If Turin was part of a word association test, your first impulse would most likely be "shroud"; your second, "cars." The northern Italian city has largely been defined by the presence of Fiat, the Italian auto manufacturer that has employed the bulk of its citizens and crowded its streets with factories. But over the last several years, as Fiat began to lose its luster, Turin ran the risk of experiencing a major identity crisis.
In Detroit, Michigan—another city well known for its automobile production—such decline led to urban flight and cultural and economic decay. In Turin, a similar fate was palpable, but something surprising has begun to happen.
Turin’s city planners have been working to prevent industrial buildings from falling into disuse. And so today, instead of turning into a place unfit for venturing after dark, the city’s infrastructure is beginning to thrive (a move inspired in no small part by Turin’s scoring of the 2006 Winter Olympics). Factories—auto and otherwise—are being put to good use in ways that are so old-fashioned as to be avant-garde.
Take the case of Basic Village, transformed in the late ’90s from an old textile factory just a third of a mile from Turin’s city center into what may be the ultimate live/work space.
Forget a home office, Basic Village brings the entire business operation (factory, office, retail) of its owner, Marco Boglione, under one roof and throws in a bank, bar, supermarket, salon, roof garden, and residence for good measure.
"In Turin, we try not to abandon things," explains Boglione, the chairman of BasicNet SpA, which is run from Basic Village. "Factories are within cities that are 2,000 years old. I want to reconvert, not demolish or abandon. With a little imagination you can do a lot."
Boglione is an exuberant and eccentric 48-year-old whose career trajectory has taken place within these factory walls. In 1976, at age 19, he was hired as a marketing assistant at the Turin textile company Maglificio Calzificio Torinese (MCT), and soon after he founded his own venture, Football Sport Merchandise SpA (now BasicNet). In 1994, Boglione acquired MCT, and in 1996 began a collaboration with the alliteratively named architects Baietto, Battiato, Bianco to convert the once-struggling textile factory into a self-contained village.
"We executed the transformation bit by bit," architect Armando Baietto explains. "It was important not to lose the urban memory of the factory and its character for the hundreds of people who had worked in and knew the place." This acknowledgment of work-place culture and community was essential to the project (and highlights another way Turin differs from America’s fading industrial areas). "The environment here," explains Baietto, "encourages interaction between people that can’t happen in an office building."
The same can be said for Boglione’s own living space on Basic Village’s third floor. Baietto credits American loft living as an influence, while Boglione says he just wanted a comfortable place to work. "It was important to live within the company 24 hours a day."
Along with his wife Stella, daughter, two sons, and nanny, Boglione lives large in this split-level 8,600-square-foot open space that features a hockey-friendly floor, a basket-ball hoop, a ping-pong table, a couch designed for eight, and an ever-changing wall mural that Boglione repaints whenever he’s inspired. Bill Clinton’s mug was up there for a while; now the wall features the jersey of the Italian soccer team sponsored by BasicNet in the World Cup. "That’s our best-selling shirt, which made me a lot of money," says Boglione. "That’s why there’s a smiley face painted there with the word ‘thanks’!"
One of Boglione’s favorite quotes comes from Albert Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Boglione spends a lot of time developing that vivid imagination from within his terrarium-like bathroom. Settled comfortably in his armchair, laptop at the ready, he runs BasicNet from here every morning before venturing further afield. Why put the bathroom/office in a greenhouse? "I just liked the shape," he says. "But you should have seen the guy’s reaction when I told him to deliver it to the second floor."
Though he spends hours working from this environment, Boglione conceives of his entire living space as a potential work area. "The concept was spontaneous. I just started to envision how all the different spaces could be used." The second level is an open kitchen and dining room (described as the "lunch and dinner office" where colleagues can gather); the third level features an expansive roof garden with 360-degree views of Turin. "I guess you could say there are houses within the house," says Baietto of the configuration. "Many nuclei around the central space. On a smaller scale, it echoes the idea of a city."
At a certain point in the building project, Boglione realized his loft needed a bedroom. "First, I thought about sleeping in Leo the lion’s cage from the Turin zoo where I had spent a lot of time when I was a child," he recounts. "I had my mother go look for it, but when the zoo closed down Leo’s cage was destroyed."
Then, Boglione continues, "I imagined a mountain with a cave—you know The Flintstones? A cave house like that, with big rocks out front. I told some of my friends about it and they put me in touch with an artist who does special effects for Steven Spielberg. He drew me a fantastic house but I found out it would cost a million dollars."
In the end, Boglione scrapped both cage and cave, opting instead for two simple metal structures. "The shape of the house/bedroom is the shape of American farm buildings, and the shape of the closet is like the water towers on the rooftops in New York City. Simple. Basic. A shape a child could draw."
The lively interior of the bedroom is evocative of the spaghetti Westerns that Boglione loved as a child. The frontier connection is apt: Boglione’s experiment is blazing a trail for future factory transformations in Turin, and perhaps the good old US of A.