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Restart the Shabby Time-Space Volume: Observation of the Italian Lab, Esperienza Pepe

Every decision made regarding Pepe is discussed by everyone involved. Even the volunteers from different places can offer their feedback. Photo by Sylvia YANG

I hauled my luggage onshore. Based on the map in my brain, I intended to walk straight along the narrow, stretching coastline of Lido Island. I should find the entrance to Esperienza Pepe once seeing the island’s northern airport. The gate was fastened with a chain. There was no one to be found. As soon as the phone call connected, I hastily explained who I was, that I had made a reservation, whether the correct entrance was there, that I was locked out… Feeling quite confused, he asked me to slow down, “Do you need the code?” “Yes! Right!” “The code is…”

At Esperienza Pepe, if you make it clear what you want, you can get the entrance code without being rejected, even if you are just curious. There is no need to be as nervous as I was.

The colorful leisure chairs on the lawn of Esperienza Pepe are where people gather and have discussions. Photo Courtesy of Yes We Camp

To Station a Military Base through Cultural Acts

Esperienza Pepe used to be a military base known as Guglielmo Pepe. It was built between 1591 and 1595. Ever since the military activities ended in 1999, the place has been in a steady decline. In 2016, Biennale Urbana (BURB)1 came to the old military base to initiate the Urban Intervention Camp, a short-term project with the aim of connecting partners, on and off the island, so that they could co-host cultural events and revitalize the place. This year, BURB received permission to manage and use Esperienza Pepe (abbreviated as Pepe) for one year. Because of this, they invited Encore Heureux2 Architect Office to assist in the planning of the “Infinite Places” project. The project and their respective affiliated groups will rebuild the area through a socially innovative method. It hopes to provide the public with a unique cultural experience, and is open for cross-field professionals to be stationed here. In terms of the historical background and reopening goals, Pepe is similar to C-LAB, the former Air Force Command Headquarters. The original intention is to open a closed area for the assertive authority to the local and international public. To put action into practice, both French and Italian renovators are taking part. It is a site-specific project, combining both research and practical energy simultaneously, equivalent to the excellent overseas reference for C-LAB. Therefore, working at C-LAB, I was drawn to make observations here.

Through the only entrance of the arc top, I entered the unique park far away from the business and tourism of Venice, encircled by the square building. The peeled tiles are telltale signs of the building’s age. There are only two floors. Plants grow from the broken part of the glass window in the upper row. Bright yellow elastic balls and several bright-colored leisure chairs are scattered on the lawn. Creamy white hammocks are hung along the transparent and elevated first-floor corridor. The exposed arms holding a book tells me that someone has indulged in some afternoon reading. The mixture of shabby and new-born atmosphere seems idle at first glance, but you can tell that they are just brewing the next turmoil, with energy flowing through freely.

After getting to know Pepe’s background, I was expecting to explore its every corner, especially after seven years of barrenness, overgrown with weeds. How to open the area quickly and activate the new-style social group through cultural acts? After checking in at the front counter and being introduced to the facilities, I left my luggage and walked straight towards the seemingly shabby second floor. The project of “Infinite Places,” based on the referenced research related to the architectural field and architecture, is the comprehensive initiative project of the artistic, cultural, and social exchanges. These site projects, focusing on forward thinking, pay close attention to the process of gathering public thinking to collectively construct the social group experience. Their characteristics lie in flexibly opening the free space between the building itself and other places and seeking various alternatives to revitalize the development. In less than one year, what areas have the “Infinite Places” project team opened? What areas are not yet ready to open to the public? How does one choose and separate the two? Full of these questions in my mind, I moved toward the second floor. The door is also fastened with a chain and a combination lock. The note reads, “This door does not lead you to heaven.” This soft persuasion is funny. I walked downstairs again to ask for the code.

“Do you want to take a look upstairs? Of course. But be prepared. You may see anything!”

“Such as…?”

“Anything that you can and can’t imagine!” This comment confused me.

“Anyway, be careful. Watch your step, ok?”

It’s such a simple trust mechanism. Warn and remind. Then let you go ahead.

The space of the ruins on the second floor of Pepe is like a biopsy of some fractured point in time of 1999. Photo by Sylvia YANG
The space of the ruins on the second floor of Pepe is like a biopsy of some fractured point in time of 1999. Photo by Sylvia YANG

Intertwined Time Axes and Mutual Discussion

The lampshade had fallen from the ceiling. There were almost no complete doors or windows. Window blinds and shattered glass were scattered everywhere. The wallpaper was bulging or lifted from the wall. The pigeons were quickly startled by my footsteps. They flew out from the gap of the collapsed ceilings. The floor was covered with feathers. Several dead pigeons were scattered along the empty corridor, as if they had been arranged there on purpose. As the wind swept through, the curtain that had been hung in place of the door swayed. If the revitalized space of the first floor of Pepe is like a rewinding clock with a new battery, the second floor is a biopsy, clamping some fractured point in time of 1999, stagnant. It’s very similar to the historic construction of the Old Office Building in the park of C-LAB.

After exploring the other area as an exterior participant, I had been thinking about the issue: in understanding (whether it is deep or shallow) that the space is undergoing a dynamic transformation, and facing the shabby floor waiting to be renovated, do exterior participants have a negative impression of the operation unit? Do they find fault with the operation team for not working hard and fast? Why not only open the space to the public after the whole area has been renovated, since the unfinished parts may give the negative impression that the revitalized space is not yet complete? However, from a different perspective, the contrast in the revitalization schedules of the different floors can help the viewers understand the sequence and context of the space transformation: from stagnant barrenness to warm-up, to revitalization of the different stages, to openness to the visitors.

Should trial-and-error and discussion be allowed in the space transformation process? Will the objects of each stage be kept in the adjusting period of the operation?

Pepe is the crystallization of the wisdom of several groups, including the architectural team, Encore Heureux, and the ten other connected groups involved in the “Infinite Places” project. There is also Yes We Camp, who is in charge of the renovations. It is a social innovative organization mainly stationed in Paris and Marseille, specializing in instilling energy to the deserted land through artistic and cultural methods, and reversing the city space. This year, Yes We Camp also went to C-LAB to interact with the closed park through the creative workshop of outdoor movable furniture.

Every decision made regarding Pepe is discussed by everyone involved. Not only the operators, but also the volunteers from different places can offer their feedback. During my stay, I encountered Vu and Oh, college students from France on a work exchange program during their summer vacation. One morning, after cleaning the area, they invited me to lie on the nearby beach. We spent all morning talking freely about all kinds of ideas. They said they would clean out a small space behind the bar and build a simple wooden bookshelf so that the islanders or those who stay can freely donate or exchange books and enjoy time reading at Pepe. I mentioned that in Taiwan, similarly to Lido Island, the mosquitoes in suburban areas near water interrupt people’s sleep, and we use mosquito nets. Considering the Pepe team’s ability to build wooden bed frames, and as long as they have suitable material for the nets, they should be able to make mosquito-repellent screens. Whether or not this idea is actually put into practice, it illustrates that anyone stepping into Pepe can freely propose ideas, no matter how big or small they may be. Keep brainstorming. Any informal discussion could lead to the required steps taking place, which could become key to making a breakthrough and attract the public to walk in the deserted area.

The big dining table of Pepe is the exchange field for people from different places. Everyone exchanges their imagination for the area’s transformation. Photo courtesy of Yes We Camp

Everyone can find a comfortable corner at Pepe, for example, the friends carrying their beer to play table tennis on the wooden table, the skateboarder practicing his stunts in the U-shaped pool, the football-mad French visiting group gathering in front of the projection screen to watch the FIFA World Cup, and the artists carefully winding paper notes around the branches and preparing for the evening art experiences. Everyone is busy with their own interests and likes. At eight in the evening, people appeared from every corner, sat in front of the big dining table and shared their lessons and experiences of the day. Someone played the guitar and sang, bringing some rhythmic joy to the social gathering. Some disturbance happened on the other side of the long table. One visitor was not happy with the dinner and left the table angrily, disappointing Jul, who had been in charge of preparing dinner every day for several months. She said it was the first time that a visitor had compared the standard of food here with that of a professional restaurant. She tried hard to explain that it was neither an outdoor restaurant simply offering a catering service, nor an inn. Instead, it was a place for social exchange to encourage people’s participation in various forms. The food may not be the most delicate, but the point was to welcome everyone coming here. Whether they helped with the preparation in the kitchen or with setting the table, or chatted the whole night with the other visitors at the table to give their views on the area transformation, it is the subject of Pepe’s space transformation that makes the relationship between people and the area not fixed but flexible. Everyone smiled and hugged her gently, clinking glasses with her and saying “That’s all right,” “The food is really good,” and “It’s a pity that he can’t talk with us more!”

Wait for the Space to Slowly Wake Up

The core concept of the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale this year is “Free space.” The manifesto has mentioned that it is expected to establish a model for free space, aiming to disclose the shortcomings of the practical meaning or concept existing in modern day architecture. It is to make architecture become an interface, which will allow people to express their free will, arouse public awareness, and summon the generosity and sharing nature of the original human mind. In this way, the public can get involved in the discussion on the core meaning of architectural existence step by step. As the visitor who left for not being content with the catering service, he might reflect on the multiple functions of the space. This is not a place simply offering delicacies. It doesn’t look like an art gallery with its complete functions. Neither is it as clean as a hostel. Something seems to happen as people gather around here. But how do we define this construction with the complex functions and the changeable way the space is used? This may trigger people to seek answers internally, training and transforming their thinking.

Space Transformation takes time. It is a process of trial and error. This process must include public involvement and discussion. Photo courtesy of Yes We Camp

At this moment, let’s try to figure out a process for space development with the experimental spirit and a progression together with the public. It keeps the interim trial and transition. When it is hard to define, maybe it is equipped with more flexibility in its use to meet the diverse humanistic need. The operators can also understand the decline of the construction itself caused by the past few years, lay down the uneasiness or shame of displaying the space to the public, and make the area, with the incomplete renovation and unshaped functions, the foundation of the trace of time. The viewers can gain more understanding and imagination regarding the development context from it. As for the renovators who intervene in the space again, they can try to persuade the public that space transformation takes time, which is a process of trial and error and must include public involvement and discussion. Otherwise, it will fall into the conventional pattern of the elite renovation of the space.

As the decline of the area takes time, so does its revitalization. The public discussion and involvement may take time, but the process of gathering the public wisdom is never accomplished quickly. We should neither hold the impractical expectation that the area transformation will settle in one go, nor presuppose the limited patience of the public. Suppose it is a game mechanism everyone can equally participate in. People can freely provide opinions and contribute their wisdom and labor. A co-living environment and co-built atmosphere are therefore born.

Before I left Pepe, the young artists gently picked up a dry pigeon body from the second-floor corridor filled with shattered glass, lit the candles on the first floor, and created a space like an altar. They recited poems softly. The intention of the work was neither clear nor strong. But everyone coming to the camp that day was there to appreciate the small art exhibition at the first attempt. It is a key element that the process is like an experiment. The experiment’s result is not the perfect work presented at the end. Instead, the open and expected process may be the greatest manifestation, touching the core spirit of the experiment. We often insist on showing our perfect sides to others too much and forget that the transient spiritual moment of the touch and encounter with the public in the process is sometimes even more moving.


Biennial Urbana is an Italian organization stationed in Venice, focusing on making deserted areas the prism to reflect on the possibility of the city transformation. Through compatible diversity, cross-professional field, and field studies, it weaves the network between space and the lagoon landscape for the Venice Architecture Biennale. It was the group that intervened in Pepe in the earliest stages through the hosting of the “Urban Intervention Camp.”
Encore Heureux Architect Office is the curatorial team of the “Infinite Places” project of the France Pavilion in the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, selecting ten places in France to provide innovative and social exchange experiences and proposing questions on the meaning of architecture.
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