in 2018 a new wing of the museum was opened. Torre is a white concrete building alterned with glass surfaces, that host the permanent display with the foundation’s collection, and the restaurant. It is a nine floors building, where each of the floors has different orientation, clear high and plan dimension. The clear high of the ceilings increases from bottom to top, such as the windows’ orientation in each rooms, changing light and perspective. The iconic elevator in pink marble and glass, lifts you up to the exhibition floors, with a panoramic and exclusive overview of the city. The project is not seen as a preservation neither as a new architecture, but a continuous comparison and interaction of the two conditions. As Rem Koolhas called it ‘an ensemble of fragments’.

In Berlin an example of this modus operandi can be found in the Hamburger Bahnhof, one of the most important railway station of the middle of Ninteenth century, a unique example of neoclassical railway station left in Germany and conceived by the railway pioneer Friedrich Neuhaus. At first transformed into a transport museum, during the Second World War, the building suffered several damages, and remained in the no-man’s land between East and West Berlin, unused for decades. After this era, in 1987, it has been used to premiere the exhibition “Journey to Berlin”, it marked the previous use as an art museum. In 1996 the building became the museum that we all know thanks to the architect Josep Paul Kleihues. It became the ‘Museum für Gegenwart’, the museum of the present, displaying works from the collections of the Nationalgalerie and from the Marx Collection, between the 1960’s to our days. Since 2004 the museum added a new wing, hosting the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection as a long term loan. To do so the museum called the architectural firm Kühn Malvezzi, that decided to use the former dispatch warehouse, located behind the main building, as a gallery. To connect the historical buildings with this new part, called the Rieckhallen, they made a white concrete bridge, that seen from outside became a sculpture itself, functional and eye-catching, contrasting the black of the gallery.

In Italy another example is the Pirelli’s Hangar Bicocca, in 2004 the museum was opened as a free of charge contemporary art museum in the former Ansaldo-Breda factory. After a decade of neglect, Ansaldo 17 was purchased by Prelios – Pirelli RE – that decided to turn the factory into an art space, with a renovation project by the Milan’s studio April Architects. It was also into a railway environment, where carriages were built. The oldest part of the factory was the now called The Shed, a typical low bare-brick building with double pinched roof. Now this part host beginner or young artist’s exhibition, visitor’s facilities, the kid’s lab and a restaurant. The now called “Le Navate” is a huge building constructed between 1963 e 1965. The building has retained its original shape consists in a nave and two isle, just like an industrial cathedral. The second isle hosts since 2004 the Seven Heavenly Palaces by Anselm Kiefer, a monumental installation that can only be on display in the space of the Navate, thanks to its size, and it is the only permanent part of the museum. At the end of the Navate we will find the Cubo, the climax part of all the exhibition of the isle. In 2000 storage facilities and sheds were demolished to make room for the garden and especially for the Fausto Melotti’s ‘La Sequenza’, that, since 2010, welcomes all the Pirelli Hangar Bicocca’s visitors. The requalification in this case was more functional than architectural. The April Studio worked on the facilities spaces for offices, services and the floor heating, also on a welcoming area with an info point and a bookshop, always having an eye to the industrial esthetic, as we can see in the bistrot renovation, where the studio reused industrial elements found in the ex Ansaldo.

We can understand that this phenomenon takes big city’s dismantled factories – or stations – to transform them with new buildings and new wings, where we have these huge spaces perfect for big installation, that we can only find in a contemporary art exhibition. In these buildings the architects had tried to keep the former shapes of the buildings, and graft to them those unique and iconic architectures, based on new shapes and new materials. In this way even the name of each building and part of the museum remains the same as the original factory, maintaining a boundary between the past and the future. A future that is reflected by the contemporary art works that always lives in these kind of projects, in an interesting conversation.