Posted May 18th 2012 at 9:12 am by
in Perspectives on Current Events

Macao, Milan: Trying to make goods commons

On May 5th 2012, a group of art workers entered Torre Galfa, an abandoned skyscraper in downtown Milan, and opened Macao, a sort of new centre for art and culture. The tower is property of an Italian real estate magnate, so after ten days the police came to evacuate the occupiers. In response, the occupiers moved to the front road, transforming it into “Macao Square”. They are still there now.

Assembly of citizens on May 10th. Photo credit: Macao.

The occupiers have been peaceful: no violence has occurred and they immediately thought of ways to conciliate their presence with the surrounding residential neighborhoods, establishing strict rules for the use of the 31 empty floors. Under their occupancy, the use of these spaces was granted to every kind of activity, from open lectures on economics to music performances, without any restriction. In a few days, Macao was able to gather around itself thousands of people, from various social and cultural backgrounds, receiving also the support of many relevant intellectuals (like the Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo).

Torre Galfa

Macao’s work begs this question: What is our collective right to empty, unused spaces in the city? Many local initiatives (neighborhood associations, social operators, startups, artistic collectives…) require room for their work. Meanwhile, abandoned buildings (from former factories to directional skyscrapers) pepper Milan. The current municipal assessor for culture is the architect Stefano Boeri, who is running a research project on temporary reuse of empty spaces.

Torre Galfa is an highly symbolic building – it was built during the 1960s Italian economic boom and now is owned by the real estate businessman Salvatore Ligresti, who in the last decades has been involved in the main development projects in Milan. Even though other groups in Europe have occupied empty spaces for artistic purposes (for example, Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin), the simple claim for new spaces comes with a specific political message.

The unique part of Macao’s story came after the building occupation. First of all, the group of artists (and the thousands who took part to Macao’s initiatives) were focused on the idea of creating commons.  They saw the tower as a good belonging to the city, which could be made common again through the direct intervention of citizens. Usually, the attention is on fighting against someone or something: the 99% against the 1%, or “the resistance movement to free-market policies”. Macao didn’t identify an enemy, and identified itself as the occasion for the construction of a common good.

The left-wing municipal government didn’t explicitly support Macao, even if some councellors took part in the occupiers’ public assemblies. But on the day of the eviction, the mayor suggested a competition for the allocation of unused municipal spaces. In a way, this idea for a structured public procedure was a way to normalize what was an exceptional insurgence, taking into account the broad support Macao had received from citizens.

At the moment, Macao Square is still occupied and the future of the initiative is unknown. Its motto is: “you may also think of flying.”  What matters most is the urban future that Macao has offered to us: instead of fighting against an enemy or another, we should try to transform private goods into commons. Such a change of perspective can suggest a different way to change our cities – places we all share and shape.

Post by Giovanni Vecchio.

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